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Lessons from Lebanon 25 years on

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Yesterday, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of U.S. and French peacekeeping force barracks in Beirut - an assault which remains one of the most deadly and ugly attacks of its kind - the New York Times chose to run two opinion pieces on the subject, both offering the same lesson to be learned - and both wrong.

The articles - one written by Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's national security advisor at the time of the attacks, the other by Randy Gaddo, former Marine staff sergeant and a photographer - both slavishly follow the failed global war on terror American narrative toward the Middle East, and radical Islam.

Both connect America's immediate withdrawal of forces from Lebanon following the '83 attack with the events of September 11th. Both suggest the experience in Lebanon ought to lead America to "stay the course" in Iraq. McFarlane suggests GWOT started 18 years too late in September 2001, that the Americans should have gone on the military offensive then in Lebanon and are being "vindicated" now in Iraq "to establish an example of pluralism in a Muslim state." Oh dear.

The Shi'a adversary that killed nearly 300 troops in Beirut in 1983 was not, of course, the same foe that struck the USS Cole, American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, and the World Trade Center in '93 and '01. That enemy was Al Qaeda, a takfiri salafist Sunni ideology that deems the Shi'a faith heretical.

Remaining in Lebanon and expanding operations there in the 1980s would have entailed literally standing in the middle of a civil war. During this period, Lebanon was effectively occupied by two foreign forces, both the Israelis and the Syrians. Further, Palestinian militants, having already been expelled from Jordan, presented a major destabilizing force, between attacks on Israel and inter-faction feuding. It's difficult to fathom what maintaining a U.S. troop presence would have achieved, or what lesson various terrorist factions might have learned from further massacres of U.S. servicemen.

Lebanon itself only emerged from the Israeli occupation of its south in May 2000 and from the pervasive Syrian military presence in April 2005. Just this month Syria and Lebanon finally established formal diplomatic relations. All this ought to tell us something about the corrosive effects of foreign occupations (American-led ones included), about the hard diplomatic slog of stability-building and the need to follow the difficult path of inclusivity and decisiveness in political conflict resolution.

First, the travails of occupation. It is worth recalling that it was the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978 and then more dramatically in 1982 that facilitated and fueled the rise of the Shi'a Hezbollah; just as it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq which brought the virulent Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and elsewhere to Iraq.

Foreign occupations tend to stir resistance, violent resistance, among occupied populations - and can become self-perpetuating for the occupier. It is much easier to get in than to get out (and becomes increasingly so over time, especially if a civilian settler population from the occupying country is added to the mix - just ask the Israelis and Palestinians). Over time the political mutations that occupation breeds can become more entrenched and more deadly. For the New York Times to publish two op-eds on the same day both favoring more and longer US occupations of Arab countries is particularly appalling.

The hard political work of conflict resolution and stability-building in the Middle East is not primarily a military mission. It requires commitment, a willingness to be assertive diplomatically and a stomach for engaging (directly or indirectly) with thoroughly unpleasant parties, often bloody adversaries - but with whom one can find just enough common ground to cut acceptable deals (remember who the Sunni "Awakening Councils" were before they got that nice laundered name).

To borrow a phrase from a different policy arena - this work requires a scalpel not an axe, it's a fragile region and a fragile political reality - lumping AQ, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Taliban, etc. together and then vowing to destroy them all is not a smart plan.

And what might all this tell us about the Presidential candidates? Senator Obama favors diplomatically engaging more broadly to build stability. He, for instance, favors talking to the Syrians and Iranians. On Iraq he also displays understanding that an occupation can be a key part of the problem - he promotes US troop withdrawal as a way of incentivizing a more effective political reconciliation process. And he appreciates how central the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the narrative of radicalization in the region, and the need to resolve that conflict, urgently, and not least for Israel's sake.

Obama has not though extended this problem-solving realism to the question of how to deal with non-al Qaeda, non-state actors - whether that be, for instance, in response to senior NATO officers calling to bring Taliban elements into the Afghan political tent or to Israel's ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza.

Intriguingly, Senator McCain, in his previous incarnation was one of just 27 Republican representatives (McCain was a newly elected Congressman at the time) to oppose extending the Marine deployment in Beirut, prior to October '83 barracks attack. It is something McCain has mentioned on the campaign trail--but it also represents a McCain that barely exists today - so lost he is in the all-embracing neocon bear-hug. McCain is largely opposed to diplomatic engagement with both the state and non-state actors in the Middle East with whom the US finds itself in conflict. Military threats and bellicose rhetoric have become the standard operating procedure for candidate McCain and his GWOT-narrative.

It's a shame that Senator McCain was not challenged on this 25 years after that terrible bombing - it is even more of a shame that 25 years later most of the wrong lessons are still being learned.