Wednesday, April 21, 2004

IRAQ IS NOT VIETNAM - IT'S LEBANON (a guest essay)
The below essay was published by the blogger "Publius" in his blog Legal Fiction on last 13 April. Though I normally only publish my own material, I thought this essay was so pertinent, I wanted to get it wider exposure. The below is published with permission of the author and retains his copyright.

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Iraq is not Vietnam. Yes, there are some superficial similarities between the two wars, but Vietnam is a totally different war rooted in a totally different historical context. Most importantly, Vietnam was part of the Cold War, and must be understood within that context. Likewise, the domestic political battles surrounding Vietnam must be understood within the context of the larger socioeconomic trends that made the 1960s such an unstable time. Vietnam also took place on a much larger scale and for a much longer time. Don’t forget that we lost nearly 60,000 troops in Vietnam. That said, there is an almost perfect historical parallel of our invasion of Iraq – the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Understanding the lessons of Lebanon can help us understand what an uphill battle we’re facing (and have always been facing). And to illustrate just how eerily similar the two wars are, I’m going to quote extensively from Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. But first we need some very brief background.

For those who don't know, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. From 1970 on, Lebanon had been the home of Arafat’s PLO, which was more feared in those days (and viewed by the Israelis more like Hamas or al Qaeda is viewed today). Led by General Ariel Sharon (yes, same guy), the plan was to invade Lebanon, expel the PLO, and remake the Middle East by setting up a friendly Arab regime that would sign a peace treaty with Israel and create “forty years of peace.” It didn’t really work out that way. Here’s a good brief description from Ethan Bronner (who wrote this article for the NYT on March 30, 2003 ). This background information is necessary in order to understand Friedman’s commentary.

Israel's experience in Lebanon -- an ambitious invasion that turned into a draining quagmire -- is a cautionary tale for the American war in Iraq. The parallels are striking. Like Iraq, Lebanon was, from its inception, a collection of some of the region's most sophisticated people and a civil war just waiting to happen. It was carved out of the decayed and defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I and forced together groups that hated one another. . . .

Like the American decision to go to war in Iraq, Israel's invasion of Lebanon started from an asserted desire to end terrorism. In the 1970's, Palestinian guerrillas set up a ministate in southern Lebanon, near Israel's northern border. Infiltration into Israel led to wrenching hijackings and hostage-taking. . . .

By the time Begin [Israel’s Prime Minister] was re-elected in 1981, he was strongly influenced by his hawkish defense minister, Ariel Sharon. Even though the border with Lebanon had been quiet for some time, Mr. Sharon told those around him that Lebanon was "at the top of the list" of Israel's security concerns. A small group of like-minded officials around Begin reinforced this view.

When a Palestinian terrorist shot Israel's London ambassador in the head in June 1982, the invasion was set in motion. The gunman was from a breakaway group that had nothing to do with Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization in southern Lebanon. But the shooting was the pretext Mr. Sharon needed. . . .

[In time], the Israelis began sinking in the Lebanese mud. With violence everywhere and no central authority, they couldn't leave. But their troops' continued presence created more resentment and more violence. To protect its forces, Israel set up stringent security measures, like roadblocks, that prevented locals from moving freely. They quickly learned to hate their new rulers.


Sound familiar? You should read the entire article , but you get the point. Israel continued to occupy southern Lebanon for another 18 years. During this time, the nation experienced a steady drip-drip-drip of murdered soldiers, very similar to what America experienced prior to last week’s uprising. And ironically, Israel’s invasion to end terrorism actually gave birth to a new, deadly terrorist group called Hezbollah, which continues to menace Israel to this day.

Tom Friedman wrote about the tragic folly of the Israeli invasion in 1989 in his award-winning From Beirut to Jerusalem (which is a must-read to get a grasp on the region’s history) in great detail. The few quotes I’ve selected pretty much speak for themselves. Obviously, you need to read the entire chapter (or book) to get a better understanding. Still, I think you’ll agree that the parallels are eerie, especially if you substitute “al Qaeda” for “the Palestinians”; “Cheney/Neocons” for “Sharon”; and “Sunnis and Shiites” for “Christians and Muslims.”

