Specter of Lebanon Haunts Iraq Occupation Plans

With President George W. Bush all but declaring war in his State of the Union address, there is also heightened debate within the Bush administration over plans for ruling and occupying Iraq following an invasion. The debate has been framed in part by competing views of the U.S. role in Lebanon in the early 1980s following the Israeli invasion. As military analyst William Arkin recently noted in the Los Angeles Times, what happened in Lebanon 20 years ago may tell us a lot about the hopes, fears, and delusions of U.S. 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 U.S. peacekeepers after a series of deadly terrorist attacks are now among the most ardent hawks, and for many of the same reasons.

As today with Baghdad, the hawks argued then that the road to peace in the Middle East ran through Beirut, and that, working together, Israeli and U.S. military power could permanently alter the political balance of power in the entire Middle East in favor of the West.

In a now-familiar policy divide, Colin Powell is a leading voice of a more cautious wing within the administration. “What I saw from my perch in the Pentagon,” wrote 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 hard-liners in the administration of President George W. Bush who are equally determined to attack and occupy Iraq, even without UN or allied support if necessary.

Lebanon, 1982

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 U.S. neoconservatives hailed the invasion, noting in language that is strikingly similar of 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,” like 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 today.”

Initially, Safire’s observation appeared correct. Greeted with flowers and celebration by the largely Shia 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 to which it laid siege until U.S. 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, believing that the PLO’s removal from Lebanon and the establishment of a stable, pro-U.S. 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.

Return of the Troops

None of that was to be, however. U.S., 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 government’s authority.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Six months later, 241 Marines died in the truck-bombing of the airport barracks. Nonetheless, pro-Likud neoconservatives 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, a leading attack-Iraq hawk today. “In Lebanon everything is different: the terrain, the players, the tactics, the goals, and the intentions of American leaders.”

Three months later, however, 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 Shia population that had greeted them with such enthusiasm less than two years before.

History Repeats Itself?

The political post-mortems were predictable, with the hawks claiming that there had been a “failure of will” on the part of Congress and the administration similar to Vietnam and the administration itself bitterly divided between Pentagon complaints 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 the 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 U.S. in a U.S.-occupied Iraq are anything like those of Lebanon 20 years ago. The size and mandate of the mission in Lebanon will be nothing like Iraq, and, of course, the Soviet Union is not around to act as a possible constraint on U.S. freedom of action. Washington will no longer be relying on giant artillery shells to quell resistance either, but will rather have air power, “smart bombs,” helicopter gun ships, and special forces, not to mention much more aggressive rules of engagement. As Krauthammer argued 20 years ago, “in Lebanon, everything is different (from Vietnam).”

And, as the hawks never tire of repeating, the U.S. 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 Shiites in southern Lebanon 21 years ago.