- They crossed the border with formidable military force.
Their armour swept through Arab towns and villages. In days it had
imposed "regime change" in the country's capital until then guarded
by a band of totalitarian thugs. They fled. Back home, critics
still complained it had taken too long.
- That was Lebanon in 1982. The year Israeli forces
invaded Beirut. Their intention was to "eradicate" Yasser
Arafat and his Palestinian gunmen once and for all. There is an uncanny
similarity to what happened there and the events unfolding in Iraq.
- I was a correspondent in Lebanon, based in the Commodore
Hotel in Beirut, once known as the Paris of Paris until the Israeli Air
Force set about demolishing it. The Commodore was an up-market version
of the Palestine in Baghdad where until last week Mohammed Saeed al-Sahof,
minister of information, issued his daily fantasies. The Commodore
had a caged parrot in the lobby. Every day I would try and encourage
the bird to talk. One night, while asleep, somebody shot the bird.
God knows why.
- Days later, Ariel Sharon, then a senior Israeli military
commander, swaggered into the hotel and explained what would happen after
Arafat had been "eradicated". Sharon spoke of a "domino
effect" long before the words were used by Secretary of Defence Donald
Rumsfeld in Washington to predict what would soon come in the Middle East.
Sharon, like Rumsfeld, was aggressive and dismissive of those of
us who wondered in 1982 whether occupying a ruined Beirut would really
bring other Arab states to the negotiating table. Would not the humiliation
of seeing one of the loveliest cities in the region under Israeli control
inflame opinion in Syria, Egypt, Jordan - and Iraq?
- Sharon shrugged aside the question. Israel would
install an acceptable president. Bashir Gemayel was a leader of the
Phalangists. He would be Israel's puppet and evict the PLO and the
Syrians. In Iraq, Washington has taken the first step in installing
its own man, Ahmed Chalabi. He will do Bush's bidding; of that there
is little doubt. The more Chalabi says he does not want to be Iraq's
new president, the greater the suspicions grow among the Shi'ites and other
tribes in Iraq that he is America's puppet. The Kurds do not trust
him. The Assyrians dismiss Chalabi as a puppet. The seeds are
being sown for the kind of civil war we saw in Lebanon. Just as Gemayel
did, Chalabi is promising to be all things to all men. For the Israelis,
Gemayel would form a "new power balance" - and the Palestinians
could seek a new home in Jordan.
- Israel's pipe-dream, founded on its overwhelming victory
in the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, was finally about to happen, insisted
- With messianic belief, the bull-necked, muscular commander
saw the day fast approaching when Arab nations would come as supplicants
to the negotiating table to recover some of their territories lost in those
- But first they would have to meet all Israel's demands.
No more terrorism. No more wars. Recognition of Israel.
These were reasonable requests. But they took little account of the
deeply entrenched hatred of Zionism among Arabs. For them, Israel
also represented the cutting edge of a plan by America to eventually colonise
and subjugate the Arab world. Instead, the humiliation of the capture
of Beirut hardened Arab nationalism. On the streets of Cairo, Damascus
and Baghdad, the chants of the "Three Noes" resounded day and
night. Millions took to the streets to repeat: No peace with
Israel. No negotiations with Israel. No recognition of Israel.
Last week, the name of the United States had been substituted for
Israel on those same streets. From Morocco to Muscat, the US-led
invasion of Iraq is increasingly being presented not so much as liberating
the country from a brutal dictator - but as the start of a new phase of
- Watching the Arab-language TV networks beaming directly
on satellites into the West is a sobering experience. The images
are all of limbless bodies, skulls crushed under tank tracks and distraught
mothers cradling dead babies. It reminded me again of how, 22 years
before in Lebanon when the Israeli invasion came unstuck, the images were
equally horrific on Arab TV and in Arab-language newspapers.
- The horror began when Gemayel was killed by a bomb.
His Phalangist followers enacted a horrific revenge - possibly killing
thousands of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. On
that fearful day, I watched Ariel Sharon watching impassively as the slaughter
continued. A few hundred yards away, his troops could have intervened.
They did not. The stench of death was a living, all-embracing one
that permeated my clothes and skin. It took days to scrub it away.
The memories of that mass murder are still with me. Israeli forces,
who had been welcomed as "liberators" by the Shi'ites, found
themselves bogged down in what Mossad's then deputy director, David Kimche,
accurately called "our Lebanese quagmire". Israel found
itself facing Shi'ite suicide bombers, the precursors of those bombers
in Iraq in the past month.
- Then as now, the Arab press - its headlines inflammatory
as the tabloids of the West - was incendiary. Last week in Quatar
- headquarters of Coalition forces - the pro-government newspaper, Al-Watan,
fulminated: "The USA has declared war on Islam. The USA has
perpetrated the worst terrorist crimes against Muslims in Iraq and Palestine".
