From Lebanon to Iraq and Back

For Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon all the current euphoria about the rising New Lebanon, marking the start of a revolutionary change in the Middle East, must have the feel of déjà vu all over again.

After all, when Israeli troops under the order of then Defense Minister Sharon invaded Lebanon in 1982 as part of a strategy to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from that country and to bring to power the Christian Phalangist militias, led by Bashir Gemayel, Israeli officials and pundits were predicting that a New Order was about to emerge in the Middle East: an alliance between the twin pro-Western and democratic states of Israel and Lebanon would lead to the weakening of the PLO and Syria and help trigger similar changes in the entire Middle East.

What had happened in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion in 1982 would be later advanced by those observers who were warning the Bush Administration in 2002 not to invade Iraq.

The Israelis did defeat the Syrian and Muslim Lebanese troops and achieved their goal of evicting Yasser Arafat and his PLO from Lebanon.

But Lebanon was not transformed into a stable democracy and an ally of the West and Israel. Instead, following the assassination of Gemayel and the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the country relapsed into another bloody civil war that forced the deployment of international peacekeeping troops, including American soldiers, and eventually to the return of Syrian occupying forces to impose order in the country.

Indeed, the main legacy of the 1982 Israeli invasion – in addition to close to 20,000 casualties – was to strengthen the power of the Shi’ite Muslims in Lebanon while turning them into long-term enemies of Israel and the United States and intensifying anti-American sentiments, including terrorism in the region.

Lebanon demonstrated then – as Iraq would 20 years later – the dilemmas faced by an outside power as it tries to ally itself with local national, ethnic and religious players in the Middle East. These “allies” succeed in drawing in the outsider and in winning its military support by pledging to promote its interests and values.

In reality, the local players, whether they are the Shi’ites and Kurds in Iraq, or the Maronites, Druze and Shi’ites in Lebanon regard their partnership with a power like the United States as nothing more than an ad-hoc arrangement aimed at advancing their particularistic interests in relation to other competing players in the region.

They might even be willing to quote Thomas Jefferson in exchange for American intervention on their side. But when an outsider like the US helps tip the balance in favor of its local partner or if that power fails to deliver the goods, the local player exposes its real agenda: trying to win one more fight in the neighborhood in which the spoils don’t necessarily go to the good guys.

But tomorrow is another day, and in the next brawl our current “ally” might exchange one outsider for another. Hence Americans shouldn’t have been “Shocked! Shocked! Shocked!” to learn that while enjoying a huge American stipend, their former ally Ahmad Chalabi was also providing tips to the Iranian security services.

And they certainly shouldn’t be surprised if and when the supposedly pro-American and democracy loving Shi’ite groups they helped bring to power in Baghdad strengthen their links to the Shi’ite regime in Tehran and erode the rights of women and Christians in Iraq.

Indeed, the Americans should recall how the Shi’ites in Southern Lebanon, suffering under the domination of the PLO welcomed the Israelis with flowers in 1982 only to launch a bloody insurgency against them a few months later.

And it was the “pro-Israeli” and Western-oriented Maronites who massacred Palestinian women and children in Sabra and Shatila and who urged that the Syrians return to Lebanon after the Israelis and the Americans left Beirut.

And it is the Maronites, together with leaders of the Druze and Sunni communities, a coalition of tribal warlords who for years were the lackeys of the Assad family in Damascus and have been in control of a political system that reflects narrow sectarian interests, who have now suddenly reinvented themselves as pro-American democrats.

Hence one of these warlords, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, who told an Arab newspaper last year: “We are all happy when US soldiers are killed (in Iraq) week in and week out.” And again: “The killing of US soldiers in Iraq is legitimate and obligatory.” But it seems he has undergone a conversion. As he explained to an American reporter recently: “When I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.”

What accounts for this quick conversion from a nasty anti-American barker into a neocon cheerleader by Jumblatt and the other members of the (current) anti-Syrian coalition is their interest in exploiting the current weakness of the regime in Damascus to overcome another coalition of ethnic and religious groups that is now in power in Beirut. Contrary to the spin propagated by Washington, this political infighting has nothing to do with pro-American sentiments and the struggle for democracy. The new governing coalition in Beirut would be ready to ally itself with any outside power – if not the American, then the French – to secure their interests.

Moreover, those Americans who are hoping that Lebanon become a full-blown democracy should consider the following: although no reliable statistics are available, most experts agree that as a result of low-birth rates and emigration, the Maronites and the other Christian sects have become a dwindling minority of about 20 per cent, while among the Muslim majority, the Shi’ites are the rising demographic group. Some estimates suggest they constitute about 40 per cent of the Lebanese citizens. Sound like Shi’ite-dominated Iran and Iraq would soon be joined by a new partner. Thanks America!

Reprinted from the Singapore Business Times, reprinted with author’s permission. Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.