The Lebanon Conundrum

co·nun·drum: A paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma

A conundrum is exactly what the United States finds itself in as a result of Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in response to Hezbollah kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and firing Katyusha rockets into Haifa. On the one hand, U.S. security – defined as defense of the homeland, population, and American way of life – is not at stake in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Put another way, America’s security is not dependent on or a function of Israeli security (unlike Western Europe against the Soviet threat during the Cold War). The conundrum for the United States is that Washington ultimately does not control and cannot dictate Tel Aviv’s actions (any more than Syria or Iran completely control Hezbollah), but many in the Muslim world see Israel’s actions as an extension of American policy.

Moreover, although Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that threatens Israel, it is not a direct threat to the United States (Hezbollah has not attacked U.S. targets since the 1980s, when it bombed the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in retaliation for the U.S. military presence there). Although it seems obvious, we need to remind ourselves that the terrorist threat to America is the al-Qaeda terrorist network – responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon – and the radical Islam it represents and inspires. Al-Qaeda has made the United States a sworn enemy. Hezbollah, however, is an anti-Israeli Lebanese Shia group (al-Qaeda is extremist Sunni Arab). Given that the al-Qaeda threat has not been eliminated (most notably, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are both still thought to be at large somewhere in Pakistan), the last thing the United States can afford to do is needlessly make new terrorist enemies and give groups such as Hezbollah (considered by some analysts to be the A-team of terrorist organizations) reasons to attack U.S. targets.

Therefore, U.S. interests would be better served by not involving itself in what amounts to somebody else’s civil war. Unfortunately, because successive U.S. administrations have chosen to make Israeli security an unnecessary component of U.S. security policy, the result is that Israeli actions in Lebanon have consequences for the United States. Clearly, the current conflict was initiated by Hezbollah – first by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and then by firing Katyusha rockets into Haifa. The Israeli response has resulted in over 400 Lebanese civilians killed (one official in Lebanon is claiming as many as 600 killed) and displaced another 750,000 from their homes (33 Israeli soldiers and 19 civilians have been killed). Certainly, Israel has every right to defend itself. But the fact that so many innocent civilians – many of them Muslims – are being killed or displaced affects Muslim views of the United States (which were already at a low ebb), which in turn affects U.S. security in the post-9/11 world.

Because the immediate reaction of the Bush administration was to repeat the standard mantra that Israel has the right to defend itself and not call for an immediate cease-fire, many in the Muslim world believe that the United States is condoning (perhaps even encouraging) Israeli military action resulting in the death of hundreds of innocent Muslim civilians. So the impression is that the United States does not value the lives of innocent Muslims. This impression is further reinforced by the fact that the United States provides direct military aid to Israel (over $2 billion in military grants), including a recent shipment of precision-guided bombs. Thus, the United States is seen as complicit in the deaths resulting from Israeli military action –such as an attack on Sunday that killed at least 56 people, including 34 children.

As a result, it has become impossible for the United States to adopt a do-nothing approach even though the conflict in Lebanon does not directly threaten American security. How the United States responds to the current situation in Lebanon matters. If U.S. actions and decisions are seen as coming at the expense of innocent Muslim civilians being killed by the Israeli military, U.S. security is jeopardized. This does not mean that the U.S. must resolve the conflict, but it must take steps that are in America’s strategic interests. First and foremost, this means recognizing that Israeli security is not a U.S. strategic interest – it is simply an American parochial interest unrelated to U.S. security. Second, the United States should support an immediate cease-fire rather than a conditional cease-fire based on achieving quixotic Middle East goals (which is akin to letting a patient bleed to death from a gaping wound while waiting for a cure for another disease contracted by the patient). The longer the administration drags its feet on a cease-fire, the deeper the hole the United States digs for itself in the Muslim world – in Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has proclaimed, "Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire." Third, the United States should stop supplying the Israeli military with the precision weapons being used against targets in Lebanon – it is bad enough to be seen as standing idly by as civilians are killed, but it is infinitely worse to be aiding and abetting in their deaths. Fourth, U.S. rhetoric must stop holding Hezbollah responsible for Israeli military action resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians. Hezbollah is certainly responsible for killing Israeli civilians and soldiers, but the Israeli military cannot be held blameless when it deliberately bombs targets that they know will result in civilian casualties (nor can Israel hide behind claims that they believed a target was threat, such as when they killed a Lebanese soldier when they hit a car they thought was carrying a senior Hezbollah official). Finally, the United States cannot afford to use the conflict in Lebanon as a reason for taking action against other targets unrelated to the al-Qaeda terrorist threat, such as Iran. At a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush said, "And the root cause of the problem is you’ve got Hezbollah that is armed and willing to fire rockets into Israel; a Hezbollah, by the way, that I firmly believe is backed by Iran and encouraged by Iran." (At the G-8 Summit, Bush told Blair, "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh*t and it’s over.")

