Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and the author of A Rage for Order, which won the 2017 Lionel Gelber prize.
The explosion that devastated Beirut Tuesday is different from anything Lebanon has faced in its long and tumultuous history. It calls for a different kind of response – from the Lebanese and from the rest of us.
It is not just the size of the blast – that terrifying wave of air and fire, captured on countless cellphone cameras, that shot outward from the city’s port and left much of Beirut in ruins. This disaster, apparently caused by a fire in a warehouse packed with explosive material, wrecked much of the city’s economic core, killing at least 137 people and leaving some 300,000 more homeless. Even the worst bombings of Lebanon’s terrible civil war, from 1975 to 1990, were not this bad.
But this was far more than an accident. The explosion is the result of years of deadly negligence at every level of Lebanon’s civic life, from public health to banking. It comes on the heels of a financial meltdown that had already pushed most of the country’s five million people into poverty, as well as all the terrible economic and human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic. A country famous for its bohemianism and savoir faire is now witnessing a combination of hunger, illness and desperation that hasn’t been seen in a century.
We know what can happen when countries reach this point. Just a few years ago, Syria’s civil war forced millions of desperate people into exile. It is easy to imagine large numbers of Lebanese fleeing their country in the near future – to Cyprus, to Turkey and to Europe, where migration has already strained resources and fuelled angry populist reactions.
The United States and its allies can and must act to prevent this. But if they hope to succeed, they must throw out the old rule book.
During the years I lived in Beirut, I watched as Lebanon’s powerful elite responded to crisis after crisis with hollow promises and superficial changes. Prime ministers have come and gone, but the sectarian bosses who preside over Lebanon’s corrupt state and rigged economy have remained in place.
If the international community is going to rescue Lebanon financially, it must demand comprehensive reform, including the ouster of corrupt and destructive figures such as President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. It must also be willing to back up those actions with targeted economic sanctions. It must address decades of shady dealings by Lebanon’s central bank, whose catastrophic losses of roughly US$49-billion sent foreign investors fleeing and helped cause the Lebanese pound to lose more than 80 per cent of its value against the U.S. dollar since last October. Many rich people got their money out in time, but millions of ordinary Lebanese lost their life savings. Some have resorted to bartering.
Lebanon’s friends must also do more to isolate and constrain Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed movement that is Lebanon’s most powerful military force and stands behind the nominal government like a puppeteer. To do so, it will be necessary for the U.S. to make better use of its financial leverage over Iraq, whose central bank has been used to funnel money both to Hezbollah and to its chief patron, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
None of this will be easy, especially in light of the long history of malign Western interference in the Levant. It will be essential to engage with the wealthy Lebanese diaspora, who have a stake in the country’s revival. It would also help if the West would echo the non-partisan language of the street protest movement that arose last year in Lebanon, which made clearer than ever before that the country’s problems transcend politics.
At their root, those problems are about corruption and mismanagement, and Tuesday’s explosion is a grimly perfect metaphor for what happens when they are ignored for too long. In past crises, many of my Lebanese friends would shrug and echo the same platitudes about their resilience. The civil war that ended in 1990 left Lebanon with a power-sharing system that, while imperfect, at least kept the peace. But it did so at a terrible cost. The warlords divided the country into sectarian fiefdoms, enshrining a system that rewarded loyalty, not competence. The state was funded by a complex shell game in which the country’s banks lured in foreign currency with high interest rates.
No one was worried about building a real economy, apart from the restaurants and bars in Beirut’s hipster zones (some of which are mere fronts for money laundering). The money that should have gone to fixing the country’s decrepit electrical grid went instead into the pockets of political fixers. Every year, the costs of this malign neglect got worse, inspiring civic movements such as You Stink, the 2015 effort to protest garbage pileup and the corrupt contract deals that caused it. But the protesters – mostly young and middle-class – did not have a militia behind them, unlike their opponents. The problems continued to fester.
Among those neglected problems, it seems, was a warehouse in Beirut’s port with 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used as fertilizer and as an industrial explosive. The material had been left there since 2014 without safety measures, despite the conclusion of a team that visited the warehouse six months ago and warned that it could “blow up all of Beirut” if not removed.
This time, the horror is too great to just clean up the glass and go home. Lebanon must seize this opportunity to reckon with its demons, and the U.S. must do everything it can to help.
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