Over the past several weeks, both Washington and Jerusalem have spelled out clear policies relating to the situation in Lebanon. The two policies contradict one another, and by adopting them, the US and Israel are on a collision course.
Following Lebanese President Michel Suleiman's visit to Washington last month, this past week Assistant Deputy Secretary of State David Hale and Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense Mary Beth Long visited Beirut. Hale met with political leaders and Long presided over the first meeting of the newly formed US-Lebanese joint military committee. The purpose of the committee is to train and arm the Lebanese army. To this end, the US announced it will be providing the Lebanese military with $63 million in new equipment that includes ammunition, trucks, humvees, mobile communications systems and Cobra attack helicopters.
In an interview with LBC television network, Hale stated that the US policy of supporting the Lebanese military was likely to remain unchanged after the US presidential elections in November. In his words, "There will be continuity in our policy to Lebanon… Republicans and Democrats both support Lebanon and I am confident that there is a baseline of support for US policy in Lebanon."
As for Israel, last Friday OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said that Israel's strategy for defeating Hizbullah in the next war remains what it was in the last war. Israel will seek to destroy Hizbullah by bombing it from the air. According to Eisenkot, the difference between Israel's campaign in 2006 and a future one is that next time the bombing will be more comprehensive. Given Hizbullah's domination of the Lebanese government, Israel no longer needs to be concerned about protecting a pro-Western government in Beirut. Speaking to Yediot Aharonot Eisenkot asserted, "Today there is no distinction [between Hizbullah and the Lebanese government] and there is no dilemma. The operational significance of this is that the Lebanese government is responsible for all the activities carried out within its borders."
Eisenkot's statements echo remarks made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in August. During a visit to the Home Front Command Olmert said, "If Lebanon becomes a Hizbullah state, then we won't have any restrictions in… regard [to hitting government targets]."
ONE OF the common features of both countries' policies towards Lebanon is their utter neglect of the lessons of previous American and Israeli failures in the country.
The 1983 US peacekeeping mission in Beirut is rightly considered one of the gravest failures in US military history. The stated aim of the deployment of US Marines was to help the Lebanese army assert control over the capital city and then expand its control to the suburbs of Beirut and gradually over the entire country.
The mission was to be accomplished by separating the IDF, the Christian, Druse, Shi'ite and Sunni militias and the Syrian military forces from one another. Political pressure from Washington did succeed in compelling Israel to withdraw its forces from the city. But very quickly, the US Marines on the ground realized that they were in a full-scale war and that there was no way they could accomplish the aims of the mission with the tools they had at their disposal as a peacekeeping force.
After IDF forces left Beirut, the Marines found themselves under attack from the same Syrian forces and Druse, Shi'ite and Sunni militias that had been fighting the IDF. The Christian militias, for their part, also treated the Marines the same way they treated the IDF. They used Marine positions as cover as they shelled the Druse, the Shiites and the Sunnis. The Lebanese military – weak, incompetent, corrupt, and riven by the same sectarian enmities that fuelled the war – was both unable and unwilling to take the military steps necessary to assert control over the city even with Marine assistance.
Once the futility of its strategy became clear, the Reagan administration had two options. The Americans could pull out of Beirut and support an Israeli expansion of the war to Syria and so remove the primary source of the conflict. Or, they could redefine their objective to reflect reality and order the Marines to attack Syrian positions and Syrian and Iranian-backed militias and so set the conditions that in the fullness of time might allow the Lebanese government to assert political and military control over the country.
Yet rather than reconfigure its strategy and its strategic aims to accord with conditions on the ground, Washington opted to ignore what was happening. The Marines did not receive permission to take the fight to its source, to support Israel, or even to protect themselves from the war they found themselves in the middle of.
Thus the stage was set for the attack against the Marine barracks at the Beirut airport. On October 23, 1983, an Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizbullah cell attacked the unprotected Marine barracks with a massive car bomb. Two hundred forty-one Marines were killed. Humiliated, the US pulled out of Beirut with its tail between its legs. The message that it was possible to defeat America reverberated throughout the region.
The lesson of the US experience in Lebanon was clear: You cannot assume that favored actors are trustworthy or competent allies just because it is politically expedient to believe they are. Reality is what it is, and if you wish to change it, you first must acknowledge it.
ISRAEL'S 2006 war against Hizbullah in Lebanon is rightly considered the gravest failure in Israeli military history. After Hizbullah assaulted Israel on July 12, Israel announced its intention to destroy Hizbullah as a fighting force. It further announced that to ensure that Hizbullah would not threaten Israel again, Israel would demand that the Lebanese army deploy along the border with Israel after the war to prevent Hizbullah from reasserting its control over South Lebanon.