Right now, the United States is its own worst enemy. According to President Bush, "We care deeply about the people whose lives have been affected in Lebanon. … And, yes, we want to help people rebuild their lives." But such statements imply that the United States cares less about stopping the destruction, which is not lost on Muslims around the world. The end product is more fuel on the fire of resentment and hatred of the United States in the Muslim world, which is the basis for creating a vast pool of potential terrorists. So instead of dissuading Muslims from becoming terrorists, U.S. policies and actions are contributing to making the problem worse. Almost two years ago, Middle East expert Shibley Telhami (also a member of a White House advisory group on public diplomacy) said that U.S. policies were "worse than failing. Failing means you tried and didn’t get better. But at this point, three years after September 11, you can say there wasn’t even much of an attempt, and today Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. and the degree of distrust in the U.S. are far worse than they were three years ago. Bin Laden is winning by default." Just as bin Laden and al-Qaeda have benefited greatly from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, so too do they benefit from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.


It would seem that my previous sidebar ("Cato Unhinged") has forced Brink Lindsey out of his shell and to go public about his support for the Iraq war. But calling Lindsey’s "Confessions of a Former (and Maybe Future) Hawk" a mea culpa would be more than stretching the truth. Jim Henley offers up an insightful critique on his blog.

Ultimately, Lindsey hides behind "the assumption of active biological and nuclear weapons programs" in Iraq as his raison d’être for supporting the war. Like so many others across the political spectrum, Lindsey was mesmerized by the acronym WMD and administration rhetoric about mushroom clouds. So, by his own admission, he was more than willing to adopt a shoot-first-ask questions-later attitude: "Waiting for the other guy to take the first swing no longer seemed to make sense in a post-9/11 world." But running scared is no substitute for hard-nosed analysis.

Curiously, Lindsey claims, "I’ve yet to find refuge in any bright-line rules on when military force is and isn’t called for." In other words, Lindsey demonstrates that he does not have the training or experience as a national security analyst to give his views (then or now) any credibility. The bright line is whether a direct threat is posed to U.S. security that cannot otherwise be deterred. And the decision to use military force must always consider the likelihood of success weighed against the risks and consequences of such action. Instead, Lindsey was more than willing to accept without question the administration’s position based almost completely on conjecture, and rejected out of hand his own Cato colleagues’ (who, unlike Lindsey, have direct experience working on national security programs and policy) threat assessment.

Even if Iraq possessed chemical or biological weapons (which was a fair assumption) or even a nuclear weapon (which was a stretch of the imagination), it did not have the long-range military capability to strike the United States and thus pose a direct threat. Moreover, Saddam could be deterred. During the Gulf War, Iraq was believed to possess chemical and biological weapons but did not use those weapons against coalition forces – presumably because of the possibility of U.S. nuclear retaliation. In August 1990, then-Defense Secretary Cheney stated that "it should be clear to Saddam Hussein that we have a wide range of military capabilities that will let us respond with overwhelming force and extract a very high price should he be foolish enough to use chemical weapons on United States forces." And the American government reportedly used third-party channels to privately warn Iraq that "in the event of a first use of a weapon of mass destruction by Iraq, the United States reserved the right to use any form of retaliation [presumably up to and including nuclear weapons]." According to Keith Payne, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the first term of the Bush administration:

