Commentary - July 28-August 15, 2006

Lebanon and Iraq: Lessons Alike

NOTE: The commentary below was published by the Eagle-Tribune as a "Viewpoint" piece on August 15, 2006. PJB 




How is what’s happening now in Lebanon like what we see on TV during episodes of the Sopranos or Brotherhood, or reruns of The Godfather? It’s like this: If somebody in another family harms someone in ours, we mount a campaign to try to destroy the other family, not just go after the “somebody.” In Lebanon, Israel is threatened by Hezbollah, a minority of the Lebanese population. So what does Israel do? – It mounts a massive military campaign – a war that, even if not destroying Lebanon as a nation, disables any Lebanese capacity to bring Hezbollah under control. The application of massive force also serves to convert the minority into a majority in terms of public support. So, unless Israel is prepared to again occupy Lebanon on an ongoing basis, it has handed victory to its enemy – a form of self destruction through overreaction. President Bush is blowing smoke when he says that Hezbollah suffered a defeat.   


The violent mess in Lebanon serves to show how our entire “war” policy against terrorism is wrong and needs to be recast before we also snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Both Israel and the U.S. are allowing their nations to be jerked around by terrorists. Terrorists do something that earns big headlines; we leap to overreact.


Israel has overreacted with a vengeance in Lebanon. We overreacted to 9/11 by invading Iraq. As a result, terrorists are now holding a dangerously winning hand in both cases. Why? -- for two reasons:


  1. The “war” model mistakes and mislabels the new challenge and battle of our time -- not a conventional war against nations but an unconventional war against murderous entrepreneurs whose enterprises express an evil ideology.
  2. Overreactions lead to unintended consequences that defeat our purpose.


The war model is derived from the 20th century. We’re in the 21st, facing a totally new kind of enemy. The enemy is not a nation-state as in World War I and II. Then, we were directly threatened by a few entire nations. Now, we are threatened by terrorists, both individuals and small terrorist cells. They are found in many nations worldwide, and their nations of residence cannot control them. In the case of a group like Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine, they constitute an armed group within a nation. By attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon with massive bombardment, Israel weakens Lebanon and strengthens Hezbollah. We attack Al Quaeda in Iraq and continue to fight terrorists with massive military campaigns. We end up turning Iraq into a hotbed of terrorism and religious war instead of a stable, democratic model for the Middle East.


Why? For one thing, we have suffered from the sins of corrupting power and unthinking pride, what Machiavelli, Shakespeare and many other commentators on the fall of men and nations have called “hubris.” Webster’s Dictionary defines this as “excessive self-confidence; arrogance.” For another, we have failed to learn the sad lessons of history, either our own or that of our friends and allies. Both Britain, in Malaysia and elsewhere,  and France, in Vietnam and Algeria, learned that fighting insurgencies required different sets of skills, weapons and strategies than fighting conventional wars. We could have learned similar lessons from our own experience in Vietnam, but we chose to ignore them until recently. Now, our attempts to act on what we have learned from Vietnam and from our mistakes in Iraq verge on “too little, too late” – many months late, many men and dollars short. 


The arrogance factor is underlined by what we have already come to know – the Bush Administration’s paying attention only to “intelligence” that favored the President’s long-standing desire to invade Iraq while ignoring many warnings. With the complicity of a compliant Congress, Pres. Bush imagined that we could win a “war of choice” quickly and cheaply. He failed to anticipate the costs and consequences of occupying another country. Most of these, like the consequences of Israel’s massive counterattacks in Lebanon, might be labeled “unintended” but, if so, then leaders of both countries can be characterized as remarkably stupid or careless for failing to anticipate them.


So, what do we do now to pull our chestnuts out of a fire whose flames our over-reactions continue to fan (witness, for example, the recent application of massive firepower in order to pacify a Baghdad neighborhood)? This writer favors the recommendation of analyst/writer James Fallows in this month’s Atlantic Monthly: Declare victory. Announce that the “war” on terror is over. Admit our mistakes. Then recast our strategy in light of them so that a more effective, less knee-jerk diplomatic policy and unconventional battle against terrorism can begin. Avoid policy-by-reaction. Add to this a negotiated timetable for ending U.S. conventional military intervention in Iraq plus additional assistance, both negotiated with the new Iraqi government. These should allow adequate time and resources to help the Republic of Iraq to provide adequate security, create jobs for its own people and take significant additional steps towards the country’s redevelopment.


We already have an important basis for declaring victory: We have defeated a brutal dictator and given the gift of a democratic Republic to the Iraqi people. Now it’s their turn -- their responsibility to try to build a better future on democratic foundations.


                                                            Peter Bearse, Ph.D., International Consulting Economist who has worked in Iraq; author of We, the People: A Conservative Populism (, August 11, 2006. Comments encouraged via e-mail to:

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