Washington Once the region's business and pleasure center, Lebanon has allowed itself to become the killing ground of the Middle East. Today's Lebanon is a meeting place for the poisons and hatreds that six decades of conflict have spawned in its own citizens and its neighbors.
That is a brutal judgment on a country that is still bleeding from the pulverizing assault of the Israeli air force on neighborhoods housing the rocket depots and political leadership of the Lebanese Shiite guerrilla organization Hezbollah. But to understand this crisis - and why it will not spark a broader regional conflict this summer - you need to examine the responsibility the Lebanese bear for making theirs a disposable country.
Identifying that responsibility in no way absolves Syrians, Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and many others of well-earned blame in the ongoing tragedy of Lebanon. They have all manipulated the religious and cultural divisions within Lebanese society for their own advantage. Nor does it condemn the physically beautiful country where I lived for three years in the 1970s to unending doom. As in life itself, things in Lebanon are never as good, or as bad, as they seem at the time.
About 15 months ago you were reading and hearing about the Cedar Revolution rescuing Lebanon from its recent violent past and Syrian hegemony while launching an inevitable march to regional democracy. Today you are reading and hearing that the triangle of war linking Hezbollah, Hamas and Israel ends those hopes forever. But history in the Middle East follows no straight lines to a predictable horizon. Instead, history scuttles crablike from side to side, taking one and a half steps back for every two forward.
After a promising start, the United Nations, France, the United States and the rest of the international community relaxed their efforts to bring Syria to justice for killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. In that vacuum, Lebanese factions resumed making their own deals with Damascus and ultimately with the Iranian regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The U.N. and the Bush administration also failed to press the Lebanese to live up to their responsibility to deploy forces into the border areas evacuated by Israel in 2000. Instead, Hezbollah moved in its Syrian- and Iranian-supplied rockets and its irregulars, whose killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers this month unleashed hell from Israeli bombers.
Hezbollah's asymmetric guerrilla attacks provide Syria and Iran with whatever comparative advantage they have against Israel. Damascus and Tehran will not want the bloodletting to move beyond the borders of Lebanon and Israel. And Israel has its own reasons for confining the confrontation this summer to the land of cedars and sandy beaches. A year from now, when Iran's nuclear capability may be more threatening, that could be different.
This Israeli campaign will not erase Hezbollah as a force, alas. But a negotiated cease-fire could lead to two important steps: One would be to put an international military force on Lebanon's border with Syria to police the traffic of rockets and disguised Syrian intelligence units into Lebanon.
The other is to get the Lebanese army finally to take control of its territory in the south and make Lebanon more of a real country again. Israeli military attacks cannot accomplish those goals. Only united Lebanese resolve and skillful international support will.
The latest outburst of violence is more a result of the fragmentation of political forces in the Middle East than a regionwide regrouping of Arabs and Iranians into a dangerous new monolith of radical Islam. By losing control over Hezbollah, as it lost control of Palestinian guerrillas in the 1970s, the central government of Lebanon has once again made manifest the high cost of irresolution.
The muted responses of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya and other Sunni governments to the Israeli assault make clear their strong fear of Hezbollah developing into a local Shiite proxy for Iran. If Israel is the bubonic plague for Arabs, Hezbollah and Iran are cholera.
The old regimes are condemned either way. The Arab political order constructed around Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and the others is dying - slowly, violently but inexorably. The shocks that have shaken the region over the past three years, including this month's pounding of Lebanon, cannot be absorbed and mastered by retreating into suicidal defiance or by standing still.
The instinct for survival is stronger in societies than the instinct of unending hatred and destruction. That is true even in the Middle East, as tiny Lebanon is condemned to demonstrate once again.