"What, for example, was the value of nuclear weapons for deterrence in the Gulf War? By Iraqi accounts, nuclear deterrence prevented Iraq’s use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) that could have inflicted horrendous civilian and military casualties on us and our allies. Senior Iraqi wartime leaders have explained that while U.S. conventional threats were insufficient to deter, implicit U.S. nuclear threats did deter Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical and biological weapons. As the then-head of Iraqi military intelligence, Gen. Waffic al-Sammarai, has stated, Saddam Hussein did not use chemical or biological weapons during the war, ‘because the warning was quite severe, and quite effective. The allied troops were certain to use nuclear arms and the price will be too dear and too high.’"

Finally, the claim that Saddam would give WMD to terrorists was speculative at best. To begin, there was no history of the Iraqi regime passing on its chemical or biological weapons to terrorist groups. More importantly, although there was a prior history of contacts between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, it is important to remember that Hussein was a Muslim secular ruler while bin Laden is a radical Muslim fundamentalist – hardly compatible ideological views. Indeed, Saddam Hussein’s regime was exactly the kind of government that bin Laden claims is illegitimate and would actually be a target for al-Qaeda. To the extent that bin Laden expressed any sympathy toward Iraq, it was for the Iraqi people, not the regime in Baghdad. For example, an audio tape attributed to bin Laden released a month before the Iraq war claims that Muslim resistance of American aggression "should not be for championing ethnic groups, or for championing the non-Islamic regimes in all Arab countries, including Iraq." Intelligence analysts inside and outside the government pointed out that bin Laden went out of his way in the recording to show his disdain for Hussein and the Ba’ath Party by referring to them as "infidels" and an "infidel regime" that should only be aided for the "sake of Allah."

The best that war supporters could come up with to prove an Iraq-al-Qaeda connection (such as Stephen Hayes in his book The Connection: How al-Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, which is tellingly absent of any footnotes or documentation) was to claim that you couldn’t disprove that there wasn’t a connection – hardly a convincing case, yet one Lindsey was apparently willing to swallow hook, line, and sinker.

It’s also important to note that Lindsey doesn’t mention (let alone apologize for) his own efforts within Cato to eviscerate the defense and foreign policy staff (by Major League Baseball standards, he actually did pretty well by batting over .300), even after being proved so disastrously wrong about Iraq. He even nominated Pentagon darling Thomas P.M. Barnett (who backed the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein) to be a Cato scholar. If actions speak louder than words, then Lindsey’s actions (and his unwillingness to acknowledge his actions) drown out his mea culpa.

In the final analysis, Lindsey’s confessions are halfhearted and difficult to take seriously. He seems to be chagrined that the Iraq mission did not turn out as planned, rather than acknowledging that it should never have been undertaken to begin with. And while he’s duly concerned that the Iraq war is "costing thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of billions of dollars," there’s no mention of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed and how that resonates throughout the Muslim world. In other words – as one should expect coming from someone who is not a national security analyst – Lindsey’s concerns are largely parochial. He fails to understand that going to war against Iraq was not just wrong because the stated reasons were wrong and the administration’s rose-colored-glasses predictions were wishful thinking, but because it has (predictably) made the terrorist threat worse by sowing the seeds of anti-American hatred that is the basis for al-Qaeda and radical Islamists to recruit to their ranks.

So what should one make of Lindsey when he claims that arguments against war "can be rebutted in cases other than an outright or imminent attack on the United States"? What other cases in which the United States does not face a threat does Lindsey believe warrant going to war? Given that he believed the administration made a compelling case for war against Iraq (which was not a case of outright or imminent attack), why should anyone believe him when he now claims to "prefer a more cautious approach in dealing with rogue regimes" and that "I do not think that preventing an Iranian bomb is worth hazarding another war" – especially when Lindsey says, "I stand prepared to flip-flop once again should changing circumstances warrant." What circumstances? Lindsey sounds like an alcoholic who says he can have a drink whenever he wants.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.