March 14, 2003
by General Michel Aoun
Many regions of the world today are in a state of a global and fateful confrontation with terrorism. I say “global” because terrorism, by its very nature, reaches into several aspects of public and private life and knows no limit. I say “fateful” because the outcome of this confrontation will lead to one of two critical directions and set of consequences for human civilization: either terrorism will be defeated under the leadership of the United States, and thus a foundation for positive interaction will be built among diverse societies, or, God forbid, terrorism will prevail and humanity will enter into an age of darkness and decline.
Lebanon, a small country by size but much larger in mission, was the first victim of modern terrorism. At the end of the 1960s, Lebanon, a multicultural society, began to absorb the shocks of the conflict between the East and the West. In the early 1980s it found itself at the frontlines of confrontation with Islamic fundamentalists.
As a democracy and free market economy surrounded by autocratic regimes and directed economies, Lebanon strived to live under its secular and democratic constitution. In addition, Lebanon contributed to the drafting of the Human Rights Charter of the United Nations and it is the only Arab country that has signed it as of today. From their daily lives to their intellectual and cultural discourse, the Lebanese people lived and practiced tolerance and moderation. Lebanon became a model for all Arab intellectuals and a shelter for the persecuted among them, and was in fact commonly known then as the “Switzerland of the East.”
Indeed, Lebanon was an oasis of freedom in the midst of the human desert that surrounded it. It was a cultural bridge between East and West, savoring the value of freedom in all its dimensions, from the freedom of creed to the freedom of speech, the right to differ, political plurality and diversity, and all the way to economic freedom.
These universal values cherished in Lebanon presented a threat to the single-ideology theocracies and dictatorships that dominated the region. Lebanon became a target for these regimes which believed it imperative to kill its pioneering role in the region. At the time, some regional and international parties believed that some benefit could be drawn from the demise of Lebanon. They remained silent and refrained from helping it. The Syrian regime played the major role in this conflict. It first claimed to be protecting the Palestinian Revolution against the Lebanese, and so it allied itself with the Palestinian movement until it was able to undermine the stability of Lebanese society and destroy the country’s security institutions. At that point, Syria changed direction and claimed to be protecting Lebanon from the Palestinians, and it legitimized its entry into the country under the banner of the Arab Deterrence Force in 1976.
Between 1976 and 1982, the Arab Deterrence Force was under the authority of the Lebanese President, but the Syrian contingent—which was the largest—operated independently of the other contingents and of the president. The Syrians shelled residential areas and carried out massacres. They imposed censorship on the press and began shutting down some of the media. They assassinated politicians, clergymen, reporters, and diplomats. They bombed embassies and chased out virtually all diplomatic missions from Beirut. They kidnapped people, both individuals and groups, and liquidated them. They incited massacres in some areas of the country and executed military prisoners. Many Lebanese nationals remain incarcerated in Syrian jails even today.
For all these reasons, the other Arab contingents of the Deterrence Force left Lebanon, and the Syrian regime managed to achieve an exclusive, solid grip over most of Lebanon. The Syrian regime transformed the nation into a refuge and breeding ground for all types of international terrorist groups operating in areas under its control. It was in this environment that a massive industry of drug cultivation, processing, and distribution prospered, and the Lebanese coast became peppered with illicit harbors controlled by various militias that used them as a launching pad for terrorist activities and other illegal actions.
In 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon evicted the PLO from Beirut. The Lebanese government abolished the mandate of the Arab Deterrence Force and requested Syria to withdraw its forces. However, the Syrian regime ignored the Lebanese request, in violation of the UN Charter, and instead of withdrawing, it rearmed the Palestinian organizations and its allied militias and political parties in Lebanon. This caused a return to the situation that had preceded the Israeli invasion: military clashes, kidnappings, and killings. It was then that the embassies of the United States and France were bombed, twice each by the Syrian-protected and -supported terrorists, and that the French and American contingents of the Multi-National Force were attacked.
The Multi-National Force withdrew in the aftermath of these suicide attacks, leaving Lebanon to confront its fate alone. Syria then forced Lebanon to abrogate the May 1983 Accord that Lebanon had negotiated with Israel. Israel pulled back to the border zone, and Syria returned to its task of gnawing, destabilizing, and disintegrating Lebanon. This period climaxed with the Syrian invasion of the last free bastion in Lebanon on October 13, 1990, and the resulting eviction of the constitutional government. Syria had thus completed its takeover of Lebanon.
