Petraeus, Iraq and the Lebanon Analogy

Gen. Petraeus is clearly convinced that Iraq needs US troops to shore up the government and security. He has done the most responsible job yet seen by an American official in Iraq in trying to end the carnage. He has made bazaars no drive zones to stop the car bombings. He has surrounded city districts with blast walls to keep out insurgents. He has reached out to the Sunnis (though alas the Shiite government has not). He has done what he could, but it hasn’t been enough. There really is little sign of political reconciliation. And quite inadvertently, his initial disarming of the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad led to a massive ethnic cleansing and the Shiitization of the capital, setting the stage for a future civil war.

Al-Maliki started out with a national unity government. He had Sunnis in his cabinet. He had Sadrists in his cabinet. Islamic Virtue Party. Iraqi National List. All gone. His government is more fractured and less representative than before the surge began!

What if the US military presence is juvenilizing the Iraqis and prolonging the civil war? Over 900 Iraqis were killed in political violence in March, the highest number since September.

Some of the March death toll was from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s abrupt attack on the Sadr neighborhoods of Basra, which was repulsed. But surely al-Maliki rejected negotiations and attacked frontally because he knew that if he got into trouble he could call down US close air support. If the US were not in Iraq, might al-Maliki not have dickered instead?

Might it not be the same between al-Maliki and the Sunnis? Al-Maliki objected vehemently to the US arming the Sunni Awakening Councils. He declines to incorporate them into the Iraqi security forces in any numbers. But his standoffishness comes from knowledge that if the Sunnis give him too much trouble, he can have his American friends bomb them.

If we make an analogy to Lebanon, we can see that a foreign military occupation never resolved Lebanon’s problems. Kissinger greenlighted a Syrian/ Arab League force for Lebanon in 1976. Although the Syrians invaded and kept tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, they either did not want to or could not end the Lebanese civil war, which sputtered on.

The Israeli attempt in 1982 to install a Phalangist strongman failed. The US Marines tried to come in to do peace-keeping after the Israeli invasion, and they faced a still-sullen population, and got hit by Islamic Amal.

The Syrians could not help but play one Lebanese faction off against another.

Only in 1989, after 14 years of fruitless fighting, did the Lebanese agree to end the war. The big clan and sect leaders negotiated an end to the war. Some had been in or associated with the militias that had fought the civil war.

What if Iraq has been lebanonized, but not in the sense that Ambassador Crocker alleged, of heavy Iranian influence? (And by the way, I was in south Lebanon in December, and the influence of Iran strikes me as over-stated in the US. The UN, the EU and other funding sources are also important).

What if the US is playing the Syrians here, and the Iraqis the Lebanese?

In this analogy, the war is not ended by foreign occupation troops. If anything, the Syrian policies just keep the pot boiling.

It is ended by a conference at the resort town of Taef in Saudi Arabia among the big Lebanese politicians, who make key compromises with one another and begin practically disbanding militias.

Maybe the Iraqis need to be left on their own militarily, and maybe what they need is a big conference at Taef.

Maybe the US in Iraq is not the little boy with his finger in the dike. Maybe we are workers with jackhammers instructed to make the hole in the dike much more huge.

Just something to think about.