In Cairo the pro-government daily, Al-Gumhuriya, on the same day
called for all-out holy war, Jihad: "We must launch armed struggle
and martyrdom until the aggressors are compelled to withdraw in disgrace".
- So it was in Lebanon in 1982.
- Humiliated and bewildered, its "regime change"
plans in tatters, Israel began a long withdrawal from Lebanon that ended
in 2002 - ironically, it has emerged, the same year when the forward planners
at the Pentagon were taking their first serious look at a "regime
change" in Iraq.
- The truth is that unless Washington takes note of what
happened in Lebanon, it will find it is going to be almost impossible to
impose by brute force on the Arab world political change. On the
present evidence the signs are not encouraging it will try little else.
- It has installed its own pro-tem governor, a former US
general and close friend of Rumsfeld. He speaks no Arabic and knows
little of how things work in the region. While we should give him
the benefit of an enthusiast when he says he is a fast learner, we need
also to realise that the Israelis in Lebanon, who at least spoke the language,
still did not grasp the fundamentals that the Arabs have just as much a
loathing of occupancy as any other nation.
- US forces and the British are seen as occupiers.
It was ever so, going back to the 1920s when Britain failed to stop Zionist
immigration to Palestine despite the Anglo-Arab alliance in World War One.
In the later wars the Arabs lost - 1948, 1967 and 1973 - victory came to
Israel because it was fitted-out with the latest American military might.
- In the past month, while the Coalition forces stormed
across Iraq, Israel was secure in the latest US military technology that
would ensure Iraq would never be able to repeat the First Gulf War when
missiles hit Tel Aviv. America now needs to be very careful - and
not a little afraid - in how it treads in Iraq - but also in how it deals
- The Jewish state has seized US victory to dust down old
demands with a new ferocity. It wants all the offices in Damascus
closed of those groups it designates as terrorists. It wants any
weapons of mass destruction that Syria may harbour destroyed. Again,
these are reasonable demands from Tel Aviv's standpoint. But, what
will Hezbollah and Hamas do if they are sent packing from Damascus?
Simply regroup elsewhere in Yemen, in Iran, in Afghanistan. There
are plenty of bolt-holes for them.
- And where is the hard evidence that Syria has weapons
of mass destruction? It was their existence which drove Bush and
Rumsfeld to go into Iraq. So far, not one weapon of mass destruction
has been found. Now the Pentagon hawks, led by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz,
are promoting the idea that the weapons have been shipped across the border
- Despite its sweeping victory in Iraq, Washington should
not forget that the failures of recent US foreign policy - remember Somalia
in 1993 - was the result of Washington's failure to properly understand
its role - and its loathing then to be seen as the world's latest empire.
- Yet increasingly that idea is taking root. The
reason is a sea-change in thinking in the upper echelons of the Pentagon
and its multi-think tanks scattered around the campuses of the country
- The distinguished US academic, Andrew J Bacevich, wrote
only last week "the question is not whether the United States has
become an imperial power. The question is what kind of power does
it intend theirs to be". In Iraq, does America simply intend,
as Britain did in 1917, to install a supposedly popular puppet regime,
with all the trimmings of democracy, but in reality a means for America
to remain there as long as it pleases - as long as the oil flows? Is
Washington blinded by the fact that it has a defence budget 14 times larger
than China and 22 times greater than Russia? Is it captivated by
the images of its all-conquering troops in Iraq? In Afghanistan?
- Certainly, Secretary of State Rumsfeld and President
George Bush seem to be, yet should do well to take into account the words
of the most respected scholar in Islam in the West before they rumble on
about their "axis of evil" - and increasingly include Syria alongside
Iran and North Korea. Bernard Lewis has just published a 144-page
treatise: "The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror".
A copy should be on Bush's bedside table. If he only reads this paragraph
by Lewis, he would be better informed than he now is:
- "Islam is one of the world's great religions.
It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives.
It has taught men of different races to live in brotherhood and people
of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance.
It has inspired a great civilisation in which others beside Muslims live
creative and useful lives and which, by their achievements, enriched the
whole world. But Islam like other religions has also known periods
when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence.
It is our misfortune that we have to confront part of the Muslim world
while it is going through such a period, and when most - though by no means
all - of that hatred is directed against us".
- I saw the evidence of that in Lebanon two decades ago.
The lesson that previous empire builder, the Britain of Queen Victoria,
is also there for all to see. Pax Britannica, wrote New York University
Professor Niall Ferguson last week, gave the world on average a war for
every year of her reign.
- Is that what George Bush wants to be remembered as he
and his allies in Washington continue to speak in ever more frightening
terms about Syria, Iran and all the others who do not fit into the mould
of Pax Americana? It is not only the dictators of this world who
should be very afraid of America. We should all be.
- Gordon Thomas