Why has Lebanon been the graveyard of so many invaders? In the 1960s Israelis used to say that one of their military bands would be enough to conquer the country; sometimes, before Israel and Egypt agreed a peace in 1979, they added: ‘I don’t know which will be the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but I do know the name of the second.’ Lebanon, half the size of Wales and with a population divided by communal, sectarian and party hatreds, would be a pushover. Its Maronite Christian minority was thought an obvious ally for Israel against the forces of Arab nationalism, and the well-earned reputation of the Lebanese for commercial ingenuity and a capacity to survive in all circumstances suggested that they would be unlikely to die in a ditch fighting an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.
Such a picture seemed plausible enough 40 years ago, but it’s turned out that the best day for anybody invading or even interfering in Lebanon is usually the first. So it has been with Israel. Within a few years of the invasion of 1982, Israeli soldiers returning home would throw themselves to the ground to kiss the soil as soon as they crossed the border, thankful only to have made it back alive. When the last Israeli troops withdrew in 2000 from the slice of territory they still held in south Lebanon, they stole away in the middle of the night, abandoning their local Christian allies to triumphant Hizbullah guerrillas.
The gross underestimation of the ability of the Lebanese to defend themselves is the main theme of David Hirst’s elegantly written and highly informed history. For many years one of the most perceptive correspondents in the Middle East, he says he decided to write this book after the 34-day war in the summer of 2006, when Israel rained explosives on Lebanon in a vain bid to cripple Hizbullah. An ill-organised ground invasion succeeded only in destroying Israel’s reputation for military invincibility. What was meant to be a demonstration of strength – notably by the Israeli air force – turned into an almost comic illustration of ineffectuality. ‘Could it even be said,’ Hirst asks, ‘that Lebanon – the eternal victim – has now become the perpetrator too, posing no less a threat to greater states than they habitually posed to it?’ He doesn’t quite go along with the postwar claim made by Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbullah, that his fighters had won a ‘divine victory’, transforming Lebanon, one of the ‘small’ states of the Middle East, into one of its ‘great powers’. But he has no doubt that Israel, having gone to war to re-establish its own power, ended up undermining it.
It is scarcely news that small states are more dangerous than they look. Hirst takes his title from Mikhail Bakunin, who told a friend in 1870 to ‘beware of small states.’ It wasn’t just that they were vulnerable to strong neighbours, but that these neighbours would pay a price if they became involved in the affairs of their victims. Half a century earlier, the Duke of Wellington had made a similar point: ‘Great nations do not have small wars.’ This is as true of Iraq today as it was of Lebanon 150 years ago. When the Ottoman Empire lost its hold over Lebanon in the 19th century, the British backed the Druze and the French the Maronites. ‘If one man hits another,’ a local chieftain complained, ‘the incident becomes an Anglo-French affair: there might even be trouble between the two countries if a cup of coffee gets spilled on the ground.’ Nothing has changed much today except now the rivals are Israel and Syria, neither of which can afford to let the other win uncontested control of the country.
Lebanon may well be the ‘battleground of the Middle East’, as Hirst’s subtitle puts it, but this does not explain how it has become a lethal trap for its tormentors. The absence of government appears to make the country easy meat, but would-be occupiers find that there is no unchallenged local authority to co-opt or intimidate. Lebanon is high on the list of countries that Washington think tanks refer to as ‘failed states’, with the implication that foreign powers are justified in intervening because of the absence of a sovereign power. But the think tankers don’t mention that it is in these supposedly failed states that the US has suffered its worst humiliations in the years since 1983, when 241 US marines were blown up in their barracks beside Beirut airport by a suicide bomber. (After the marines were killed, Reagan hastily withdrew the survivors and invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada by way of diversion.) American intervention in states without effective governments has been almost uniformly disastrous. In 1993 its intervention in Somalia ended after the bodies of US helicopter pilots were photographed being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Post-9/11, easy initial victories in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to show that the US was the superpower it claimed to be, but the early successes were soon followed by draining guerrilla wars in which the $500-billion-a-year US military machine was baffled by tens of thousands of insurgents. The very puniness of America’s opponents made its failures more damaging.
