monday musing: a possible levant

I’ve never been to Beirut but I’ve always held a few romantic, probably somewhat naive, notions about it as the kind of cosmopolitan and complicated city toward which I’ve always been most attracted. The practice of labeling various cities around the world “The Paris of X” has always struck me as distasteful for all the obvious reasons, but calling Beirut the Paris of the Levant sounds more appropriate than many of them. Certainly, given the cosmopolitan ideal that Beirut has represented for some, the traumas suffered by the place in recent decades were all the more heart rending. One wants Beirut to do well. It is a place to root for and the recent attempt’s to find a way for Lebanon to stand on its own two feet, outside the smothering arms of Syria, sounded a note of hope even as they were laced with the dangers that bubble just below the surface of Lebanese life.

Beirut is fragile in the same way that the cosmopolitan mode of life is fragile. It hangs in a precarious balance between mutually coexistent beliefs that must both be robust enough to mean something to people, and flexible enough to give way in the name of tolerance. The glue of this mode of life is that most difficult to define of quasi-institutions: civil society. That’s the transcendental ground, the condition of possibility, and without it the competing sets of traditions and beliefs that somehow manage to negotiate the social space fly apart into the very opposite of the cosmopolitan mode of life. At the heart of urban cosmopolitanism is always that powder keg. It can always go off, as Beirut reminds us. The work of the cosmopolitan mode of life is never over and it never gets any easier. It can’t be solved, it simply has to be lived, day after day, year after year, generation after generation.

Which is why the objection to the current Israeli incursion into Lebanon can step to the side of the political debate about causes and blame. I’m not interested, for the moment, in claims about Israel’s territorial ambitions or the politics of Kadima, about Iran and Syria and the power axis that wields Hezbollah. These are perfectly important things to understand, but they don’t drive to the heart of this particular problem.

And the problem, right now, is that the tenuous fabric of Lebanese civil society is currently caught in a crossfire. There are things that can be accomplished through military force and sometimes military force is necessary. But civil society has never been created or sustained through military force. And the problem, even from the standpoint of Israel’s self-interest, is that a Lebanon without a functioning and reasonably stable civil society teeters toward becoming a failed state once again. And failed states are breeding grounds for further violence, strife, regional instability, political extremism, etc. And thus the terrible cycle renews itself.

The question for Israel is whether its day to day security concerns and military struggles with armed factions in Lebanon and elsewhere are to be waged at the expense of Beirut and its fragile cosmopolitan space. Israel may win this battle in one sense and lose it another. Hezbollah may be suppressed, but Israel will continue to live as an island surrounded by failed states.

It is easy, perhaps, for me to say this but it continues to strike me that there is a road not taken here. It is a difficult road, no doubt, and the political realities on the ground make it difficult to fathom how it would be traversed. But so what. There is a place for imagination in politics, too. In this possible world, Israel would declare itself the avowed ally to the fragile civil spaces of the Levant. We are strong enough, and powerful enough, and confident enough, Israel would declare, not to be goaded into the abandonment of that dream. We do so out of genuine idealism about what the Levant can be, but we also do so out of genuine self-interest. States that can sustain a thriving civil society are states that are naturally less threatening to their neighbors and, by definition, more stable.

And this would not be an acquiescence to the worst aspects of Hamas or Hezbollah, but an attempt to outflank them completely. For extremists in general will suffer in precisely the degree to which the civil society of the cosmopolitan mode of life can thrive.

The one overriding principle of this approach would be a simple motto: “The Levant Must Flourish.” From that perspective, what Israel is doing in Lebanon can only tear apart the fragile fabric that is the very material from which flourishing societies are constructed. And at this moment in particular, I think it is important to take this concept of flourishing very seriously. A flourishing Levant would be a better Lebanon, a better Palestine, and a better Israel too. Israel has shown time and again that it is a strong and powerful state, but that power and strength has begun to feel petty and mean in the paucity of its vision. I think Israel can do better. The little dream that lays nestled in the bruised up body of Beirut deserves at least that much.