The IDF General Staff and the Olmert-Livni-Peretz government opted to accomplish these aims by bombing Hizbullah bases, command and control centers and missile arsenals from the air. Within the first three days of the war, this strategy successfully flattened the group's stronghold in Beirut's Dahiyeh neighborhood. It also destroyed Hizbullah's long-range missile arsenal. But these successes failed to impact Hizbullah's ability to wage war.
Hizbullah's commanders continued to operate. Its units continued to launch missiles and rockets against Israeli territory. Iran and Syria continued to supply the group with arms and personnel. As for the Lebanese military whose forces were supposed to be part of the long-term solution, far from opposing Hizbullah, its forces actively assisted Hizbullah in targeting Israeli cities and military targets throughout the war.
Due to Hizbullah's resilience in the face of the air campaign, it quickly became apparent that Israel's strategy needed to be replaced. To defeat Hizbullah, Israel needed to adopt a maneuver strategy that tasked ground forces with invading and conquering South Lebanon. To effect the long-term demise of the Iranian-controlled and Syrian-assisted group, Israel also needed to bomb Hizbullah-related targets in Syria. Such attacks would deter Iran and Syria from employing Hizbullah as their foreign legion in Lebanon in the future. Only after Iran and Syria had been deterred and Hizbullah had been defeated on the ground could the Lebanese military begin to act as a controlling authority in the south.
But when presented with this reality, Israel's political and military leaders refused to countenance it. They clung to the notion that airpower and Lebanese military deployment to the South could serve as the primary components of a winning strategy. Tipping their hats to the public outcry provoked by the strategy's self-evident failure, they embellished it by adding a limited ground component to the operationa
But since the strategy remained one based on airpower, maneuver units were provided with no clear operational objectives. With no relevant strategic frame of reference to guide them, the General Staff commanders couldn't determine how to use the ground forces. And so they were deployed willy-nilly to battles that served no operational purpose.
The failure of the country's strategic leadership to base their strategy on reality caused Israel to fail to achieve its stated objectives in the war. And Israel's failure constituted a massive victory for Hizbullah and its state sponsors. With the passive support of the Lebanese military, in May Hizbullah staged a coup that won it effective control over the Lebanese government. And with the passive support of the Lebanese military, Hizbullah has rearmed and reasserted full control over South Lebanon.
For its part, unscathed by the 2006 war it effectively controlled with Iran, Syria now feels confident enough to plan a reinvasion of Lebanon. Today Syria has 10,000 troops positioned on Lebanon's northern border. Damascus is openly preparing a pretext for invasion by waging a proxy war in Tripoli through its Lebanese Salafist militias.
THE LESSONS of Israel's failure in 2006 are clear. First, Hizbullah cannot be defeated on the ground without invading and conquering South Lebanon. Second, Hizbullah cannot be defeated without attacking its state sponsors. Third, the Lebanese military will not fight Hizbullah in Israel's place.
In addition to their reliance on ignoring the lessons of their previous failures, the current US and Israeli strategies for contending with Lebanon also share an outsized estimation of the relevance of the Lebanese government. Specifically, both policies wrongly view the government of Lebanon as a relevant force in the country. They diverge only on how they relate to the government. The US believes that the Lebanese government is a credible ally. Israel on the other hand sees the Hizbullah-dominated government as its enemy.
There is ample evidence supporting both positions. But the basic reality that both Washington and Jerusalem ignore is that whether it is a friend or a foe, the Lebanese government today – as it was in 1983 and indeed since the PLO fomented the Lebanese civil war in 1975 – is completely inconsequential. Some elements of its military are pro-Western. Overall, both during the 2006 war and during Hizbullah's coup in May, the Lebanese military has facilitated Hizbullah's operations. Its former commander Michel Suleiman owes his position as president of Lebanon to the support he enjoys from Hizbullah and Syria. And regardless of its commanders' political views, the fact of the matter is that the Lebanese army is incapable of establishing and enforcing the authority of the central government over the country. Moreover, since May, Lebanon's central government exists at the pleasure and in the service of Hizbullah.
So both Israel and the US are now embracing policies that are founded on false readings of the facts on the ground and on a refusal to countenance the lessons of their past failures. As a consequence, both countries have adopted policies that are doomed to fail. Moreover, their divergent assessments of the Lebanese government place them on a collision course that can threaten their alliance.
In light of all of this, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran have good reason to be happy. When the next war erupts, rather than fighting them, their two greatest foes may well spend their time and energy fighting each other.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.