March 30, 2003

Iraq and the Lessons of Lebanon: 'Don't Forget to Leave'


The central aim of the military operation was to smash the looming terrorist threat, but it was also a stab at refashioning the Middle East by installing a pro-Western government. The first troops in the south took Shiite Muslim towns, where locals were relieved to be rid of an oppressive regime. Some cheered the foreign invaders.

That may sound like a description of the current war in Iraq, but the military in question was Israel's, the invaded country was Lebanon and the date was 1982. It would be 18 years before the last weary, despised Israeli soldier left. And while there are never exact historical parallels, 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. After bickering between the British and French — described by President Woodrow Wilson as "the whole disgusting scramble" for the Middle East — the former Turkish territories were allotted in 1920. Syria and Lebanon went to France, Palestine and Iraq to Britain.

In Lebanon, the French selected the Christians as the ruling elite and created deep resentment among Druse, and Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Similarly, the British tapped the Sunnis in Iraq, producing years of discrimination for the Shiites and Kurds. In both countries, the Shiites live as a kind of permanent underclass, largely deprived of power and influence. And in both, meddling by Shiite Iran is a real concern.

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. Meanwhile the Palestinians formed political alliances in Lebanon, threatening Christian hegemony.

Some Lebanese Christians pushed for Israeli help, starting in the mid-70's, but the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin was hesitant. When Menachem Begin of Likud became prime minister, the Lebanese found a more receptive ear and continued their mix of pressure and flattery. By the time Begin 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. Israeli troops pushed through the northern border, smashing P.L.O. bases. Shiites had suffered terribly under the P.L.O.'s cruel and arbitrary rule and they were thrilled to see it broken. Israeli soldiers reported that locals welcomed them by throwing rice.

Things turned nasty for Israel when it helped engineer the election of Bashir Gemayel, a Christian ally, as president. Begin pushed him to recognize Israel as one of his first acts, something he resented terribly. Before much of anything could happen, though, Gemayel was assassinated. Within a week Israelis helped Christian militiamen enter two Palestinian refugee camps, where they carried out a massacre.

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 hatetheir new rulers.

Shiite militias, financed and armed by Iran and Syria, had great success in fueling this popular resentment. They would move arms into civilian areas — including mosques. The Israelis, sometimes with dogs, would give chase, infuriating the locals.

It is unclear what plans the Bush administration has for a postwar Iraq. They most likely depend, to some extent, on the course of the war and the threats to security that remain. But the risk of a repeat of Israel's misadventure is real. Longstanding ethnic resentments are likely to surface quickly. Those who wish to make us the object of fury will be hard at work. Patience with foreign liberators does not have much of a shelf life.

David Kimche, a senior Israeli official during the Lebanon war, is watching events in Iraq with apprehension and bad memories. "We thought we could change the regime in Lebanon," he said. "We thought it was going to be much easier than it was."

Ze'ev Schiff, an Israeli journalist and co-author of a book on the war, said it was Israel's decision to stay that caused the biggest problems.

"I remember early on, I was in Jezzin in southern Lebanon," he said. "I was talking to an old man, a Shiite, who was very happy about what Israel had done. He grabbed my arm and said, `Don't forget to leave.' But we did. There is just no such thing as an enlightened occupation."