Once more, U.S. Marines are on Lebanese soil. Once more, Israeli jets are pounding Beirut and its tanks are in south Lebanon. Once more, the powers-that-be in Washington are seeing black hats and white hats in a region where everyone wears gray.
The inevitable result: More terrorism, a new common cause between Shiite and Sunni militants, heightened anti-Americanism and increased opposition to so-called “moderate Arab regimes. We’ve been here before.
Twenty-three years ago, I stood on a beach south of Beirut and watched as the last U.S. Marines waded onto amphibious landing vehicles in the pre-dawn light. It was barely three months since their Beirut barracks had been devastated by one of history’s first suicide bombs. A superpower had been brought to its knees. A new force had risen in the Middle East; it was called Hezbollah.
The coalescing of this alliance of Shiite clerics and their private militias was the direct result of a confluence of events: Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, America’s systematic alienation of Lebanese Shiites and a campaign by Iran and Syria to provoke a conflict between the U.S. and Lebanon’s Muslims. Today, Lebanon is being sucked into that same geopolitical wormhole.
The irony is that then, like now, there was an alternative. The U.S. intervened in Lebanon following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to provide a buffer between Israeli troops and the besieged population of Beirut. Israel had invaded to once-and-for all rid itself of the threat from Yasser Arafat’s PLO, then occupying south Lebanon and Beirut.
If the Reagan administration had not, unnecessarily, taken sides with Lebanon’s Christians against its Muslim majority, who initially saw the Marines as saviors from the Israeli guns, it is likely the majority of Shia would never have been radicalized. And if Israel had reached out to the Shiites of south Lebanon, who hated the PLO almost as much as the Israelis did and largely welcomed the invasion to “cleanse the region of Palestinians, it might have created a buffer far more effective than any military shield.
But neither of those things happened. Instead, what the Israelis call “Hezbollahstan took the place of Arafat’s “Fatahland in south Lebanon and the suicide bomb was invented in Beirut. Two decades later, Lebanese are once more dying under Israeli bombs and an American administration is once more seeing black and white.
The Bush administration’s cynical decision to allow Israel to, as one right-wing commentator put it, “reduce Beirut to a parking lot, is a policy guaranteed to produce yet another wave of radicalized young Muslims in Lebanon and across the region, creating common-cause between Shiite and Sunni radicals at a time when the two are coming to blows in Iraq, thus further undermining U.S. interests and endangering “moderate Arab regimes.
Washington has proudly pointed to condemnations of Hezbollah by Sunni Arab governments like Saudi Arabia and Egypt as bolstering its cause; in fact, as the carnage continues to unfold on satellite TV and anger mounts on the “Arab street, those regimes are likely to rue the day they ever uttered those words.
Israel lost its 20-year war against Hezbollah in south Lebanon. History tells us it is unlikely to do better this time. The idea that Hezbollah can be eliminated is fantasy. It is possible Israel will wipe out Hezbollah’s leadership. It is possible it will cripple Hezbollah’s conventional military capacity. It is possible the violence will spark a backlash against Hezbollah among other Lebanese. But Hezbollah is part of the fabric of Lebanon. Its most lethal weapons are those in the shadows; its pool of recruits is bottomless; the potential impact of this conflict on the region, immeasurable.
This war was cynically provoked by a Hezbollah leadership seeking to reinforce its self-proclaimed role as defender of the nation at a time when the organization was being pressured to disarm; encouraged by an Iran eager to show America the regional implications of pushing it too far; and supported by a Syria with its back against the wall.
But it was also fueled by the overreaction of a new Israeli prime minister determined to prove his military mettle. And now it is being facilitated by an American policy of Machiavellian cynicism cloaked in holier-than-thou Christian righteousness.
The Middle East is a messy place and the “bad guys are part of the equation. America’s penchant for quick-fixes and simplistic bromides don’t work there. Iraq should have taught us that.
Syria and Iran are critical elements in a very complicated geo-political equation. A U.S. diplomatic “mediation effort that talks only to the “white hats, even as America restocks Israel’s arsenal, is doomed to failure. So, too, the illusion Lebanon will be “cleansed by Israeli military might.
It’s worth remembering that the U.S. tried to crush Iraqi Shiite firebrand Muqtada Sadr; he now controls the most powerful militia in that country. Israel’s last effort to destroy Hezbollah had the same effect.
Hezbollah is not going away this time, either. Over the years, it has taken many forms: Terrorist group, national resistance army, civil society organization and democratically elected participant in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet. Largely ignored is the fact it has not carried out an act of anti-U.S. terrorism since the late ’80s. Washington’s policy of fiddling, nay, cheerleading while Beirut burns could change all that.
Lawrence Pintak is the director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent, his books include “Beirut Outtakes, Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad and, most recently, ” America, Islam & the War of Ideas: Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens.