Iraq is now peering into the abyss that Lebanon witnessed during the darkest days of its civil war, the first and longest sectarian conflict in the post-colonial Arab world. The conflict dragged on for 15 deadly years. The human costs, in a country smaller than Connecticut, were staggering: 150,000 killed and a million people — one-fourth of the population — displaced. The economy collapsed and destruction totaled $25 billion. Along the way, Lebanon’s militias introduced tactics, most notably the suicide bomb, that have defined asymmetric warfare worldwide ever since.
Over those years, from 1975 to 1990, the entire Middle East shook, as Lebanon’s war ignited a rippling series of other conflicts, big and small, including an Israeli invasion in 1982 that turned into its own messy 18-year occupation. I lived through five years of Lebanon’s multifaceted war. I spent plenty of time in basements-cum-bomb-shelters, waiting for incoming artillery or thunderous battles on the streets above to stop, debating with Lebanese about whether their little country could endure the venom consuming its 18 recognized Muslim, Christian, Druse and other sects.
The civil war ended in 1990. The state barely survived. And nearly a quarter century later, the war’s effects linger on, in political form, as Lebanon struggles to find a president amid sectarian turmoil. Hezbollah, a Shiite militia born during the war that later organized as a political party as well, is now powerful enough to say yea or nay to a president. Lebanon still offers many lessons for the region.
Unfortunately, the scope of events over the past three weeks in Iraq, born of the same kinds of power-sharing disputes that ripped Lebanon apart, is bigger physically, politically, economically, militarily and regionally. Just for starters, Iraq is the size of California. The territory seized with astonishing speed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is the size of Indiana.
Over all, Iraq is a geostrategic property of far greater value, not to mention the second-largest oil producer in OPEC. The weaponry on all sides is bigger and badder than in Lebanon. The hatreds may actually be deeper, the regional impact wider. The consequences — intended and unintended — could well have global import.
The two countries have their own dynamics and flash points. But Iraq is more like Lebanon than Syria, where ISIS began its territorial sweep, because both Iraq and Lebanon are nascent democracies. The principle of power sharing is publicly embraced and politically enshrined, even if not adequately practiced. In contrast, Syria’s three-year-old war has become intractable because President Bashar al-Assad clings to authoritarian power.
The fractured communities in Lebanon and Iraq have been charting a course, albeit fitfully and bloodily, into a future quite different from the region’s past. It’s the struggle to move beyond primordial identities of clan, tribe, race and sect in the name of a wider national good. It’s a challenge every democracy faces, including the United States in its own past Civil War and its current internal politicking. It’s hard to get beyond self.
Finding a new political formula that is equitable and just is the fundamental challenge across the Middle East, as activists and the huge population of young people demand a fairer share of power. This is the last bloc of countries to hold out against the democratic tide that has ended odious ideologies like apartheid and Communism over the past half century elsewhere. The stakes for the Middle East are historic.
Iraqis from all sects and ethnicities will be stupidly self-destructive if they don’t come to terms with one another quickly. They still have a chance to reverse course, reallocate power and repair political rifts in a way that Syria almost certainly cannot if Mr. Assad stays in power. They also have international interest in helping make it happen, as controversial as any form of outside diplomatic or military assistance may be.
The alternative is the Lebanon situation, in which politics was hijacked by warlords, security forces were marginalized by law-defying militias, the economy survived off smuggling, and daily life was Darwinian. I once had to clean bits of body and car parts off my little balcony when a suicide bomber set himself off prematurely — one of many bizarre memories of life in Beirut. Fighting was never predictable. I had a chart on my wall of the constantly proliferating militias — four dozen or so by the time I left in 1985 — and their constantly shifting alliances and enmities. Allies one day could be trying to kill one another the next, even within sects, over issues that had digressed far from their common cause. It was not unusual to see Shiites fighting Shiites, Christians fighting Christians, and Sunnis fighting Sunnis. Iraq is already witnessing its own internecine clashes.
The lessons of Lebanon apply to the United States as well. For all its wars elsewhere, one of the largest losses of American military life in a single incident since World War II was the loss of 241 peacekeepers in Beirut in 1983 — after Washington was seen to take sides in Lebanon’s civil war.
As Lebanon proved, the ultimate solution is political — and the solutions are often simple to the point of banality. Lebanon’s war finally ended with only minor changes to the internal balance of power. The original formula at independence from France in 1943 — in an unwritten agreement, based on a dubious 1932 census — allocated six seats in the Parliament to Christians for every five seats given to Muslims. Under the peace accord in 1990, the ratio became parity. The presidency, reserved for a Christian, was weakened and the prime ministership, reserved for a Sunni, was strengthened. Shiites retained the post of parliamentary speaker. None of the positions were given to another sect.
So little, for so many dead. Iraq beware.
Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, is the author of Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.