“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.