Lebanon offers critical lessons for U.S. in Iraq

As I watched the pictures of cheering Iraqis welcoming British and American forces into Basra and Baghdad last week, I was reminded of similar scenes I witnessed in Lebanon in June 1982. But this is more than mere nostalgia; Israel's bitter experience in Lebanon teaches some critical lessons Washington should heed as it moves to the second and most critical phase of the effort to create a more responsible and democratic Iraq.

In 1982, I drove my rented Subaru, which I had to promise the rental agency I would not take out of the country, from Jerusalem to just north of Beirut. I was one of the first foreign civilians allowed into Lebanon and I had escorts from Israel's defense and foreign ministries.

Just north of the Israeli border was the worst traffic jam I'd ever seen, as tens of thousands of Lebanese, with their families and belongings piled into, on top of and alongside their cars and pickup trucks fled south. There were so many that Israeli bulldozers were carving out new paths alongside so troops and equipment could go north.

Riders in both directions were waving and cheering at one another. I had not expected to see so many Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, so excited to see Israelis coming into their country.

They were greeted as liberators who came to drive out the foreign occupiers, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, who had taken over their country after a failed 1970 attempt to overthrow King Hussein and take over Jordan.

PLO offices had been ransacked by local Shiites in one village I visited; PLO leader Yasser Arafat's picture had been defaced and graffiti on the walls was not flattering to him or his parents.

It didn't take long for the cheering to give way to jeering, and the applause for driving out the PLO turned to calls to drive out the Israelis.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin had promised to stay only as long as necessary for Israel's security, and he disavowed any designs on Lebanese territory.

But in the name of security, Israel stayed. And stayed. Friendship turned to anger. Soon the same Shiites who had welcomed the Israeli liberators began calling for removing the Israeli occupiers, and many of those people became the backbone of Hezbollah.

President Bush has declared the United States will not stay in Iraq longer than necessary. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld vowed, "We'll do our job and leave."

So far they've been vague about how they will know when it is time to leave. It is unrealistic to ask for deadlines, but measuring sticks are appropriate.

The Israelis wound up staying 18 years and are still paying a heavy price for that experience.

Israel went into Lebanon with far better justification than the United States and Britain went into Iraq. PLO artillery and terrorists were taking a daily toll that threatened to turn Israel's northern cities into ghost towns. Arafat had established a state-within-a-state and was threatening to take over all of Lebanon, which he had turned into a base for international terror (something it remains to this day, but under Syrian control).

Shiites and Christians in the south of Lebanon had suffered more from the Palestinians, who brutally controlled their daily lives. But that didn't mean they wanted the Israelis to replace the Palestinians — just get rid of them.

Begin and then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the architect of the Lebanon policy, tried to anoint a new Lebanese leadership, dictate the terms of peace, demand recognition of Israel and pick surrogates to help run the country. The May 17, 1983 peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon was dictated, not negotiated.

The Lebanese president who signed it, Bashir Gemayel, was soon assassinated by the Syrians, who did not want to see the Zionists take over their colony.

The Lebanese and Iraqi models are not identical, but there are some valuable lessons the Israelis learned the hard way that can benefit the Americans as they undertake the toughest part of the Iraqi campaign.

Never forget that those cheering crowds on the streets of Iraq are celebrating Saddam's departure, not America's arrival.

The Iraqi people may be indebted to us for their liberation, but we didn't send over a quarter of a million troops for them.

Our stated goal was to remove Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction because we considered them to be a direct threat to our national security.

However, we, and particularly this administration, do owe the Iraqi people a big debt. The first Bush administration ended Gulf War I prematurely, after making sure the Kuwaitis got their oil wells back and the Saudi oil fields were no longer threatened, but they failed to vanquish Saddam. At the urging of Bush the elder, Iraqi Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north rose up against Saddam, but he abandoned them to Saddam's killing machines.

Now Bush the younger is obligated to stick around and make sure there is no repeat of that betrayal.

Pulling out too soon is no less dangerous than staying too long.

Democracy cannot happen overnight, it cannot be imposed and there's no quick fix by recycling old Baathists.

Laurie Mylroie, an expert on Iraq, said, "The Iraqi people are not in a position to decide today who will lead them. First it's necessary to set up structures and institutions; until then, you need a transitional authority."

Even as the president speaks of the need for Iraqis to pick their own leadership and govern themselves, the Pentagon and State Department are battling over their favorite candidates, a debate that has erupted in damaging and embarrassing leaks to the media.

One of the lessons that can be taken from Israel's experience in Lebanon is that whoever ultimately leads Iraq must be chosen of Iraqis, by Iraqis, for Iraqis.

America can help build democratic institutions in Iraq if it has the patience to see the job through and the perception to know when it is time to go home.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.