The first weeks after the invasion began were heady days for the Israeli boys in Lebanon, days of discovery and, they thought, of making new friends. . . . The attitude that Lebanon was a friendly place, where the Israelis might soon be able to come skiing in the winter, reflected the profound Israeli ignorance about the true nature of Lebanese society and the players there. Before the 1982 invasion, Israeli scholarship and intelligence on Lebanon was extremely scanty. . . . I once asked [my soldier friend what he knew of Lebanon prior to the invasion.] “We knew it was some kind of complicated Middle East Belfast. Okay, so they had lots of tribes. It meant nothing. We didn’t know about the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. And then, all of a sudden, we went in.” . . .

Indeed, instead of entering Lebanon with a real knowledge and understanding of the society and its actors, Israel simply burst in with tanks, artillery, and planes in one hand and a fistful of myths in the other – myths about the nature of Lebanon as a country, about the character of Israel’s Lebanese Maronite Christian allies, about the Palestinians, and about Israel’s own power to reshape the Middle East. . . . What the Israelis did not understand . . . was that the real Lebanon was two Lebanons – at least two. [T]he real Lebanon was built on the merger between Maronites, representing the Christian sects, and the Sunnis, representing the various Muslim sects. . . . The real source of Lebanon’s troubles was the fact that these two Lebanons – Christian and Muslim – frequently were at odds with each other, going back to the very foundation of their state, when they were literally thrown together. . . .

Not only did the Israelis enter Lebanon with a myth about their allies . . . but also with one about their enemies, the Palestinians. . . . They saw the Palestinians as part of an undifferentiated Arab mass stretching from Morocco to Iraq. . . . Myths are precisely what give people the faith to undertake projects which rational calculation or common sense would reject. . . . The idea that Israel might finally be able once and for all to bring an end to the physical and existential challenge of the Palestinians was an intoxicating notion that touched the soul of the vast majority of Israelis, and this explains why so many of them were ready to join Begin and Sharon on their march to Beirut. . . .

[W]hat made Begin even more dangerous was that his fantasies about power were combined with a self-perception of being a victim. Someone who sees himself as a victim will almost never morally evaluate himself or put limits on his own actions. . . . Sharon didn’t share Begin’s victim complex, but he had his own fantasies about power. Sharon knew how strong Israel was, and he believed, wrongly, that this military strength could, in an almost mechanical fashion, solve a whole know of complex, deeply rooted political problems. . . .

[Israel then set up a puppet government headed by Bashir Gemyayel.] Bashir was supposed to rebuild the Lebanese army so it could take over from the Israelis, keep the Syrians out of Beirut, prevent the PLO from ever taking root again in the Palestinian refugee camps, and, to top it all off, sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state. [Bashir was soon assassinated.] After Bashir was assassinated, however, the Israelis could no longer depend on his brute force replacing their brute force so that the Israeli army could withdraw. Israel would have to find its own way home, and in the process all her myths and misperceptions about Lebanon would come back to haunt her. . . .

Begin was so obsessed with getting a peace treaty from Lebanon to justify the invasion that he barely seemed to notice the country was going up in flames. He had promised his people forty years of peace and he had to have a treaty to show for his troubles – not to mention 650 Israeli lives. . . . Not one article of the treaty was ever enacted. . . .

So, on the first anniversary of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Begin must have understood that he was really in trouble. . . . Its choices, too, were between bad and worse: bad was staying in Lebanon indefinitely to preserve the military gains of the war; worse was unilaterally withdrawing, without leaving any peace treaty of formal security arrangements behind. . . . Begin finally discovered that if you don’t gradually let reality in to temper your mythologizing, it will sooner or later invade on its own.


Creepy.

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