[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
I USED TO feel smug about Lebanon’s dysfunction when I moved here from New York three years ago. I knew the country well as a frequent long-term visitor. I had reported the 2006 war from the battlefields in Lebanon’s south and subsequently criss-crossed it while researching a book. However familiar and modern Lebanon seemed, I was convinced that it lay in the category of failed states, its problems of an entirely different nature than those facing the United States.
Then two critical things changed, evaporating my smugness and leaving in its place a sort of dread that I fear might never leave me. I began to really live here, raising my family and establishing a home. Soon after, I realized the paralysis and failures that mar Lebanon are not so far removed from the pathologies of the United States.
Lebanon isn’t an alternate universe. It’s a potential future, perhaps not the most likely for the United States but definitely a possible outcome. For a quarter century since its civil war ended, Lebanon has ambled along with an awkward power-sharing arrangement that prevents any single group from dominating. The same compromise also prevents any political faction from governing effectively — political stalemate. Corruption is rampant. Money can buy almost anything.
Successive crises have wracked this little country since sectarian warlords agreed to disarm their militias and turn to business in 1991. In the last decade alone, local experts predicted a complete breakdown multiple times — when former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005 and half the country protested in the streets, when Israel bombed the entire country during the 2006 war, when Hezbollah and its allies briefly took over West Beirut in 2008, and then when a million or more Syrian refugees crossed the border from Syria after 2011. Every Rubicon crossed so far has led not to another civil war but rather to another unthinkable degradation in quality of life, which the population stoically endures because most Lebanese would prefer anything to another horrifying civil war. Meanwhile, for reasons entirely attributable to corruption, Lebanon suffers from a permanent shortage of water and electricity, and countless other ignominies inexplicable in a country so rich and so modern.
This year’s garbage crisis encapsulates the hopelessness of a system that successfully holds its citizens hostage. One of the ruling families, the aforementioned Hariris, benefits from a secret national trash collection contract. (Wrap your head around the fact that the national garbage contract is a state secret. No member of the public knows how much the government spends for waste disposal. Even members of parliament can’t pry the information out of the government.)
Years after the overstuffed landfill’s expiration date, local activists finally forced its shutdown last summer. Politicians figured something would work out. Nothing has. Since July, garbage has piled up in fetid mountains around the nation — beside villas, beneath underpasses, in the harbor, in the rivers. Rotting garbage fills Lebanon’s unused corners. Doctors blame its toxic effluence for an epidemic of infections.
As Lebanon’s problems go, the garbage morass is extra mind-boggling because the solutions are within reach. The government could open other landfills. It could agree to let local municipalities take care of their own garbage, as many Lebanese advocate. The government’s preferred solution is the most expensive (and really, the most absurd): to ship the garbage abroad, to countries not yet disclosed. Anti-corruption activists warned of an environmental disaster. They were proved right at the first winter rains, when trash floated down flooded streets and clogged the seacoast. The prime minister tried to claim that images of garbage floods had been faked. But in a country as small as Lebanon, such obfuscation didn’t work; almost everybody had seen the disaster firsthand. Today flotillas of garbage bags regularly cruise the waters along Beirut’s Corniche.
The politics of garbage are complicated and inseparable from the politics of everything else, from the thwarted selection of a new president (the office has been vacant since May 2014) to the system that ended the civil war with a web of sectarian quotas and set-asides. Two of the most deleterious factors that fueled Lebanon’s emblematic civil war were the insecurities of minority groups in a pluralistic society and the toxicity of foreign intervention. Ultimately, after 15 years of fighting and a quarter of a million killed, the dominant warlords in Lebanon couldn’t find a new modus vivendi. So they stuck with the old unstable system that collapsed in 1975. The same warlords, or their children, still run Lebanon, and they still have failed to resolve the underlying problems of communal fear and foreign intervention. Beginning with that signal failure, Lebanon’s leaders over the years have compounded their original sin by failing to solve easier and easier problems.
Stymied on the big questions of how to elect the government and how to separate citizenship rights from sectarian identity, Lebanon has gradually become incapable of resolving ever more prosaic questions — how to divvy up the ill-gotten proceeds of black market diesel crucial to running the nation’s generators, how to keep public schools staffed, how to register civil marriages, how to activate the existing fiber optic network so that Lebanon loses its stigma as one of the slowest zones of Internet access in the world, how to repair leaks in the water mains responsible for far more water loss than drought and groundwater overpumping, how to collect parking fines. Every one of these issues has reached a breaking a point in just the last three years. At each juncture the political system has essentially shrugged.
