THE LEBANESE ARE doing their best to forget about their civil war—if only the fighting across the border in Syria were not so worryingly close to home. Their monument to the victims of the war of 1975-90—a great tower of tanks and artillery pieces stacked atop each other and semi-encased in concrete—is tucked out of sight, up the mountain overlooking Beirut. The old front line through the city centre is being built over; even the Ottoman-era stone buildings are being allowed to rot, to be replaced by luxury flats for rich visitors from the Gulf.
The outside world, too, has mostly forgotten about the Lebanese war. Yet it contains many forewarnings about the agony the Arab world today. Its strife was once thought of as exceptional. Now much of the Fertile Crescent is a bigger and nastier version of Lebanon: an ancient land with myriad quarrelling ethnic and religious groups. Those who thought the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, would quickly be overthrown did not reckon with the network of minorities—among them Christians and Kurds along with his Alawites—that he could call on for survival.
If Arabs are said to remember too much history, Americans remember too little. Lebanon was a warning about the dangers of military intervention in pursuit of a grandiose mission in the Middle East. When George W. Bush recklessly invaded Iraq in 2003—thinking that removing Saddam Hussein would make the world safer from terrorists and spread democracy to cure the ills of the Arab world—he did not heed the lessons of America’s blunders in Lebanon two decades earlier.
Then America sent forces to Beirut at the head of a multinational force to oversee the evacuation of Palestinian fighters after Israel invaded in 1982. Provoked by Palestinian attacks, Israel sought to use military supremacy to transform the region: it would evict the PLO and Syrians from Lebanon; install a new Lebanese president, Bashir Gemayel, under whom a peace treaty with the Jewish state would be signed; and push Palestinian radicals to adopt the idea that Jordan—not the Israeli-occupied territories—is Palestine. Having facilitated the departure of the PLO in August 1982, American and European forces left Lebanon. But they returned after a bomb (presumably planted by Syria) killed Gemayel and, in revenge, Phalangist militias from his Maronite Christian community massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian civilians in front of Israeli forces.
America’s effort to broker a short-lived settlement between Israel and Lebanon in May 1983, and reinforce Lebanese government forces against Syria and its allied militias, sucked it deeper into the war. In place of Palestinian groups there emerged a new and more vicious religious force, Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored Shia militia. It pioneered the use of spectacular suicide-bombers in the Arab world. The American embassy on the corniche was blown up in April 1983 and the US marine base was destroyed in October that year. The French and the Israelis were also attacked, and the international forces soon withdrew. In 2000 Hezbollah harried the Israelis out of south Lebanon, earning kudos across the Arab world.
There is little left of America’s traumatised passage through Beirut. The ruins of the embassy building have been replaced by a block of luxury flats. The old Marines base is now a car park. American diplomats work and live in an improvised fortified compound on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, with anti-sniper walls to protect them as they walk from one building to another.
Among those who survived the 1983 embassy bombing was the then head of the political section, Ryan Crocker. He later served as America’s ambassador to Iraq and was celebrated as “America’s Lawrence of Arabia” for his role during the American “surge” of forces that helped to salvage the failing military enterprise. “In all my time I have learnt two things,” he says. “Be careful what you get into, and be at least as careful what you get out of.” He thinks that the American intervention in Lebanon set in motion a chain of events America could not control, as did its invasion of Iraq. America’s hurried departure from Lebanon also set a precedent, showing that the superpower could be defeated by terrorism and proxy actors. “Syria, Iran and Hezbollah learnt the lesson and played it back to us in Iraq,” says Mr Crocker. Syria facilitated attacks on American troops in Iraq by al-Qaeda, and Iran supported the Mahdi Army, a Shia militia.
Under Barack Obama, elected on a promise to end the war in Iraq, America’s full withdrawal from the country in December 2011 now looks reckless. Mr Obama declared at the time that America was leaving behind a stable country. But Iraq’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish politicians reverted to narrow sectarian instincts in which, as Mr Crocker puts it, “compromise is a concession, a concession is a defeat and defeat is death.”
Mr Obama’s reluctance to be drawn into another war in Syria is understandable. “Don’t do stupid shit” became his mantra. But Syria perhaps also shows the dangers of extreme inaction. Mr Obama resisted pressure to take military action against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, even after Mr Assad in 2013 crossed Mr Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. It was only when the jihadists of Islamic State, having taken control of eastern Syria, swept across Iraq in 2014 that Mr Obama felt compelled to send American forces back into Iraq.
If Mr Obama has had a priority in the Middle East, it has been to pursue an agreement with Iran to halt its nuclear programme, or at least suspend it for a decade or more. Mr Obama has sometimes entertained the hope that the deal might strengthen moderates in Tehran and make Iran a more tractable partner. More realistically, he wants to achieve a more balanced relationship between Iran and the Arabs, saying that they will have to “share” the region. To America’s traditional allies, both Arab monarchies and Israel, this looks as though America is abandoning the Middle East to Iranian influence: its inaction in Syria has emboldened America’s foes, they say; its readiness to dump Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has rattled its friends.
Mr Obama is plainly weary of America’s long commitment to the region, from defending the Gulf’s oil supplies to trying to mediate a seemingly impossible peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Asked whether Saudi Arabia was America’s friend, Mr Obama once replied: “It’s complicated.” His relations with Israel, too, have been far from straightforward. By trying to pull back from the region, Mr Obama has left space for others to step in. Saudi Arabia is engaged in an increasingly bitter proxy contest with Iran. Russia has also moved in, deploying aircraft and other forces to support the Syrian regime. For the moment, it is Russia that is playing the role of hegemon in the Middle East, seeking to set the rules of the war and the peace to follow.
America’s friends hope that the new president to be elected in November will take a more active role. Certainly Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has sounded more hawkish. She has advocated arming anti-Assad rebels and imposing no-fly zones in Syria. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, has sharply criticised the Iran deal and speaks of the need to wage “a war against radical Islam”, yet also says America should refrain from intervening abroad and work better with Russia.
In reality, the options for intervention have narrowed, now that Russia is on the ground and in the air in Syria. The American public has little wish to place large numbers of troops at risk in another Arab country. And America can now do without Arab oil, though it remains exposed to global energy prices and its effects on the world economy. So the next president’s actions may not differ much from those of Mr Obama, who is sending more special forces to Syria. Having long denounced American interference, Arabs may find that its absence is even worse.