James Bennet - New York Times:
Americans struggling to make sense, or maybe political hay, out of the
violence convulsing Iraq turn almost reflexively to the searing experience
of the Vietnam War.
Israel is haunted by another parallel: its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which
for Israelis of a certain generation was their Vietnam. It too was
envisioned as a bold mission to combat terrorism and reshape part of this
region to be stable and friendly to the West. World
“In Lebanon, we tried to figure out what was similar to what went on in
Vietnam,” said Avraham Burg, a member of the Israeli Parliament who went
to Lebanon as an officer in the paratroopers and returned to lead a
movement against that war. “You have a circle here: It’s Vietnam,
Lebanon and Baghdad.” The uncertain combat zones of Vietnam and Lebanon
posed nightmarish challenges to soldiers. Those challenges might seem
familiar to Marines in Iraq as they try to sift enemies from civilians,
without alienating most Iraqis.
“People look at the map and they say, ‘This is a desert, this isn’t
a jungle’,” said Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international
relations and anthropology at Boston University. “The point is there are
functional equivalents to jungles. In this case, they’re cities.
They’re just as impenetrable to us as the jungles were 40 years ago.”
Norton, an expert on the Middle East, fought in Vietnam and later served
as a UN peacekeeper in southern Lebanon.
At a grander level, a level of global strategy and even myth-making, Iraq
has echoes of Vietnam, which was presented by the White House as a test of
American resolve against a rising international menace, Communism. WorldPeace
is one word.
But in terms of specific, stated objectives for the application of
military force, Iraq looks more like Lebanon.
In Vietnam, the US had a clear if shaky client, the South Vietnamese
government, and an enemy, North Vietnam, with a strong political
In Lebanon the Israelis, like the Americans in Iraq, plunged into a vacuum
– or more precisely into a maelstrom of political and religious
rivalries. “The problem of how to rule a society that is divided, a
country that does not exist as a state with a central authority with
legitimacy – this is a problem Israel faced in the 1980s in Lebanon, and
the US now faces in Iraq,” said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at
Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.
When they invaded, the Israelis were showered with rice by Shiites who
lived in fear of Palestinian militants. Within a year, they were being
bled by the Shiites, whom they failed to enlist as allies. “In the
Middle East – as in many places around the world – the enemy of my
enemy can be my enemy as well,” Burg said.
Noting that tens of thousands of American died in Vietnam, Norton said,
“The Vietnam parallel is a bit of a stretch, in terms of scale. But I do
think the Lebanon one is striking.” It may be the Americans in Iraq need
now to learn lessons from the Israeli experience in Lebanon that veterans
like Burg believe the Israelis should have learned from the American
experience in Vietnam. But the differences among the three conflicts may
prove more significant than the similarities.
For example, some experts argued that in Lebanon, pragmatic Shiites never
had the backing of a clerical authority on the order of Grand Ayatollah
Ali Al Sistani of Iraq. Sistani, who sees in the American pledge of
democracy a chance for Iraq’s Shiite majority to gain effective control,
has appealed for calm.
“The mainstream clerical clout is really with Sistani,” said Martin
Kramer, an authority on Islam and Arab politics. “That’s a tremendous
advantage the US has in dealing with the Shia.” In Lebanon before the
Israelis came, as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the Shiites were an
economic underclass deprived of political power, despite their growing
In the 1970s, a Shiite movement called Amal began working within the
Lebanese political system. It was led by a reform-minded cleric named
Moussa Al Sadr, a distant relative of Muqtada Al Sadr, who is now leading
an insurrection against the Americans in Iraq.
By the late 1970s, Amal, which means “hope” in Arabic, was trying to
protect Shiites in southern Lebanon – not against Israel, but against
Palestinian militants who had established bases there.
Norton argued that it was not a lack of mainstream Shiite clerics but
rather Israel’s failure to cultivate the Shiites that led to their
radicalisation. Israel had little feel for the divisions within Lebanese
society. It allied itself with elite Christians, fanning the Shiite sense
The Israelis achieved a central goal, driving the Palestine Liberation
Organisation out of Lebanon, from where it was waging attacks on Israel.
But Israel’s ambitious regional plan – to turn Lebanon into an ally
– collapsed with the assassination of its choice as Lebanese president,
Bashir Gemayel, a Christian.
Israeli troops hunkered down in southern Lebanon, where a new, militant
Shiite movement, Hezbollah – “the party of God” – began picking
Backed by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah militants, camouflaged among
noncombatants, pounded away at the wedge between the local Arab population
and the occupying Israeli army. Israel responded to Hezbollah attacks with
checkpoints, searches, and raids into mosques that drove civilians into
the arms of Hezbollah.
Norton argued that a “tipping point” came more than a year after the
invasion, on October 16, 1983. That day, an Israeli military convoy
provoked a riot in the town of Nabatiya when it tried to drive, honking,
through tens of thousands of Shiite worshippers gathered to celebrate
their most important holiday, Ashura.
“It was a moment when people could no longer sit on the fence,” Norton
said. “And that is what I sense has happened in Iraq. Now I think you
have passed the point where many of those centrists or moderates who were
sitting on the fence could afford to do so.” The problem for Israel
became how to get out of Lebanon, much as the US faced the problem of
extricating itself from Vietnam.
The continuing Hezbollah fire claimed, on average, fewer than 31
soldiers’ lives annually. But Israel could not vanquish the group, and
as political pressure grew at home it finally left southern Lebanon after
18 years. Its retreat from Lebanon in May 2000 might have contributed to
the Palestinian uprising by persuading Palestinians that Israel would
respond only to force, analysts say.
Klein argued that the US should leave Iraq “as soon as possible,” even
at risk of criticism as failing to achieve all its goals. “It is better
to face this argument than to have higher losses in the future,” he
said. But Dr Eran Lerman, a retired colonel in Israeli military
intelligence, said that any suggestion of an American departure would be a
disaster for the mission.
“Conveying the image of permanence is tremendously important in the
short run,” he said. “For an Iraqi to provide the US government with
information, and then to find he has been left to a cruel fate at the
hands of a new Iraqi power structure, is precisely the sort of thing that
destroys the intelligence gathering and operational cycle.” Burg, the
former Israeli paratrooper, noted that next week President Bush is to meet
with the man who commanded the Israeli operation in Lebanon, Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon, then the minister of defence.
“In ‘82, it was Sharon who didn’t learn from the American experience
in Vietnam and was doomed to repeat it,” said Burg, a leader of the
left-leaning Labour Party and a critic of Sharon’s. “Here is George W.
Bush, who didn’t learn from Sharon’s experience in ‘82.” Each man,
he said, may now hope for a political boost from the other.