Dickey: Why Iraq Will End Up Like Lebanon

If you want to know what Iraq will look like 25 years from now, look at Lebanon today. The similarities and differences—but mainly the similarities—raise a lot of painful memories and questions for

This fact hit me once again when I was talking to Mike Sheehan, who is one of the more clear-eyed analysts of terrorism and the way we react to it. The subject came up of Beirut as it is now, a bloody mess, and as it was when Mike and I first focused on it a quarter-century ago, when it was even bloodier.

Back then President Ronald Reagan waded into the Levantine quagmire, quickly understood that he had made a big miscalculation, and withdrew. "Some counterterrorism experts argue the Reagan pullout from Lebanon was a mistake and emboldened future terrorists," says Sheehan. "I never bought this analysis, then or now. I think it was one of the smartest things Reagan did during his tenure—to get out of the Lebanese civil war. To stay in any war to 'make a statement' has never made sense to me. You have to have well-defined interests and achievable goals when you put American soldiers in harm's way; both seemed to be missing in Lebanon. Reagan recognized it and withdrew."

Sheehan believes symbolism is a major factor in the fight against terrorists only if it's accompanied by the systematic elimination of the terrorists' operational cells and infrastructure. (Hence the title of his recent book, "Crush the Cell" [Vintage, 2008], which I wrote about last week.) Sheehan is not arguing that a Lebanon-style pullout from Iraq, which is a different war in a different time, would be so sensible now. President George W. Bush will probably make that point many times during his upcoming nonvictory tour of the Middle East.

And yet, whether the United States stays in Iraq or goes, "Lebanonization" is the most likely result: a foundering half-failed state where neighbors fight proxy battles through sectarian militias and through the many factions in a government that is unable to govern at all. There will be times of war when life seems to go on almost as normal, and times of peace when it seems not to. There will be spurts of investment, maybe even tourism. There will be festivals of democratic excitement. And then sudden storms of savage violence will sweep through the streets of the capital, only to subside, then erupt in smaller cities, and subside. And erupt again. And so it goes, to borrow the old refrain from Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse Five." If the world pays any attention at all, the span will be brief. The fighting and the failures to govern will have gone on so long that nothing seems new in that news.

The chances for meaningful reconstruction diminish by the day in such a place. The brains and talent needed to build the home country will, for the most part, be building other countries, having left over the years as much out of frustration as fear. The best, lacking all conviction that things can improve, will have established their own families in Abu Dhabi or New York—wherever there seems some modicum of sanity and a real commitment to the future, not just an endless settling of past scores. The worst, filled with passionate intensity and armed with rocket-propelled grenades, will rule the streets. As it is in Beirut, so it will be in Baghdad.

Even many of the players in Iraq and Lebanon are similar: Syria, Iran, ferocious fighters in the mountains (the Druze and Christians in Lebanon, the Kurds in Iraq), competing and combative Shiite factions (Amal and Hizbullah in Lebanon; the Dawa, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Iraq).

If we Americans had stayed in Lebanon, could we have made a difference? It would be nice to think so, but we didn't really have the option.

The U.S. Marines went into the country in 1982 to help Israel usher out the Palestine Liberation Organization, then went in again when Israel's Christian militia allies massacred defenseless Palestinian civilians at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A young political officer from the U.S. embassy, Ryan Crocker, was one of the first outsiders to see the carnage up close. Amid the stench of decaying flesh he counted 106 bodies, 27 of them women and children. But this was "by no means a complete figure," he said in a cable to Washington dictated over his car radio. Washington decided the atrocity demanded some sort of American solution. But what sort? Nobody was sure. But in went the Marines again.

It turned out the Palestinians were far from the only fighters in Lebanon, and Iran nurtured one new group, the Shiite Party of God, or Hizbullah, that proved especially effective. Its recruits were willing to commit suicide to kill their foreign enemies: the Israelis occupying the southern part of Lebanon, the French who had come in as part of the same deployment as the Americans trying to stabilize the situation, and the Americans themselves. The Party of God blew up the U.S. Embassy, it blew up the Marine barracks, it blew up the U.S. Embassy again.

The Reagan administration's exit strategy from Lebanon was to train up units of the Lebanese Army to act as effective keepers of the peace. But the Lebanese Sixth Brigade, responsible for most of the capital, was mostly made up of Shiites. In February 1984 the entire brigade, in effect, joined the ranks of one of the militias. And the Marines at that point had no choice but to get back on their boats.

The critical differences in Iraq are that Americans have stayed much longer already, fought much harder, and died in much greater numbers. Iraq is bigger. It is even more complicated. And it has oil, which means, especially given today's markets, that it is vital to the world's economy. The Bush administration, moreover, has created an Iraqi military that is incapable of defending itself from direct aggression by others in the neighborhood, whether Iran or Israel, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, should any of those countries want to pick a fight or stake out a little territory. So at the same time that Iraq has become America's curse, it has become its dependency.

As the United States had no choice but to leave Lebanon, it has created a situation in which it has no choice but to stay in Iraq.

That's why Crocker, now the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, and Gen. David Petraeus and the other professionals trying to salvage the situation there are always so guarded in their progress reports. The situation can indeed get worse. The patient's on life support, and if Congress pulls the plug it will probably die, but we'll still be stuck in the room with the decaying corpse.

One of the more reasonable prescriptions for Iraq I've heard lately was on a panel with Colin Kahl, a political scientist at Georgetown University. His catch phrase was, as opposed to victory, sustainable stability: contain or crush the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, try to keep the state from collapsing altogether or becoming an Iranian puppet and prevent genocidal violence. And if you can do all those things, whether by negotiation with Iran, twisting the arms of Iraqi politicians, using troops on the ground or threatening to pull them out, then that's about as much as can be expected.

All of which sounds as if we'll be fighting for a long time just to achieve the kind of painful stalemate that emerged in Lebanon when we left after a mere 18 months on the ground. But I'm not so sure I'd give as much credit to Reagan's wisdom as Mike Sheehan does.

On the day the last Marine combat unit pulled out of Lebanon in 1984, a television interviewer asked then-Secretary of State George Shultz if that meant a victory for the bad guys. He could not but equivocate: "This is a kind of warfare, really, that is something different for us … We have to improve our intelligence capability, and we have to think through how, within the concept of the rule of law, which we hold so dear, we can take a more aggressive posture toward what is a worldwide and very undesirable trend." That was 24 years ago, and we're still thinking it through.