All this differs in degree rather than in kind from the American system. It’s only a few dystopian steps from today’s plutocratic-politics-for-sale and Washington gridlock to a great American variation on the Lebanese model.
It’s easy but misleading to see the Arab states as failing and the Western states as members of an entirely different, successful category.
Sure, the US and European systems function far better — so vote millions of emigrants with their feet. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the drawbacks of the Western systems, which have decidedly uneven foundations.
America is often seen as the most attractive destination because of its open and ever-growing economy, and as a model of assimilation that, despite deeply rooted racism, provides a surer path to belonging than Europe’s. America’s opportunity for earning and self-invention balance against its cultural roughness and weak social safety net.
The strengths and weaknesses of America’s fundamental compact are closely intertwined. As a system, the United States has been remarkably adaptive in some ways and remarkably brittle in others. Its grandeur and lack of rigid ideology — or fixed cultural identity — has allowed it to welcome a huge number of immigrants and create a great deal of national wealth. It has embraced stark inequality as integral to its brand of capitalism.
Europe more generously absorbs newcomers and provides its citizens with a beguiling array of social services. Governments provide comfortable benefits to workers and the unemployed alike. The system prioritizes social stability; there’s less inequality but taxes are high and economic growth limited.
But all is not perfect in Europe either. The concept of European identity only roughly veils a subterranean nativism flowing through many quarters of the continent, evoked in racist conceptions like Blut und Boden or francais francais and traditions like Santa’s slave helper in Holland, Black Piet, still played today by white people in blackface.
In Europe, the social protections are more humanist and mainstream politics long ago achieved consensus on matters that still bedevil Americans, like universal health care, gun control, the death penalty, and abortion. The system is more placid, but in many ways also more rigid and undemocratic. There is no direct electoral connection between the roughly 500 million European citizens and the executive European Commission that wields so much power over them. In Europe, it’s hard to get rich or move up the class ladder, and it’s much harder for an immigrant of color to gain full social acceptance.
Importantly, these Western systems can break. They’ve done so before, in recent times, and without careful stewardship will do so again. Before Europe’s system was so great, it was terrible. Many of its most impressive achievements came in the wake of World War II, when the continent was so thoroughly destroyed by decades of violence and fascism that its inhabitants were willing to take radical measures in order to protect against further war.
American history is littered with points of rupture. The constitutional system has enabled the United States to improvise in response to some modern developments. But the US system, at great risk to itself, continues to struggle with major issues of equality and human rights. Again and again in times of crisis, America has resorted to extrajudicial violence, including torture and assassination, in the name of national security and its foreign policy aspirations.
At home, the American system has been unable to accommodate reform on race and gun violence. The nation almost split twice during violent upheavals over systemic racism, first during the Civil War and then during the cataclysmic and constitutional crisis that we neatly call the civil rights movement. Generation after generation of gun massacres have failed to convince American society (or its politicians) that it’s time to reinterpret the Second Amendment like we have so many others.
A truly adaptive system has to evolve, even sometimes on matters of great significance like slavery, free speech, suffrage, and who is allowed into the ruling elite. America’s historical strength has been its ability to follow crises with genuine reinvention. But that history is no guarantee, and for two generations now American political life has been stalemated over fundamental issues including race, guns, and taxes.
The ambiguities in the American and European compacts remind us that there are drawbacks to the most attractive systems in the world, the systems to which people flock from failed or failing states like Lebanon. Resourceful people abandon the places that stop working — where violence makes life untenable, like in much of Syria, or where corruption and collapsed institutions erase the opportunity for education and progress from one generation to the next.
Many of the people most likely to succeed, who take risks and initiative, abandon these disrupted zones for alluring, safe boom countries.
The West’s global appeal today shouldn’t lull us into complacency. We don’t have garbage piling up in the suburbs, like Lebanon, but we have an alarming number of solvable national problems that our system has stubbornly refused to solve.
Lebanon’s garbage problem differs from America’s gun problem in degree. America is not Lebanon, of course, and for all its pathologies the United States is not a failed state. However, it is not immune to failure either. We would do well to look and learn from Lebanon, lest we repeat its mistakes.