Like many Americans with a worm's-eye view of the Middle East, I have in the past few years been considering various scenarios for how the region might shake out in the era of regime change, regional transformation, and the famous (or infamous) "Clean Break" with the past. Some of these scenarios have been ominous, some mixed, some embarrassingly optimistic, but today we have new proof of just how useless this kind of futurist pud-pulling is when faced with the chaos of history. In every one of my scenarios, Rafiq Hariri was still alive.
The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister and reconstruction mastermind Hariri, by a car bomb on the very waterfront he rebuilt after the country's 16-year civil war, is the worst news out of the Middle East in the last two years. It's the worst news out of Lebanon in at least ten. It's tempting to take this as an opportunity to mouth platitudes about how this is the true face of evil we're up against. (For what it's worth, suspects so far—not counting agents of the Syrian occupation—include a previously unheard of group calling itself either "Group for Victory and Holy War in the Levant" or "Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant".)
But I'll pass on the pep talk. Anybody who has been blathering about the growing clout of Arab liberals or the spread of a free-market civil society in the Middle East must confront the iron fact of Hariri's murder. He was the Middle East's single most persistent and energetic advocate for civil society, for unrestrained media, for business-based solutions to the Levantine dilemma, and for a free, capitalist, forward-looking Arab world.
Unlike the self-promoters, family legacies, D.C. con artists, holy men, and stupid grandsons who make up the bulk of the Levant's political class, he was never content merely to talk about the region's problems or enlist foreign patrons to serve his ends. Since 1979, thousands of Lebanese attended college courtesy of Hariri Foundation scholarships. The media empire Hariri built to further his business interests—including the Future television network, al-Mustakbal newspaper, and the only Lebanese radio station I was ever able to listen to for more than five minutes, Radio Orient—set a consistent example of open and diverse media in a country where you still need a government "license" to report about politics. Throughout the war, Hariri maintained construction projects (frequently destroyed) in his birth city of Sidon. In the postwar period, he dwarfed even these projects with his Solidere organization and its massive project to reconstruct downtown Beirut. The heavy-handed methods of Solidere in the 1990s, and the organization's virtual monopoly on local construction projects—roughly coinciding with Hariri's terms as prime minister—were nobody's model of a truly free market (i.e., one that operates through voluntary contract rather than government gamesmanship); and the buildings that resulted are frequently ugly, gaudy, unwelcoming, or all three. But considering the alternative, it's impossible to gainsay Hariri's achievement in Beirut. It's also impossible, considering the measureless obstructive strength of Lebanese society, the structural sickness of the country's economy, and the hostility of the Syrian occupiers to any and all displays of initiative, to imagine anybody else who would have been capable of it.
Not surprisingly, these efforts earned Hariri many enemies. To leftists and Islamists, he was too pro-American. To neocons, he was too anti-Israel. The Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant purports to have hated him for his ties to the Saudi monarchy. And the vast population of Lebanon regarded his achievements as vast populations always do: with jealousy, trash-talk, and spite. There was a surreal pattern throughout the nineties, of seeing a ruined capital turn into a functioning city while friends and neighbors tirelessly grumbled about the arriviste Saudi who had ruined their country.
Which brings us to the question—and I can already assure you it will never be resolved—of who hated Hariri enough to kill him. I am not as confident as my colleague Michael Young that the Syrian occupiers were behind the bombing. Hariri is an odd choice for assassination given how much more vociferous Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has been in his opposition to the Syrian occupation. On the other hand, unlike Jumblatt and Maronite ex-president Amin Gemayel (who joined today in a statement holding "the authorities in Lebanon and Syria, the guardian power, responsible for this crime"), Hariri was not a scion of an ancient family and had no natural constituency in Lebanon.
If the Syrians did kill Hariri, one thing is clear: In order to hang on to Lebanon, Bashar Assad is willing to drain the country of whatever actual value it has. One of Hariri's habits as Prime Minister was a Reaganesque tendency to use deficit spending as a way to maintain good relations with political opponents. As a result, risky reconstruction projects moved ahead in tandem with ongoing government largesse that kept innumerable worthless bums on the public tit. More seriously, Lebanon racked up $35 billion in debt, and to a large degree, Hariri's continuing role in the economy (even after he left office) has helped keep international financial institutions from punishing the country for his own wastrelsy. The debt, so the argument went, wasn't so important as the continuing progress Hariri was making in turning the country into a bankable resource. Without adult supervision, it's no longer clear just what is going to prop up Lebanon's absurd economy. It may seem crass to talk about money in the face of this grisly murder, but money was Hariri's genius. His death is a tragedy for Lebanon, and a horror for anybody still foolish enough to be an optimist about the Middle East.