Since 1990, the Syrian regime has undertaken the systematic destruction of the entire infrastructure of Lebanese society. Throughout all political and administrative institutions of the state, Syria has installed puppets that take their orders directly from Syrian intelligence officers. These minions are required to execute their wishes and justify their policies. Syria has broken up each political party into numerous sub-entities and imposed on them a single ideology.
Thus the Syrian regime has all but eliminated Lebanon from the international political map. It has halted all bilateral negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. It has rendered the prospect of peace between Lebanon and Israel contingent upon the dragging and slow process of the Syrian track with Israel.
In addition to the sad reality of the political and security aspects of their lives, the economic reality for the Lebanese people is even worse. The middle class has all but vanished, and the ranks of the poor have swelled. Illiteracy has soared even after being nearly eliminated in the past. One third of the Lebanese people have been forced to emigrate because of the government’s economic policies, which, incidentally, twenty years of war could not accomplish. Whereas some societies have to combat organized crime as one element of corruption, Lebanese society has become, thanks to the Syrian occupation, totally owned and ruled by a Mafia class responsible for most of the corruption in the country.
This brief overview of the situation in Lebanon is a reflection of the larger context of the region. Its roots are ideological, economical, and psychological. And if we are to manage the present state of affairs and avert future mistakes, we must address these roots.
The terrorists operating in this region come from states and countries with dictatorial and theocratic regimes that do not recognize or respect human rights. A second dimension is the religious motivation behind the suicide bombings, which are considered an act of martyrdom that open the gates of paradise to those who commit them. The autocrats, whether theocrats or dictators, will not admit any wrongdoing: the theocrats contend that divine law is infallible, and the dictators will not admit that their ideological discourse inspires violence. In both cases, these autocrats preempt the people’s quest for the reasons behind their failure by shifting responsibility to their political opponents, whose liquidation is thus justified, or on external enemies to which the people’s hostility is channeled, thus shielding the autocrats from the anger of the citizenry.
If we are to fight terrorism effectively, we have to understand that it is inseparable from the regimes that harbor it. Terrorism is an internal safety valve for these regimes and constitutes a key instrument of their foreign policy, used to blackmail other nations. Therefore, the eradication of terrorism must, by necessity, begin with the toppling of tyrannical regimes that teach people to hate and kill and that push people to acts of murder-suicide.
Our security concerns about terrorism should not blind us to the importance of democracy in building free economic systems, because it would be naïve to think that free economies could thrive under political systems that are not free, or under a justice system that is subservient to the ruler instead of the rule of law that guarantees people’s rights.
As I write these words in the capital of the most deeply rooted and ancient democracy in the world, I cannot but see the magnitude of the difficulties in implementing democratic systems in countries that have never known democracy, countries that never had the kind of political culture that helps develop in people the ability to live in freedom. That seems to me to be much harder to achieve than victory in the battlefield, the outcome of which can be sealed in days or weeks.
Democracy is not an infrastructure that one builds in few months, and it is not a topography that one can draw on paper. It cannot be achieved through a simple voting exercise. It is first and foremost an education of concepts. This is why any regime change must be accompanied by a fundamental change in the system of education to facilitate the learning of new concepts and their application to public life. Democracy cannot survive in a place where schools call for the annihilation of other peoples. It is no longer sufficient to denounce the crime and arrest the criminal. We must close the schools that are teaching the criminals.
If democracy is the key to liberating the individual from fear, economic development is the key to liberating the individual from need, and it is a means to promote international trade, investment, and economic cooperation among nations.
In spite of all the repression by the occupying Syrian regime and its collaborators in the ruling apparatus, and in spite of the international community’s neglect for the cause of Lebanon and its repeated admonitions to submit to the role of the Syrian occupation, the Lebanese have built a peaceful resistance consisting of university students and civil and professional organizations at its core, which enjoys the support of the majority of the Lebanese people. This Free Patriotic Movement comprises members from all communities in all regions of Lebanon.
Although the Lebanese regime has been willingly submissive under the yoke of the Syrian occupation, the Lebanese people have not yet given up, and they have rejected dictatorship in all of its forms. The Lebanese people remain highly competent to play a pioneering role in promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East. They possess the required experience and culture and cherish the right values and principles.
The return of free democracy to Lebanon would pay genuine homage to the memory of the fallen Americans who gave their lives for the defense of freedom and democracy in Lebanon. They came to Lebanon for peace, and rejoining the quest for peace in Lebanon would be the most fitting tribute to their memory. God bless their souls.
General Michel Aoun was Lebanese Prime Minister from 1988 to 1990. This article is adapted from a speech delivered on March 7, 2003, at a Hudson Institute conference on the future of Lebanon.
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