Last week's assassination of Rafik Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon, is a troubling augury for the future of the Middle East. The difficulty of ascertaining who perpetrated the deed underscores the fragile nature of civil society in Lebanon. So many contending interests are coiled in tension against one-another that anyone who takes a prominent role on the political stage (as did Mr. Hariri) inevitably places him- or herself in the path of all or most of them. One of the most troubling questions about this reprehensibly violent attack is not who? or why Mr. Hariri? but why now?
Another deeply divided society is that of Iraq. Previously I had worried that as a result of the U.S. invasion Iraq would begin to look like Lebanon (the Lebanon that was broadcast into our homes nightly throughout the 1980's, that is). Now it seems possible that as a result of the U.S. invasion not only Iraq, but Lebanon will look increasingly like Lebanon. The deep investment of U.S. power (to as yet unpredictable effect) in Iraq may well produce a climate of opportunism in the Middle East, a willingness to transgress the bounds of civil institutions that have recently been put on a solid footing. With U.S. forces seemingly stretched to their breaking-point and the U.S. treasury deeply in the red, the prospect for meaningful U.S. retaliation in instances like that of Mr. Hariri might seem dim, the opportunity cost of such abominable behavior uniquely low.
The Bush adminstration's response to Mr. Hariri's death has been characteristically unequivocal. They see the Syrians as the most likely culprits and have demanded that they pay for this outrage by withdrawing from Lebanon. I would never question the desirability of a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in ideal terms. But Lebanon and Iraq are in structurally if not morally analogous situations at the moment. Both are nations where the trust in, loyalty to, or fear of central civil institutions is not sufficient to stave off civil war and anarchy. Both nations borrow stabilizing power from another nation with strong state institutions (Syria in the case of Lebanon, the U.S. in the case of Iraq). Again, I would not draw a moral equivalency between the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. But in purely structural terms, the Syrians have been able to produce more stability with fewer soldiers (15,000 as opposed to the U.S. 150,000) than the U.S. has achieved in Iraq. It has occurred to me, as it must surely have occurred to the assassins of Mr. Hariri (whoever they are): if Syria withdraws from Lebanon, who will prevent the re-outbreak of civil war? The U.S.? I can only wonder what the Bush administration's thoughts are on this score. To paraphrase the favorite movie of a friend (and one of my own): "I would worry less if I thought they worried more."