Last week, the Spectator rightly compared Emmanuel Macron to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. After the massive chemical explosion that razed a whole section of Lebanon’s Beirut, killed over 100 civilians, and wounded more than 5,000, the French president walked amid the city’s devastation to denounce the pernicious factionalism of the Lebanese elite. Audacious, Macron’s triumphant tour was surprisingly well-received by the local populace. With sleeves rolled up, he embraced crying women as the disenchanted Lebanese pressed around him, calling for the overthrow of their own rulers. The sight was curious in and of itself: Should Lebanon’s current leaders attempt the same itinerary, they would most likely end up lynched, if not dismembered by the crowd. But Macron’s impeccable stunt proved so successful that more than 60,000 Lebanese have signed a petition to place their country under French mandate for the next ten years.
Macron assured the shell-shocked protesters that he would propose a new constitutional settlement for the country brought to the brink of collapse by corruption. “I expect clear answers from the Lebanese authorities about their commitments,” Macron declared. After promising financial and institutional support, he warned that he would return at the beginning of September to check that aid had been distributed properly.
Western commentators did not fail to see the neo-colonial character of Macron’s intervention. Ironically, this flashback to France’s imperial past comes a hundred years after Lebanon became a French protectorate in 1920. Further, France initially gained control over Lebanon by signing the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreements, whose unfairness was denounced by the very figure that the French president sought to emulate: Lawrence of Arabia. Macron’s political adversaries hammered the Elysée’s historical amnesia: From the nationalist leader Marine Le Pen to the socialist tribune Jean-Luc Mélenchon, all reminded the French public that Lebanon achieved independence from France in 1943, and that any intervention of this kind would therefore be inappropriate.
Still, while encroachments upon national sovereignty in the name of “human rights” remain controversial at best, whether or not Lebanon needs a foreign power to subsist is a complex question. Granted, the country achieved national independence in 1943. Ever since, however, Lebanon’s combustible mix of hostile religious communities has made every single attempt at self-governance unsuccessful. The short period of calm that emerged after the Lebanese civil war has long been replaced by a disorderly status quo wherein theocrats, kleptocrats, and sectarian warlords rule with near-total impunity.
Besides, if it is true that failed interventions in Libya and elsewhere have haunted French policymakers for years, non-interventions in strategic places do not have a better track record. When European powers left Syria to the hands of Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, they plunged the country into a chaotic state of conflict that has caused much more regional instability than the Libyan quagmire ever will. In fact, France has paid a heavy price for its non-intervention in Syria. First, hundreds of disenchanted Frenchmen have answered the call of jihadists who feed on Syria’s demise, some of whom returned to slaughter their fellow citizens in a series of barbaric terrorist attacks. Second, the Syrian collapse has unleashed an ever-expanding succession of refugee waves that threaten civil order in France, drain much-needed resources, and galvanize populist and nationalist movements. Overall, Macron has plenty of incentives to avoid another internal conflict tearing a Middle Eastern country apart.
Lebanon was already in economic meltdown before the explosion. Left untouched, the current situation could lead to another civil war, which would invite the immediate intervention of regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — and behind them, Russia and China. Just as Boris Johnson plans to use Lebanon as a demonstration of “Global Britain,” so Macron wants to prove that Western powers can still act as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. He does not want to turn France into a hawkish champion of “human rights.” All he desires is to keep Iran and Turkey contained in region over which they already wield tremendous influence. The question, of course, is whether or not the intervention will succeed.
Over the past few years, France has positioned itself as an efficient strategic partner on the world stage. The country’s “Operation Barkhane” in Mali has been a huge — albeit costly — success, with over 700 jihadists captured or killed, including two of the five founders of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM), the leading al-Qaeda sub-branch in the region. Macron also signed a military cooperation treaty with Cyprus to counter Turkey’s growing influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, so far left unchaperoned by other European powers. Two weeks ago, the French led the negotiations in favor of an EU recovery deal, which the most reluctant member-states somehow accepted. Regardless of what one thinks of EU-wide collective debt, the deal in and of itself constituted a tremendous diplomatic achievement for Macron and his government. Last, and perhaps most important, when Saudi Arabia lobbied for the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri in 2017, France was the only Western power to counter and ultimately defeat the Saudi efforts to corrupt Lebanese politics from the outside.
In reality, Macron’s biggest problem has very little to do with France’s colonial past, and very much to with domestic-policy failures. Macron would never be able to walk as freely — and/or as triumphantly — in his own capital. In fact, the crowds that he galvanized with force in Beirut have much to share with the gilets jaunes movement. Like the yellow vests, they are semi-insurgent protesters calling for the resignation of what they see as an insensitive and uncaring elite — this time, ironically, Macron is on the other side of the barricade. Another paradox is that the Lebanese explosion from unsupervised stockpiles of ammonium nitrate has all the characteristics of the devastating 2001 AZF factory explosion in Toulouse, wherein 31 people died. Of course, Macron was not president at the time, but France can hardly launch a campaign against a foreign government for committing a mistake that the French themselves made less than 20 years ago.
The juxtaposition of Macron’s unpopularity at home and extreme popularity abroad carries wider political implications. For most of human history, foreign conquests acted as national unifiers, convenient ways to distract a disenchanted populace and to rally the public behind a common cause. Louis XIV, who indebted the French kingdom more significantly than any of his predecessors, was nonetheless more popular than responsible monarchs such as Louis XV because his uninterrupted wars abroad galvanized the people. This paradigm has now been inverted. As both President Reagan and Nikita Khrushchev understood, in a world where material well-being has replaced more traditional conceptions of the summum bonum, the battlefield is first and foremost at home. Disenfranchised voters do not care about the suffering of people on the other side of seas and oceans as much as they care about their very own daily struggles. And France’s example serves to illustrate this phenomenon. Since the Lybian intervention, virtually all of France’s foreign-policy moves have proven successful: Operation Barkhane, reinstating Hariri, the EU recovery deal, and so on. But none of these “achievements” matter to the French. What does matter are France’s record-high unemployment, record-high national debt, record-high taxes, and record-high insecurity.
In the face of this dire state of affairs, most foreign policy “successes” have harmed the successive presidents who initiated them. Operation Barkhane, for instance, is detested because it costs 600 million euros a year, a price that seems too high for a country sanctioned year after year by the European Commission for its disrespect of austerity, its ever-growing deficit, and its unchaperoned public spending. In this sense, even if Macron’s intervention may well prove beneficial from a geopolitical standpoint, its political ramifications will almost undoubtedly hurt the incumbent president.
This dilemma will most likely apply to Western defenders of the liberal world order for decades. If they do choose to intervene abroad when it is justified, they will nevertheless galvanize populists and nationalists at home. If they choose not to intervene so as to preserve their popularity, they effectively let China, Turkey, and other illiberal powers take over entire regions of primordial importance. In both cases, liberalism loses — at home and abroad.