May 11, 2009

Lebanon Before the Collapse

Sometimes I have a bad feeling about the future of Iraq, despite the fact that Iraq is in better shape now than it was. But sometimes I don’t. On even numbered days I can convince myself that Iraq will be sort of okay.

I have a bad feeling about Lebanon on even and odd numbered days. I don’t know anyone who has been there recently who thinks the future is bright, that more war isn’t coming, that enormous geopolitcal tectonic plates aren’t gearing up to rip the place into pieces again.

David Samuels was there recently for The New Republic, and he perfectly captured the pre-collapse mood.

Everywhere I go in Beirut, I find the same strange oscillation between the assumption of relative normalcy and the belief that in a week, or a month, or a year at the most, the country will collapse…

Violence here takes place in the shadows, with occasional public eruptions like Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, or the events of May 2008, when the central government moved on Hezbollah's private communications network, backed by Sunni villagers armed with light weapons who had been imported from the north. The result of this amateurish gambit was that Nasrallah sent his cadres into the streets, disarmed the Sunnis, and seized Beirut from the central government, which then granted him a slice of formal state power at Doha.

In between such delicate moments, you can get a pretty accurate sense of how Lebanon works by sitting in a restaurant in the Albergo Hotel, a decidedly luxurious place where I had lunch with a former intelligence professional and watched a dozen Lebanese cabinet ministers savor excellent Italian dishes. The tailored suits, the loosened ties, the broad hands, the arrangement of tall flowers in the center of the room--the scene had the sunlit inner presence, the radiant sensual completeness, of the world of physical objects as painted by Bonnard or Vuillard. Watching the ministers as they conducted their business, it was easy to see how the philosophical embrace of the physical world makes good sense here. Nasrallah and his patrons in Iran guarantee the stability of the country while, day to day, mouthing all kinds of insane stuff designed to paralyze the faculty of reason. Someday soon, the key will turn in the lock, the door will open, and they will blow Lebanon to smithereens. Meanwhile, there are precious moments of physical existence to be savored, such as a diamond necklace for one's wife, a pair of earrings for one's mistress, a sizeable deposit in a numbered bank account, and shrimp fettucini at the Albergo.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 11, 2009 10:43 PM
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