Iraq: The ghost of Lebanon past
By Jim Lobe
Asia Times - January 18, 2003
WASHINGTON - "What I saw from my perch in the Pentagon," wrote Colin
Powell, a major general in 1982, in his memoirs about Washington's brief
but disastrous sojourn in Lebanon 20 years ago, "was America sticking its
hand into a thousand-year-old hornet's nest."
That memory undoubtedly fuels Powell's determination to fight off
hardliners in the administration of President George W Bush who are
equally determined to attack and occupy Iraq, even without United Nations
or allied support, if necessary.
As pointed out recently by military analyst William Arkin in the Los
Angeles Times, what happened in Lebanon 20 years ago may tell us a lot
about the hopes, fears and delusions of US policymakers about what could
happen in Iraq. Indeed, many of the people who applauded Israel's
invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 and deplored the Reagan administration's
decision to withdraw US peacekeepers after a series of deadly terrorist
attacks are now arguing for an invasion of Iraq, and for many of the same
As today with Baghdad, they argued then that the road to peace in the
Middle East ran through Beirut, and that, working together, Israeli and
US military power could permanently alter the political balance of power
in the entire Middle East in favor of the West.
The story is straightforward. Seizing on the attempted assassination of
its ambassador to London by anti-PLO Abu Nidal gunmen, Israel's Likud
government launched an invasion of Lebanon aimed at destroying the
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) presence there once and for all.
Prominent US neo-conservatives hailed the invasion, noting in language
that is strikingly similar to that used today about Iraq that the end of
the PLO and the installation of a pro-Western government in Beirut would
transform the Middle East by dealing a fatal blow to Arab "rejectionists"
such as Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
"'Liberation' is a word that has been much abused in recent years," wrote
William Safire, a New York Times columnist and today a leading hawk on
Iraq. "But liberation, not invasion, is what is taking place in Lebanon
Initially, Safire's observation appeared correct. Greeted with flowers
and celebration by the largely Shi'ite Muslim population of southern
Lebanon, Israeli forces under defense minister (now prime minister) Ariel
Sharon, routed PLO and Syrian resistance and swept north in a matter of
days to the outskirts of West Beirut. They laid siege to the city until
US Marines and other NATO forces evacuated Arafat and thousands of
Palestinian guerrillas to Tunis and other destinations scattered around
the Arab world.
The Reagan administration, already committed to a "strategic alliance"
with Israel, winked at the invasion. It believed that the PLO's removal
from Lebanon and the establishment of a stable, pro-US government opened
up great possibilities, including the withdrawal of Syrian troops from
Lebanon, the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon, and a
final Arab-Israeli peace accord based on the acceptance by non-PLO
Palestinians of autonomy "in association with Jordan" in exchange for a
permanent freeze on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
But none of that was to be. US, British, French and Italian troops
returned to Beirut almost immediately after the massacre of hundreds of
unarmed Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israeli-backed
Christian militia in mid-September 1982 to keep the peace and help the
new president, Amin Gemayel, consolidate and expand the central
The latter mission provoked hostility and, eventually, violence by
religious, political and ethnic factions opposed to the
Maronite-dominated government, proving the wisdom of Lebanese historian
Kamal Salih's injunction that "great powers should not get involved in
the politics of small tribes".
Anti-government militias began shooting at the Marines, provoking
shelling by US battleships off-shore, which in turn only intensified the
determination of the opposition to evict the Americans. In April 1983,
Hizbollah suicide bombers blew up the US embassy in Beirut. Six months
later, 241 Marines died in the truck bombing of the airport barracks.
Nonetheless, pro-Likud neo-conservatives called on the Reagan
administration to hold on, mocking the growing warnings in Congress that
Lebanon was turning into a Vietnam.
"There will be no decade-long war of attrition in a tropical jungle
against a unified enemy with a long history of successful anti-colonial
struggle," argued the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer, today a
leading Iraq hawk. "In Lebanon everything is different: the terrain, the
players, the tactics, the goals and the intentions of American leaders."
But three months later, the last Marines boarded amphibious craft to sail
for home, even as the fleet was still pounding enemy targets in the
hills. Left behind were a Lebanese army crippled by factional loyalties
and desertions, a moribund peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel, and
rising resistance against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon by the same
Shi'ite population that had greeted them with such enthusiasm less than
two years before.
The political post-mortems were predictable. The hawks claimed that there
had been a "failure of will" on the part of Congress and the
administration, as in Vietnam. The administration was bitterly divided,
with the Pentagon complaining about deploying the military in poorly
defined, open-ended political missions and the State Department siding
with the hawks in a curious reversal of the present debate over Iraq.
President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski,
wrote that the entire enterprise was misconceived in that the
administration, with very little appreciation for local realities, had
permitted itself to become "a proxy of Israeli foreign policy" in Lebanon
and a patsy for Likud's aim of diverting international attention to
Lebanon and away from Israeli's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
"The more militant [Likud] leaders bent on incorporating the West Bank
into Israel certainly welcome developments that have the effect of making
the United States a direct military antagonist of the Arabs," Brzezinski
complained in the Times in an argument that he has made more recently
with regard to invading Iraq.
Of course, today's hawks reject any notion the challenges faced by the
United States in a US-occupied Iraq are anything like those of Lebanon 20
years ago. The size and mandate of the mission in Iraq will be nothing
like Lebanon, and, of course, the Soviet Union is not around to act as a
possible constraint on US freedom of action.
Washington will no longer rely on giant artillery shells to quell
resistance either, but will have "smart bombs", helicopter gunships and
special forces, not to mention much more aggressive rules of engagement.
And, as the hawks never tire of repeating, US forces are likely to be
welcomed with flowers and celebrations by ethnic, political and religious
minorities that have suffered enormously under Saddam Hussein - just like
the Israelis were received by the Shi'ites in southern Lebanon 21 years
(Inter Press Service)