My mother hates air conditioning. She has a tiny unit in her tiny apartment in Hamra, but she hardly ever uses it. She claims that unnatural cold or hot air makes her sick and upsets her stomach.
All our lives my brothers and I would make fun of my mother’s paranoia about air conditioning and try to politely convince her that it’s all in her head. That her stomach issues, which she’s had for a long time, have nothing to do with air conditioning.
In recent years, her war with climate control became a source of tension between us. Every time she would come from Beirut to visit us here in the United States, we would have to turn off the central systems in our homes throughout her stay. It didn’t matter that Washington, D.C.’s hot and humid summers were unbearable. We all had to suffer, including our wives and kids. No AC, period. That was her condition, and it was not negotiable.
Our ridiculing of Mom about AC stopped on Tuesday at 6.07 p.m. local time in Beirut when catastrophe struck the Lebanese city’s port. Because that fateful evening, had she decided to turn on her unit and shut her windows, she probably would not have survived the second, massive explosion. The blast’s shockwave, like it did to thousands of other homes in the area and beyond, would have totaled her shoe box studio. As frail as she is, I don’t think she would have made it.
So when I called her moments after I learned of the incident, the first thing she made sure to tell me was that it was her intense aversion to air conditioning that kept her alive, and that me and my brothers ought to feel ashamed for our mockery all these years. Of course, she used this traumatic, life-saving experience to justify all the other inexplicable and unhealthy things she does. Like smoking, for example, which she says she will never quit.
People say there’s a silver lining in every tragedy. Mom found hers in her validation of the evil of air conditioning. But what about others in the country who were also fortunate to escape death? Can any good come out of this latest calamity? I’m not very hopeful.
A completely avoidable disaster
It’s not just the heavy death toll and the enormous damage that invites pessimism about the day after. It’s the fact that this disaster was completely avoidable, and those who caused it — the country’s ruling class — are still in charge. Regardless of who or what caused the initial fire that triggered the second, colossal explosion, don’t ever let that distract you from the fact that 2,750 tons of deadly ammonium nitrate should never have been there in the first place.
Initial reporting suggests that there was no foul play or act of aggression, by Israel or otherwise. Indeed, all the evidence gathered thus far points to an act of criminal negligence by the Lebanese authorities of cataclysmic proportions. For six years — six years! — they couldn’t figure out how to get rid of that high-explosive material, which had been sitting in the port all this time like a ticking time bomb.
Beirut will rise again from the ashes, like it always has. But the real rebuilding that must occur is not physical in nature. It is political. Nothing will truly change in Lebanon unless the country’s corrupt and incompetent leaders, who have been in power for decades, are unseated. That essentially is what French President Emanuel Macron insinuated during his visit to Beirut yesterday, and his words could not have resonated more powerfully among the Lebanese people, who are desperate for new leadership.
The current Lebanese government must go. That is for certain. The only thing left to discuss is how, and what countries with vested interests in Lebanon’s survival, including the United States, can do to help achieve this objective.
International humanitarian relief has been critical to heal the wounded, shelter the displaced, and feed the hungry. But Lebanon’s ruinous path cannot be arrested as long as the same clique remains in power.
What’s needed, once the dust settles, is a new political foundation, which only the Lebanese people can create through the ballot box. They can’t do it alone, though. They need protection from their own rulers, who have starved them, stolen their life savings, crushed their hopes for leading normal lives, and now, killed them because of their avarice and ineptitude.
Washington’s approach to the crisis in Lebanon thus far has been to condition U.S. economic assistance, through the International Monetary Fund or otherwise, on the implementation of necessary reforms by the Lebanese government. The logic seems persuasive, but it doesn’t apply at all to Lebanon’s political reality.
If it isn’t abundantly clear by now, this government has no independent power and its local backers, led by Hezbollah, are not even remotely interested in systemic change. That’s because reform to them is akin to self-destruction, and why would they want that? How this simple equation somehow has been lost on U.S. officials is beyond me.
In Japan, a government minister publicly apologized last year after arriving three minutes late to a parliamentary meeting. A massive explosion razed Beirut’s seafront to the ground, killing more than 150, injuring thousands, and displacing hundreds of thousands, and yet not a single high-ranking Lebanese official has resigned. Instead, they’re peddling conspiracy theories and, as always, dodging responsibility. And Washington expects these crooks to reform on their own?
A new US approach
It’s time for a redo of U.S. Lebanon policy. Rather than wait and see if Lebanon’s leaders will ever reform, which they won’t, Washington has to be more proactive and work with international partners, most notably France, to push for early national elections. The Lebanese people cannot afford to wait until 2022 to elect new leaders. Give them a chance now to chart their political future. And if they end up picking the same rulers, then it’s on them.
But give them a nudge in this momentous fight. Apply sanctions against the key Sunni, Shi’a, and Christian politicians that have enabled the political influence of Hezbollah, which is effectively the main powerbroker in the country, to grow. Make them persona non grata in Washington and other world capitals. If their political status and patronage systems shrink as a result, many of their supporters could abandon them in the interest of survival and join the ranks of the protest movement.
Such a forceful U.S. approach carries risks, of course. It could lead to a more aggressive response from the status quo powers and maybe exacerbate political and religious cleavages among Lebanese society. But the risk of staying the course for Washington is higher. The majority of the Lebanese people are loudly saying that all their leaders must step down. It’s about time Washington listens.
Importantly, as the U.S. turns up the heat on Lebanon’s wicked politicians, it should also offer a way to cool things down, so the choice for those in Lebanon who still support their feudal warlords is crystal clear. Which path they choose should be up to them, and like my mother they may prefer to stick with the heat, but if they do decide it’s time for change, Washington should stand ready, along with its Arab and European friends, to unleash its economic power to help rebuild the port and restart the economy.
Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the director of the Defense and Security Program. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images