One reason for this lack of military success is the Iranian revolution of 1979, incidentally the same year that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty changed the balance of power in the Middle East by removing Israel’s most powerful Arab opponent from its list of active enemies. The treaty made possible Israel’s armed intervention in Lebanon, but the revolution ushered in a more important change to the type of resistance Israel faced. The Arab nationalism originally inspired by Nasser had dissipated after the humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967 and the failure of corrupt and incompetent military rulers across the Arab world to confront Israel successfully. ‘By the 1980s,’ Hirst writes, ‘political, fundamentalist Islam had supplanted nationalism as the great new credo and popular mobilising force of the Middle East and beyond.’ Many of al-Qaida’s post-2001 tactics against foreign troops were first used in Lebanon 20 years earlier. Iraq and Afghanistan were certainly the first wars that saw suicide bombings take place on an industrial scale, but the forerunners of Hizbullah in south Lebanon had used them effectively in the early 1980s: Israeli patrols in south Lebanon would hurl themselves to the ground when a donkey and cart drove by. In 1983 the American Embassy on the Corniche in Beirut was blown up by explosives packed into a pick-up truck, killing 63 people, including Robert Ames, the CIA’s chief intelligence officer for the Middle East, whose severed hand still wearing his wedding ring was found floating a mile offshore. The Israelis and Americans demonised the perpetrators of these attacks but continued to underestimate them.
Hubris in Tel Aviv and Washington had the further consequence that threats to expand Israel or America’s regional power were half-believed in Damascus and Tehran. Damascus is only a short drive from Beirut, and in 1982 the Syrians had no intention of allowing Israel’s Christian allies to seize power so close to their capital. Similarly, in 2003 the neocons in Washington were happy to boast that the overthrowing of Saddam would be followed by the overthrowing of the Iranian and Syrian regimes. Unsurprisingly, the security services in these countries did not wait idly by but immediately gave insurgents in Iraq enough support to make sure that the US never stabilised its occupation.
Lebanon may be the sectarian state par excellence: top jobs such as those of the president and the prime minister are allocated on a confessional basis; parliament is divided 50/50 between Muslims and Christians; other jobs are distributed according to a quota system based on the last official census, taken in 1932. A new census is unlikely because it might so transform the balance of power as to provoke a civil war. The price the Lebanese pay for living in such a divided and unstable society is well known, but at the same time they enjoy a freedom seen nowhere else in the Arab world. ‘It is, and always has been, a more open, liberal and democratic society than any of its Arab neighbours,’ Hirst writes:
In this respect its vulnerability to domestic dissension, its chief flaw, has become, as it were, its chief virtue. For the sectarian state just could not function at all unless its constituent parts agreed, at least in principle, that respecting the rights, interests and sensibilities of each was indispensable to the welfare of all. That amounted to a built-in prophylactic against the dictatorship of one group, usually ethnic or sectarian, over others that has blighted the rest of the Arab world.
Here Hirst is in agreement with Michael Young, whose eloquent, colourful book is mostly about Syria’s attempt to control Lebanon: its murder of the Sunni leader and former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005; the anti-Syrian protests which followed, known as the Independence Intifada or Cedar Revolution; the withdrawal of Syrian troops; and Syria’s subsequent attempts to restore its influence. Young argues that, for all its faults, Lebanon’s sectarian system has had the virtue of weakening the state, which, as Young rightly says, is ‘the main barrier to personal freedom in the Middle East’. Sectarian and factional division may invite foreign meddling, but they also make it difficult for it to succeed if it alienates too many groups at the same time – Syria’s assassination of Hariri is a good example.
It is a relief to find Young questioning the concept of state or nation-building as an unquestionable good in itself. Sectarian states in which jobs are openly or covertly filled by quotas institutionalise instability, but in countries like Lebanon and Iraq sectarianism isn’t going to end, whatever the system of government. For all its drawbacks the sectarian state ensures a balance of power between communities, ruling out dictatorship or systematic authoritarian rule. As for Syria, it has always been better at building a hand of cards than playing them: taking advantage of Christian desperation during the Lebanese civil war in 1975-76 to move its troops into the country with Israeli and American permission, sabotaging Israeli-American predominance in 1982-84, and in 1990 using its own anti-Saddam stance to help it form an opportunistic alliance with the US to crush Michel Aoun and end 15 years of war. But like other foreign players in Lebanon, Syria ultimately overplayed its hand, crudely insisting that the period in office of its ally President Emile Lahoud be extended and then killing Hariri. Young believes that Lebanon and Hizbullah’s state-within-a-state cannot coexist for long; which may well be right, but then instability is built into the Lebanese system.
