The Lesson Of History Which
America Will Ignore At Its Own Peril
By Gordon Thomas

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 Sharon.
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 wars.
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 colonial occupation.
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 with Israel.
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 to Syria.
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 since 9/11.
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



This Site Served by TheHostPros