Why has Lebanon ended up as the graveyard of so many invaders? Israelis used to say in the 1960s that one of their military bands would be enough to conquer the country. Sometimes, prior to Israel and Egypt agreeing a peace in 1979, they would add archly that “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.” The idea was that Lebanon, only the size of Wales and its population divided by communal, sectarian and party hatreds, would inevitably be a pushover for the greatest military power in the Middle East. Lebanon’s Maronite Christian minority was an obvious ally for Israel against the forces of Arab nationalism. The well-earned reputation of the Lebanese for commercial ingenuity and capacity to survive in all circumstances suggested that they would be the last people to die in the last ditch fighting an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.
Such a picture of future relations between Israel and Lebanon, and the inevitable dominance of the former, sounded likely enough forty years ago. In reality it turned out that the best day for anybody invading or even interfering in Lebanon is usually the first, after which their prospects begin to sour. So it was with Israel. Within a few years of the Israeli invasion of 1982 Israeli soldiers returning home would throw themselves to the ground to kiss Israeli 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.
Just how and why Israel and most of the rest of the world so grossly underestimated the ability of the Lebanese to defend themselves is the main theme of David Hirst’s elegantly written and highly informed history Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East (Nation Books.)
For long one of the most perceptive correspondents in the Middle East, Hirst says that his decision to write this book followed the 33-day war in July and August 2006 when Israel rained explosives on Lebanon in a vain bid to cripple Hizbullah. An ill-organized ground invasion was equally fruitless, achieving nothing other than deflating 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. Hirst asks how this could have happened. “Could it even be said,” he wonders, “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 is too intelligent to quite go along with the post-war claim by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, that his Jihadist fighters had won a ‘divine victory’ transforming Lebanon from being 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 deterrent power, succeeded only in undermining it.
The explanation for Israel’s failure in Lebanon, not just in 2006 but over the previous three decades, is important because American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia have followed a similar trajectory. It is scarcely news that small states are more dangerous than they look. Hirst takes his title from a remark by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in a letter to a friend in 1870 saying ‘Beware of small states’. Bakunin meant that small states were not only vulnerable to a strong and predatory neighbor, but that these neighbors would pay a price for involving themselves in the complex affairs of their victims. Half a century earlier the Duke of Wellington made a similar point, warning Britain against getting entangled in what at first glance appeared to be small-scale conflicts, saying ‘Great powers do not have small wars.’ This is as obvious in the 21st century as it was in the 19th and is as true of Iraq today as it was of Lebanon 150 years ago. The rivalries of imperial powers exacerbate the conflict between their local proxies, but this is a two-way street. As the Ottoman empire disintegrated in Lebanon in the 19th century the British backed the Druze and the French supported the Maronites. “If one man hits another,” a local chieftain complained, “the incident becomes an Anglo-French affair, and there might even be trouble between the countries if a cup of coffee gets spilled on the ground.” The same happens 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 be the ‘battleground of the Middle East’, as Hirst’s subtitle suggests, but this does not explain how it has become such a lethal trap for its tormentors over the last thirty years. The very absence of government appears to make the country easy meat, but would-be occupiers find that there is no uncontested local authority to co-opt or intimidate. Lebanon is high up on the list of countries which Washington think tanks patronizingly refer to as ‘failed states’ with the implication that they are political basket cases where foreign powers are justified in intervening because of the absence of a sovereign power. But the think tankers seldom mention that it is in these supposedly ‘failed states’ that the US has suffered its worst humiliations in the years since 242 US marines were blown up in their barracks beside Beirut airport by a suicide bomber in 1983.
American intervention in states without effective governments has been almost uniformly disastrous. After the Marines were killed Ronald Reagan hastily withdrew survivors from Lebanon and invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada by way of diversion. The debacle in Beirut was not unique. Ten years later the US intervention in Somalia ended humiliatingly 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 super-power it claimed to be, but early successes turned into draining guerrilla wars in which the $500-billion-a-year US military machine was baffled by a few tens of thousands of guerrillas. Conflicts expected to be short and victorious turned out to be long and inconclusive. The very puniness of America’s opponents made failure to win more damaging and withdrawal more humiliating.
