Civil wars, without end

IT WAS THREE YEARS AGO that a prescient Beirut journalist I know predicted that Iraq would end up as “Lebanon to the power of 10" -- meaning Lebanon during its 16-year civil war between 1975 and 1991. This year, his prophecy has been fulfilled as Iraq has spiraled into bloody internecine strife.

By contrast, my friend was quite optimistic about Lebanon’s future. But last week’s assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel raises the grim possibility that Lebanon may now go the way of Iraq.

Civil war is the disorder of the day in the Middle East. Unfortunately, politicians in the United States and Europe remain chronically incapable of understanding how civil wars work. As a result, they not only struggle to stop them once they get going, sometimes they also inadvertently fan their flames.

The big idea was that, by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and “liberating” Iraq, the United States could unleash a wave of democratization throughout the Middle East. It was in those terms that many commentators interpreted the mass demonstrations in Beirut in March last year -- the so-called Cedar Revolution -- that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Those events were also triggered by an assassination, that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It will be ironic indeed if this latest political murder plunges Lebanon back into cedar-burning civil war.


The dream of a democratized Middle East had its origins in another bad idea: the notion that the main conflicts in the post-Cold War era would be clashes between civilizations, in particular those of Islam and the West. Turning Iraq into a democracy was supposed to initiate a fundamental transformation of Islamic civilization.

The reality, however, is that the majority of conflicts in our time have been within civilizations, not between them -- civil wars, not holy wars. And, as the cases of Lebanon and Iraq clearly illustrate, such wars tend to be fought by neighboring ethnic groups. Only occasionally are the Muslims all on one side and the “Westerners” -- shorthand for Christians and Jews -- all on the other.

Take Lebanon. It certainly would be easy if the population could be divided into Islamist bad guys and “pro-Western” good guys. Officially, it’s true, Muslims account for just under 60% of the population and Christians just under 40%. But the former can be subdivided into Druze, Ismaili, Alawite or Nusayri, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, while the latter include Catholics (Armenian, Maronite, Melkite, Roman and Syrian) and Orthodox (Armenian, Greek and Syrian) -- not forgetting the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Copts and Protestants.

Thursday’s funeral scenes in Beirut perfectly illustrate the complexity of the conflict that is now simmering. The murdered man was himself a Maronite (Christian), the grandson of the founder of the Falangist Party that once allied itself with Israel (Jews) to fight the Palestine Liberation Organization (Muslims). But the mourners spat on pictures of Gen. Michel Aoun, a Christian who has aligned his party with Hezbollah (Muslims).


Ominously, one woman demonstrator was quoted as saying: “There will come a day when we have revenge.” One of Gemayel’s Maronite relations? No, a 39-year-old Muslim woman who attended the demonstration with her seven children. She is almost certainly a supporter of the Future Movement, a Sunni party whose leader, Saad Hariri, is the son of the former prime minister whose assassination began the Cedar Revolution.

Remember how the 1970s comedy “Soap” used to begin: “Confused? You will be.”

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the younger Bush is realizing just why the elder Bush did not march all the way to Baghdad back in 1991. For regime change in Iraq has unleashed Lebanese-style centrifugal forces. Here, once again, it’s not a clash between civilizations. Thursday’s lethal car bomb explosions in the Shiite district of Baghdad known as Sadr City were just the latest and biggest of a succession of sectarian attacks that date to the bombing of the Golden Mosque at Samarra last February.

The key is that each such attack begets another attack, in an almost unstoppable cycle of tit-for-tat killing. In retaliation for the Sadr City car bombs last week, militiamen belonging to the Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi army fired mortars into the Sunni neighborhoods of Adhamiya and Ghazaliya.


In civil wars, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And often more than equal. In Baghdad these days, Al Mahdi army thugs drive around with kidnapped Sunnis in their car trunks, offering on-the-spot revenge to bereaved Shiites. Three Sunnis for a dead brother is the going rate. That is the psychology that made October the bloodiest month in Iraq since the American-led invasion.

The bad news, as James D. Fearon of Stanford University explained to members of Congress in September, is that withdrawing American troops from Iraq will only accelerate Iraq’s descent into the abyss. The worse news is that increasing troop numbers may only slow the descent. The worst news is that civil wars like these tend to last a long time. Of 54 major civil wars since 1945, half lasted more than seven years. And most such wars don’t end with power-sharing agreements but in victory for one side or the other -- often as a result of foreign intervention.

Did I say “end”? The real lesson of Lebanon -- and, indeed, of Bosnia -- may be that some civil wars never really end. There are merely cease-fires. And then the cycle of killing resumes.