I spent a great deal of time living and working in Beirut during my career in the Foreign Service.
I have many happy memories of the place. I remember walking along the colorful seaside thoroughfare known as the Corniche in the evening, watching the sun sink into the Mediterranean and savoring the smell of sea bass cooking in marvelous restaurants frequented by a friendly, cosmopolitan mix of clients.
Now, when I turn on the evening news and scenes from Beirut -- giant bomb craters in the streets, buildings damaged or demolished, wounded children being rushed to already overburdened hospitals -- I sometimes have to avert my face and close my eyes. It is just too painful to see how that once-lovely Lebanese capital is suffering -- and to contemplate the decline of the role America used to play in the entire region.
Part of Beirut's charm is its unique history. It is probably the oldest city in the world, dating to the Bronze Age of 3,000 B.C. Over the centuries, Phoenicians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Turks controlled the city and the country. France was given a League of Nations mandate over Lebanon after World War I, and contemporary Beirut retains a strong French flavor.
When I think of those strolls along the Corniche in the 1950s, I think of happy, hospitable people, many of them young, their faces reflecting a healthy, 5,000-year mix of various gene pools. There was a large Christian population, as well as many Palestinians who had settled in Lebanon after fleeing north from Israel. In the streets, one heard French spoken as often as Arabic.
Beirut was a tourist haven to which visitors flocked from throughout the Middle East, attracted by Crusader castles and by fascinating ruins such as those of the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbeck, rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 2 B.C. It was the greatest and mightiest temple in antiquity. The limestone blocks in its courtyard were unequaled in size anywhere in the world, some of them weighing 800 tons. Some scholars suggest that the children of Adam and Eve might have played at Baalbeck.
I worked at the American Embassy, lived in faculty housing at the American University in Beirut (AUB), and even gave a few lectures there. The faculty and students, who came from all over the region, included Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.
There were many who felt that AUB, located in the center of Beirut, was the most useful contribution that Americans had made to that country.
America's Lost Influence
During 38 years in the Foreign Service, I had assignments throughout the Muslim world: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Algeria and more. I also worked in Israel. I headed offices in the State Department for the Middle East and South Asia, and for Africa.
This was during the Cold War. We then did everything we could think of to persuade the Muslim governments and their people to take our side in the confrontation against the Soviets. And we were largely successful. Americans were reasonably well respected, envied and admired.
Tens of thousands of Muslim students were offered scholarships to study in our universities. American professors taught abroad, the Voice of America had a large audience, American libraries were opened in major cities, and journalists, civic leaders, chiefs of state, government officials and youth leaders were invited for short visits to the U.S. Many stayed in American homes.
Books were translated into Arabic and other appropriate languages, and we worked closely with Muslim opinion makers abroad. With strong Muslim support, we overwhelmed the Soviets in the United Nations, and we won the Cold War.
Today, our embassies have become fortresses, diplomats must be cautious about leaving their offices, and the programs that helped win the Cold War were largely terminated many years ago. Where we still have a few friends in the Muslim world, most keep their mouths shut.
What a pity.
Islam Is More Than Arabs
Even more than three years into the war in Iraq, many Americans still lack an understanding of the Muslim world.
We in the West have long identified Islam with Arab culture. In one sense, this is reasonable enough. After all, the Quran and the canonical accounts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (the Hadith) are all written in Arabic, and Muslim scholars insist that a proper study of these sacred works is possible only in Arabic.
The holy lands to which Muslims turn in prayer, and to which they are enjoined to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime if they have the means, are also located in Arab lands. And during the first century of their spectacular expansion from the Arabian peninsula into Syria, westward to Spain and eastward toward India, the armies that created one of the most cosmopolitan empires Eurasia has ever seen were Arab-led and Arab-staffed.
But there are more than 1.4 billion Muslims in the world today, and the number is rapidly rising. Only 15 to 18 percent of them are ethnic Arabs. In addition to the Muslims in the Middle East, there are nearly 300 million in Indonesia, more than 200 million in India, large numbers in Southeast Asia, in North Africa, in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and growing numbers in Europe.
Negativity Toward U.S.
In their mosques and madrasas, these people receive daily reports and commentaries on events in the Middle East. It is not the kind of news that we are accustomed to hearing and reading. Not surprisingly, their attention is directed negatively toward Israel and the United States.
More surprising is the harsh criticism of Israel's role in the current war that is being expressed from some quarters within Israel itself. A few days ago an important Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, published a lengthy column by Gideon Levy that surely provoked an angry reaction in Israel.
"Every neighborhood has one," Levy wrote, "a loudmouth bully who shouldn't be provoked into anger. He's insulted? He'll pull out a knife. Spat in the face? He'll draw a gun. Hit? He'll pull out a machine gun. Not that the bully's not right -- someone did harm him. But the reaction, what a reaction! ... Regrettably, the Israel Defense Force once again looks like the neighborhood bully."
Though acknowledging that "the Israeli Defense Force absorbed two painful blows that were painfully humiliating" (incursions into its territory and the abduction of three soldiers), Levy charged that the nation's warlike retaliatory response was "all about restoring its lost dignity."
"If the goal is to remove Hezbollah from the border," he wrote, "did we try hard enough over the last two years through diplomatic channels? Everyone agrees that 'something must be done.' Everyone agrees that a sovereign state cannot remain silent when it is attacked within its own borders. ... But why should that non-silence be expressed solely by an immediate and all-out blow?"
Of course, as one American editor pointed out, this was a notable example of freedom of the press during war time. How many Arab journalists would dare to write in such a fashion against their own countries? How many Arab governments would permit it?
'Start Talking, Listening'
Israel and its Muslim neighbors have missed many opportunities for a lasting peace over the years, with plenty of blame to go around. There seemed to be progress during the Camp David Accords and then again during negotiations in Oslo, but nothing ultimately came of them. The United States, too, has missed many opportunities to play a constructive role in the region.
In February of this year, three former U.S. diplomats toured the Middle East as part of an independent delegation and met with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, various Hamas officials and Amr Mousa, secretary general of the Arab League.
"It was remarkably easy for us to get meetings with the major players in the region," said one of the Americans, Robert Keeley, a former U.S. ambassador to Greece and Zimbabwe. "I think that's because here has been so little dialogue between them and our officials. When we were in Lebanon, I found that our ambassador doesn't talk to the Lebanese president. ... Even among the undemocratic leaders, we found enthusiasm for the concept of democracy in the region, but the U.S. is viewed as totally hypocritical, only backing democracy when the people it wants win."
I was struck with Keeley's closing words: "We need to stop castigating and threatening -- and start talking and listening."
I hope the Lebanon/Israel/ Gaza mess will at least partially resolve itself soon. It has been a wretched few weeks for all of the parties involved. I hope a degree of sanity on both/all sides will prevail. And someday I hope happy and carefree people will stroll along a vibrant and peaceful Corniche once again.
Marshall Berg is a retired Foreign Service officer who lives in Pinehurst.
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