One explanation for Israeli and American lack of military success stems from the outcome of the Iranian revolution in 1979. This was 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. It opened the door to Israel’s armed intervention in Lebanon. But the revolution in Iran ushered in a more important change in the type of resistance that Israel faced. The Arab nationalism originally inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser dissipated after humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967 and the failure of corrupt and incompetent military rulers across the Arab world to confront Israel successfully. When the PLO fighters created a state within a state in south Lebanon they swiftly alienated the Shia population through their ill-discipline and by provoking Israeli air raids. “By the 1980s,” writes Hirst, “political fundamentalist Islam had supplanted nationalism as the great new credo and popular mobilizing force of the Middle East and beyond.”
Much of what the US government and media attributed to al-Qa’ida after 9/11, were first shown to be effective in Lebanon twenty years earlier. The fanaticism and cruelty of Islamic fundamentalists might alienate support, but they provided a core of committed fighters who would never surrender. Iraq and Afghanistan were the first wars in which suicide bombings took place on an industrial scale though the forerunners of Hizbullah in 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 . The American embassy on the Corniche in Beirut was blown up by explosives packed into a pick-up truck which killed 63 people including Robert Ames, the CIA’s chief intelligence officer for the Middle East, whose severed hand with wedding ring still attached was found floating a mile offshore. Israelis and Americans demonized the perpetrators of these savage attacks but continued to underestimate them. As late as 2006, as one Israeli critic quoted by Hirst put it, the attitude of Israel’s political and military leaders was a ‘combination of arrogance, boastfulness, euphoria and contempt for the enemy.’
This hubris of Tel Aviv and in Washington had a further devastating consequence. It might not be more than braggadocio but 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 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s the Syrians were never going to allow Israel’s Christian allies to seize power so close to their capital. Likewise in Iraq in 2003 the neo-cons in Washington were happily boasting that, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Iranian and Syrian regimes would be the next in line. Unsurprisingly, the ferocious security services in both countries were not going to wait idly for this to happen and immediately took measures to give insurgents in Iraq enough backing to make sure the US never stabilized their occupation.
Defeat or victory in Lebanon is always well publicized and imitated across the Middle East. The country may be the sectarian state par excellence: top jobs such as that of the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament are allocated on a confessional basis, parliament is divided 50:50 between Muslims and Christians, and other jobs are distributed according to a quote system based on a census dating from 1932. Holding a new census might so transform the balance of power that it would provoke a civil war. The price Lebanese pay for living in such a divided and unstable society is well known, but at the same time Lebanon enjoys 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 neighbors,” writes Hirst. “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 The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle is mostly about Syria’s attempt to control Lebanon, its alleged murder of the Sunni leader Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, the protests known as the Independence Intifada or Cedar Revolution which followed, the withdrawal of Syrian troops and Syria’s subsequent attempts to restore its old influence. Young argues that for all its faults and institutionalized violence, Lebanon’s sectarian system has produced freedom because the power of religious and sectarian communities has weakened the state which Young rightly says ‘is the main barrier to personal freedom in the Middle East.’ Sectarian and factional division may invite foreign intervention, but also make it difficult for it to succeed if it alienates too many Lebanese communities at the same time, as Syria did when it assassinated al-Hariri. Its hegemony in Lebanon was temporarily ended when the Sunni, the Druze and Christians joined forces against Damascus.
It is a relief to find Young questioning the concept of state or nation building, as if this was an end unquestionably good in itself. Sectarian states in which jobs are openly or covertly filled by quotas institutionalize instability and do not end it, but in countries like Lebanon and Iraq sectarianism isn’t going to end regardless of the system of government. For all its faults the sectarian state involves acceptance of a balance of power between communities which rules out dictatorship or systematic authoritarian rule. Young does not claim to be an unbiased observer, of which Lebanon has few enough, and writes little about Israeli actions but he does convey the dangerous flavor of Lebanese politics.
As a Lebanese-American journalist brought to Lebanon at the age of 7 by his Lebanese mother after the death of his American father, Young’s memoir does bring Lebanon to life and his account of the Cedar Revolution – so named by an American official seeking to avoid calling it an intifada – is compelling. As for Syria, it always been better at gathering cards in Lebanon than playing them: taking advantage of Christian desperation in the Lebanese civil war in 1975-6 to move its troops into the country with Israeli and American permission, sabotaging Israeli-American predominance in 1982-84, and using its own anti-Saddam Hussein posture and opportunistic alliance with the US in 1990 to crush President Aoun and end 15 years of war. But as with other foreign players in Lebanon Syria ultimately overplayed its hand, crudely insisting that the period in office of its ally President Lahoud be extended and later killing al-Hariri. Young believes that Lebanon and Hizbullah’s state within a state cannot long coexist which may well be right, but instability is built into the Lebanese system.
