Why Iraq Feels Like Lebanon





James Bennet, in the NYT (April 10, 2004):

Americans struggling to make sense, or maybe political hay, out of the violence convulsing Iraq turn almost reflexively to the searing experience of the Vietnam War.

Israel is haunted by another parallel: its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which for Israelis of a certain generation was their Vietnam. It, too, was envisioned as a bold mission to combat terrorism and reshape part of this region to be stable and friendly to the West.

"In Lebanon, we tried to figure out what was similar to what went on in Vietnam," said Avraham Burg, a member of the Israeli Parliament who went to Lebanon as an officer in the paratroopers and returned to lead a movement against that war."You have a circle here: it's Vietnam, Lebanon and Baghdad."

The uncertain combat zones of Vietnam and Lebanon posed nightmarish challenges to soldiers. Those challenges may seem familiar to marines in Iraq as they try to sift enemies from civilians, without alienating most Iraqis.

"People look at the map and they say, `This is a desert, this isn't a jungle,'" said Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University."The point is there are functional equivalents to jungles. In this case, they're cities. They're just as impenetrable to us as the jungles were 40 years ago."

Dr. Norton, an expert on the Middle East, fought in Vietnam and later served as a United Nations peacekeeper in southern Lebanon.

At a grander level, a level of global strategy and even myth-making, Iraq has echoes of Vietnam, which was presented by the White House as a test of American resolve against a rising international menace, Communism.

But in terms of specific, stated objectives for the application of military force, Iraq looks more like Lebanon.

In Vietnam the Americans had a clear if shaky client, the South Vietnamese government, and an enemy, North Vietnam, with a strong political structure.

In Lebanon the Israelis, like the Americans in Iraq, plunged into a vacuum — or more precisely into a maelstrom of political and religious rivalries.

"The problem of how to rule a society that is divided, a country that does not exist as a state with a central authority with legitimacy — this is a problem Israel faced in the 1980's in Lebanon, and the United States now faces in Iraq," said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

When they invaded, the Israelis were showered with rice by Shiites who lived in fear of Palestinian militants. Within a year, they were being bled by the Shiites, whom they failed to enlist as allies."In the Middle East — as in many places around the world — the enemy of my enemy can be my enemy as well," Mr. Burg said.

Noting that tens of thousands of Americans died in Vietnam, Dr. Norton said,"The Vietnam parallel is a bit of a stretch, in terms of scale. But I do think the Lebanon one is striking."...


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