Rebuilding Lebanon is a moral imperative – and a wise strategy

The UN successfully created a cease-fire in southern Lebanon last month by passing Resolution 1701. After surviving Israel's attempt to dismantle it, Hizbullah is working to build on its perceived victory by providing generous aid to war-battered Lebanese – winning Middle Eastern hearts and minds along the way.

That's why it's so important for the global community to rally behind Lebanon's rebuilding.

The first step is security. Making 1701 work requires rapid deployment of the European-led UN peace force to reinforce existing UNIFIL troops in south Lebanon. Cooperation and restraint from Hizbullah, Israel, and Lebanon's newly deployed 14,000-man army in the south will be key.

The economic challenges are formidable. The UN development agency says "the damage has annihilated ... the last 15 years of work on reconstruction and rehabilitation" following the 1975-1990 civil war. Lebanon's total losses are estimated to be "at least $15 billion, if not more," says spokesman Jean Fabre.

Lebanon says direct structural damage reached $3.6 billion, including 15,000 homes (to whose owners Hizbullah is already distributing from $10,000 to $12,000 cash to repair or rebuild). The Beirut airport and most seaports were temporarily disabled. Eighty bridges and 94 roads were destroyed or damaged, as were factories and businesses producing dairy products and other processed food.

Israel's ongoing sea and air blockade, begun right after Hizbullah's kidnapping of its two soldiers triggered the war, has caused huge losses to Lebanon – and gains for Syria. It has diverted airport cargoes worth millions away from Beirut's port to Syria's harbors at Latakia and Tartous. Other cargoes for Lebanon have ended up here in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Cyprus, and Malta.

Meanwhile, maritime experts from the UN, Greece, and other European Union (EU) countries have been coping with the pollution caused by a 100-mile-long spill of at least 15,000 tons of fuel oil along the Lebanese and Syrian coasts. Israel's air force caused it by bombing fuel tanks at Lebanon's coastal power station at Jiyeh. Pollution prevention and cleaning up soiled tourist beaches and harbors could cost as much as $5 billion. Winds and currents have so far spared Israel, but the UN agency fears a westward and northward drift of the oil slick, toward Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece. So far, Israel has not publicly responded to Lebanon's appeal that it help pay for the cleanup.

Hizbullah's shrewd public-relations spinners are proving to be skillful contenders for Lebanese and wider Arab and Muslim hearts and minds. To counter Hizbullah's appeal, the global consortium of donors that met in Stockholm Sept. 1 must quickly make good on its unexpectedly large pledge of some $940 million in aid to Lebanon.

Greece is well positioned to guide the rebuilding effort. Along with Cyprus, it was the first to rush tons of humanitarian aid to Lebanon when fighting broke out in July, and it sent ships to help evacuate more than 30,000 foreigners. Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis has established goodwill in the region. And Sept. 1, Greece assumed the monthly rotating presidency of the UN Security Council – a post that strengthens its clout.

Along with Lebanon's physical restoration, it is essential to reestablish it as a regional center of culture. When this reporter first arrived in Beirut in 1965, the city was a vibrant center of intellectual freedom – and, yes, the kind of democracy, or close to it, that the Bush administration says it's promoting in the world. A plethora of virtually uncensored newspapers, periodicals, and book publishers reflected a vast spectrum of free opinion.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) could be a vital pillar of Lebanon's restoration. Founded in 1866, it educated generations of professionals, academics, artists, and politicians from everywhere, including Israel. Alumni include heads of state and cabinet ministers, from Turkey and Greece to Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It promoted – and survived – the Arab intellectual awakening of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and eventual revolutions against Ottoman Turkish despotism during World War I. Despite wartime attrition of faculty, staff, and student bodies, it weathered the storms of World Wars I and II. It pulled safely through the upheavals that rocked Lebanon and the rest of the region following Israel's creation in 1948.

AUB's faculty, staff, and current president, Dr. John Waterbury, have held the university together through the recent tempest. Its green, hospitable campus in west Beirut promises to continue as a beacon promoting the expressed wish of the school's American missionary founders: "That they [the people of the Near East] may have life and have it more abundantly."

This ought to guide thoughtful architects of a future Middle East, who should abandon calls to arms and instead embrace the region's physical, cultural, and moral restoration.

John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, covered the Middle East for more than 40 years. His latest book is "An Alliance Against Babylon: The US, Israel and Iraq."

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