Lebanon’s Tragedy Is All Too Familiar

Americans know what it’s like to suffer the consequences of negligent government.

A huge explosion in the Lebanese capital of Beirut last week killed about 150 people and wounded thousands. (STR / AFP / Getty)

“That the Lebanese have suffered so much both for reasons beyond their control and because of the fickleness of their political machine is a tragedy,” the American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin wrote in the Washington Examiner after last week’s horrific explosion in a Beirut port. Only “when the Lebanese people shirk off corrupt and incompetent elites and a political culture where too many act with impunity will the country thrive, and its people achieve the justice they so much deserve.”

Rubin is right, of course. The history of modern Lebanon is a history of, among other things, governance failure—and the explosion in downtown Beirut is a tragic kind of capstone.

But it is no defense of the Lebanese handling of the ship and its cargo that caused the explosion to say that perhaps this really isn’t the best time for Americans to be lecturing other countries about how their political choices contribute to disasters.

I don’t mean to understate the magnitude of the Lebanese failure here. As Declan Walsh and Andrew Higgins of The New York Times reported with admirable speed after the blast, the explosion resulted from almost unfathomable regulatory negligence after a leaky ship showed up six years ago in Beirut bearing nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate—the same substance of which only two tons blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. The cargo of the abandoned ship was unloaded into a warehouse and left there. Repeated warnings about the danger of leaving the material in place produced no action.

“In view of the serious danger posed by keeping this shipment in the warehouses in an inappropriate climate,” the director of Lebanese customs wrote to the country’s judiciary in May 2016, “we repeat our request to demand the maritime agency to re-export the materials immediately.”

Officials, however, seemed more concerned about holding the indebted vessel’s crew until bills were paid than about safely disposing of the cargo that would eventually destroy a portion of the city. “They just wanted the money we owed,” the ship’s captain told the Times.

No, the United States isn’t Lebanon. And no, our own catastrophe hasn’t unfolded with a shock wave and a mushroom cloud reminiscent of a nuclear detonation. It has played out in slower motion instead.

Yet our own governance failures over the past several months have produced a still-growing body count orders of magnitude larger than the one the explosion in Beirut will produce. While the number of dead in Beirut will no doubt continue to grow, it will grow more slowly than the number of dead here, to which we will continue to add a thousand or two a day for the foreseeable future. Many Americans will no doubt comfort themselves that the situations are different. True enough. But there are some unnerving similarities too—the negligence of “corrupt and incompetent elites” chief among them.

As the journalist Will Saletan wrote in an excellent article on the president’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, “Trump collaborated with [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping], concealed the threat, impeded the U.S. government’s response, silenced those who sought to warn the public, and pushed states to take risks that escalated the tragedy. He’s personally responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.” The president’s “interference or negligence” contributed to “every stage of the government’s failure: preparation, mobilization, public communication, testing, mitigation, and reopening.”

Like the Lebanese authorities, our government had fair warning. Just as the Lebanese authorities knew that a ship bearing deadly cargo was stuck in Beirut, American officials knew what was happening in China. They saw what was happening in Iran and Italy. The outbreaks came late on our shores, though the coronavirus was clearly here somewhat earlier. Unlike the Italians, we had time to prepare. And our public-health officials, like the Lebanese customs officials who warned about leaving a giant stockpile of ammonium nitrate in downtown Beirut, warned about the likely costs of complacency. Like the Lebanese authorities, our government did not act effectively. We know that effective action was possible, because other governments took it. Other governments removed the ammonium nitrate from the downtowns of their major cities. Donald Trump, like the Lebanese, chose not to.

In some ways, at least, the negligence of the Trump administration actually exceeds that of the Lebanese government. An explosion, after all, is a sudden thing that happens all at once. There is no intervening once it begins.

A pandemic, by contrast, takes place over time. Each day thus offers a new opportunity either for negligence or for leadership. And each day since the pandemic arrived in this country, Trump has awakened with what amounts to a renewed commitment to negligence. Sometimes the commitment takes the form of denial. Sometimes it takes the form of blame-shifting. Sometimes it takes the form of conspiracy theorizing. Sometimes it takes the form of magical thinking.

There is no such thing as leadership during an explosion. There is such a thing as leadership during a pandemic. And there is also such a thing as its absence.

We should compare our government’s performance unfavorably with that of Lebanon’s for another reason too: Lebanon has excuses—a lot of them. It is a poor country. It is riven by sectarian divisions. It fought a horrible civil war not too long ago. It has been occupied by two of its neighbors. And it still has to deal with political forces such as Hezbollah and foreign meddling from Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has 1 million refugees from the Syrian conflict with whom to contend.

What exactly is our excuse?

“The people demand the fall of the regime,” protesters chant in Beirut. And maybe people would be demanding the fall of the regime here too had our catastrophe unfolded in a flash, had it sheared the faces off of buildings and buried children, instead of taking place in slow motion over great distances and involving ever-so-many people we don’t know in nursing homes and hospitals we will never visit.

Yes, democratic remedies are available here—an election coming up in less than three months—through which we can channel our rage. At least assuming the election goes off okay, we have a means of effecting the fall of the regime that the Lebanese, whose political system divides the people’s vote to ensure that every sect has a share of power, do not have. There is, at least in theory, a way for Americans to demand accountability of their leadership. And that is a crucial difference.

Yet even if we do that three months from now, and even if a Biden administration sweeps into office and acts decisively and effectively to get the pandemic under control, it will be a long time before the United States is in a position once again to lecture other countries about the relationship between responsible government and disaster preparedness, prevention, and management.

Because we too left thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate downtown.