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Beirut blast raises urgent questions about America’s leadership in the world

More than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, stored in a Beirut port warehouse, exploded on Wednesday. Around 100 people were killed and 300,000 displaced from their homes. The deadly explosives had been stored since 2015. Port authorities had begged Lebanon’s judges to remove them, but political influence (perhaps linked to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terror group that rules large swathes of Lebanon) stayed judicial action until it was too late. The shock wave was felt by earthquake detectors hundreds of miles away. 

It was also felt in Arab capitals and Washington — in a non-literal sense. While the U.S., French, and British governments offered aid and money, a more profound question dogged diplomats and decision-makers across three continents: Without U.S. leadership, who will stop Lebanon from becoming a failed state? 

It’s a good question. Lebanon’s currency has plummeted. Its GDP is projected to shrink by 12 percent, according to the IMF. Violent protests are rising, and the national debt has skyrocketed. This week’s explosion is a symbol of wider, systemic dysfunction.

This isn’t just a local problem. Arab capitals are worried about the spread of financial contagion from the collapse of Lebanese banks and investments. At the same time, Europeans worry about a wave of costly refugees and a breeding ground for extremists closer to London that Topeka is to Washington D.C.

Yet everywhere, over the past 10 years, I see chaos creeping in when America marches out. Iraq, Libya, Yemen (where the U.S. provided logistics for Saudi airstrikes), the list of failing Arab states is growing. And so are the consequences for the U.S. and her allies.

Meanwhile, America is distracted by two competing visions of its role in the world. One calls for reduction, the other restoration. Both are wrong. 

One is “blissful isolation.” An America without alliances and interests in foreign lands. Whatever its appeal, it is a 19th-century anachronism, a realistic possibility only in time before airplanes and skyscrapers — when the long-vanished British Empire kept open the sea lanes and patrolled the remote regions where extremists plotted. Isolationism is only possible when another nation shares its ideals of freedom, is willing and able to bear the costs and responsibilities. Today there is no other nation that shares its values that can shoulder its burden.

Without “foreign entanglements,” America would have no one to buy its farm products, films, software, and its trillions of dollars of other exports. Its economy would shrink, and its jobless rolls would grow. An isolated America would be a friendless giant, powerless to thwart terror attacks that begin abroad or deter arbitrary arrests of its citizens traveling overseas. 

While America can withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria, it cannot retreat from global affairs without something valuable being lost for itself and the world.

As a friend of the United States, I see what some Americans cannot. I see an America that offers a unique voice in the global conversation, one that warns about the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, that insists on equality in trade and freedom for individuals. No other nation puts its national prestige behind such ideals. 

On the other hand, I have seen what an engaged American approach can do to promote peace and freedom.

Jared Kushner has proposed a bold peace plan . It envisages strengthening regional development and integration by boosting the economies of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon and reducing trade barriers by supporting reforms to enhancing transparency and good governance in these countries.

Restoration of the old status quo is impossible. What is the way forward? 

America and its many overseas friends’ must-see old problems in new ways. Institutions that have failed to deliver positive results by objective measures must be bypassed. Instead of massive, multinational trade agreements that quickly become captive to individual interests, the U.S. should initiate more bilateral free-trade agreements, like the ones that it enjoys with Morocco or Israel. Instead of delegating the distribution of food or medicine to large international agencies, the U.S. should work with private groups to deliver aid in a cost-effective, compassionate way. America can reach out to strategic corners of the map with a shared interest in mutual health, prosperity, and peace.

Progress begins by rejecting the false choice between walking away or resurrecting unpopular plans. America needs to step back from failed intermediaries, not the world. The Beirut blast is an alarm bell. 

Ahmed Charai is on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council and an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Tags Central Intelligence Agency Geography of Asia Hezbollah Jared Kushner Lebanon Western Asia

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