Everything in the Middle East has turned out the opposite of what Israeli foreign policy planners expected half a century ago. Then the Israeli priority was to weaken the mainstream Sunni Arab powers and build up an ‘alliance of the periphery’ through which non-Arab states such as Iran and Turkey would be cultivated as Israel’s friends. Part of this policy worked: Arab powers like Egypt were marginalized by military defeat and became politically moribund. Secular Arab nationalism, of which the PLO was the symbol and proponent, has been discredited by its weaknesses and failures Yasser Arafat’s brand of Palestinian nationalism was discredited by his failed pursuit of a peace agreement with Israel after signing the Oslo accords. During the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 the rest of the Arab world stood ineffectively on the sidelines. In seeking to ease the blockade of Gaza in 2010 it was Turkey rather than any Arab country which took effective action. Long after religiously-inspired nationalism had replaced secular nationalism, Israeli leaders were still obtusely expecting, despite bitter experience to the contrary, that implacable Islamic-inspired organisations like Hizbullah and Hamas would crumble under military pressure just as Arab armies had done 40 years earlier.
Analogies between failed states in the Middle East 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 increasing like a Lebanon-in-Mesopotamia and the hatred and fear dividing communities is no less than in Beirut. In both countries the Shiah are the largest community but in Lebanon they are still a minority and can never rule alone, while Iraqi Shia are 60 per cent of the population and can hope to dominate government. Even so power sharing is necessary in Baghdad but the nature of state power is different from Lebanon. Divided Iraq may be but its $60 billion a year oil revenues means that a faction which seizes control of the government machine can, like Saddam Hussein, maintain powerful security forces. In Afghanistan, by way of contrast, the state is weak and parasitic on the population, making it impossible for Americans to successfully use counter-insurgency tactics worked out in Iraq based on restoring central government authority.
One of the many fascinating aspects of Israel’s involvement in Lebanon is not that it got sucked into the Lebanese political morass but the way in which it kept on repeating earlier mistakes. Over thirty years there was continual underestimation of the other side, starting with the siege of Beirut in 1982. Israel’s response to political and military frustration has usually been to use more not less violence. In the case of the 1982 invasion 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 go as high as 3,000 — in Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in south Beirut by Christian militiamen. There was never much doubt about Israel’s ultimate responsibility for the slaughter since its generals knew full well how the militiamen had previously dealt with Palestinian civilians. ‘If you invite the Yorkshire Ripper to spend a couple of nights in an orphanage for small girls,’ commented the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, ‘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 Israeli bombardments of Lebanon in 1996 and 2006 both involved the bombing and shelling of Lebanese civilians, culminating in each case 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 previous mistakes but offers no explanation other than their mindless arrogance. Indeed the only weakness in his splendid history is that he has a less sure touch when dealing with Israeli motives and is more reliant on second hand sources than he is when discussing Lebanon.
This is a pity because Israel’s repeated failures in Lebanon require an explanation beyond simple hubris and a tendency to underestimate one’s enemies. 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 one partial success in 1982 when it succeeded in ending the Palestinian state-within-a-state in Lebanon, but otherwise its interventions there have invariably ended in failure. One explanation is that societies with an ingrained siege mentality are self-referential. Errors cannot be admitted making it more likely they will be repeated. Public dissent is increasingly persecuted 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 went to prison the head of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, told Haaretz that he felt like strangling him.
Super patriotism and jingoism at times of war or threat of war are not an exclusively an Israeli trait but in Israel the propaganda is more intense and all pervasive. It distorts Israelis’ sense of reality. By any standards the assault by Israeli commandos on the May 2010 Gaza aid flotilla was a disaster, focusing international attention on the blockade and infuriating Turkey, once a strong Israeli ally. But by justifying this fiasco as a perfectly reasonable policing action in which the Turkish peace activists were at fault, the Israelis open the door for their own leaders to do exactly the same thing in future. And the very same leaders are likely to be in charge, because the refusal to admit that mistakes were made makes it impossible to fire those responsible for previous idiocies. Disaster-prone politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu and the Defense Minister Ehud Barack blunder on regardless of their long history of failing to balance high risks of failure against limited benefits from success. This is despite the fact that Israel’s wars against Lebanon in 2006, Gaza in 2008 and the Turkish aid flotilla in 2010 all left Israel weaker and its enemies stronger. At a time when Israel is threatening an air attack on Iran, its leaders are frighteningly incapable of calculating their own best interests.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.
This article originally appeared in the London Review of Books.