Nothing in the Middle East is as Israeli foreign policy planners expected half a century ago. Then the priority was to weaken the mainstream Sunni Arab powers and build up an ‘alliance of the periphery’ with non-Arab states such as Iran and Turkey. The policy partly worked: Arab powers like Egypt were neutralised by military defeat and became politically moribund. Secular Arab nationalism, of which the PLO was the symbol and proponent, has been discredited. During the recent Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza, the rest of the Arab world stood ineffectively on the sidelines, and it was not an Arab country but Turkey which took effective action against the blockade of Gaza. Long after religiously inspired nationalism had replaced secular nationalism, Israeli leaders were still obtusely expecting organisations like Hizbullah and Hamas to crumble under military pressure just as Arab armies had done 40 years earlier.
Analogies between failed states in the Middle East might underline the strength of highly motivated non-state guerrilla movements, but the states themselves are very different. Iraq, fragmented between Shia, Sunni and Kurd, looks increasingly like Lebanon-in-Mesopotamia. In both countries the Shia are the largest community, but in Lebanon they are still a minority in terms of the overall population, whereas in Iraq they make up 60 per cent of the population and can hope to dominate government. Iraq may be divided, but its $60 billion a year in oil revenues mean that a faction which seizes control of the government machine can, like Saddam, maintain powerful security forces. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the state is weak and parasitic, making it impossible for Americans to use counterinsurgency tactics worked out in Iraq which are based on restoring central government authority.
What’s striking about Israel’s involvement in Lebanon is the way in which it kept repeating its mistakes. For 30 years, starting with the siege of Beirut in 1982, it continually underestimated the other side. Its response to political and military frustration has usually been to use more violence, not less. In 1982 this culminated in the massacre of at least 1300 Palestinian civilians – Hirst says that the real figure, taking into account bodies buried by the bulldozers, may be as high as 3000 – by Christian militiamen in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. There was never much doubt about Israel’s ultimate responsibility for this, since its generals knew full well how its Christian proxies had previously dealt with Palestinian civilians. ‘If you invite the Yorkshire Ripper to spend a couple of nights in an orphanage for small girls,’ Amos Oz remarked, ‘you can’t, later on, just look over the piles of bodies and say you made an agreement with the Ripper – that he’d just wash the girls’ hair.’ The incursions of 1996 and 2006 both involved the bombing and shelling of civilians, culminating each time in mass killings in the south Lebanese village of Qana. Hirst expresses some astonishment at the failure of Israeli politicians and generals to learn from their mistakes but offers no explanation other than arrogance. Indeed, the only weakness in his splendid history is his tendency to rely on second-hand sources in his discussions of Israel and his uncertain touch when dealing with Israeli motives.
This is a pity, because Israel’s repeated failures require an explanation beyond simple hubris. For all its modern equipment, undisputed control of the air and alliance with the US, Israel has not won a conclusive military victory since 1973. It had a partial success in 1982, when it succeeded in ending the Palestinian state-within-a-state in Lebanon, but otherwise its interventions there have ended in failure. One explanation is that in societies with a siege mentality errors cannot be admitted, making it more likely that they will be repeated. Public dissent in Israel is increasingly treated as a sign of disloyalty. Israeli protests against the war of 2006 were far more limited than in 1982. When the war’s only conscientious objector was sent to prison, the head of the ‘dovish’ group Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, told Haaretz that he felt like strangling him. Super-patriotism and jingoism in time of war are not an exclusively Israeli trait but the propaganda there has become more intense and pervasive, distorting the population’s sense of reality. By any standards, the assault by commandos on the Gaza aid flotilla was a disaster, bringing international condemnation of the blockade and infuriating Turkey. But by claiming the army’s behaviour to be perfectly reasonable, Israelis open the door for their leaders to make the same mistakes again. The refusal to admit error makes it impossible to fire those responsible for idiocies: disaster-prone politicians like Binyamin Netanyahu and the defence minister Ehud Barak blunder on. This despite the fact that successive assaults have left Israel weaker and its enemies stronger. At a time when it is threatening to launch an air attack on Iran, its leaders remain frighteningly incapable of calculating their own best interests.
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