Lessons from Lebanon

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(Host) While some see the ghost of Vietnam in the escalation of conflict in Iraq, commentator Barrie Dunsmore thinks that another comparison may be more apt.

(Dunsmore) The latest violence in Iraq is once again prompting warnings that Iraq is becoming another Vietnam. While there may be some similarities, I believe the uncanny comparisons are not with Vietnam but with Lebanon.

In the 1980’s Lebanon was being wracked by a civil war, a Palestinian revolution, a Syrian intervention and an Israeli invasion and the US not so wisely went in to act as policeman.

The latest spate of hostage taking in Iraq is a reminder of those years in Lebanon when groups like Hezbollah, following the example of their Iranian trainers, began kidnapping Westerners. The point of hostage-taking, is of course, blackmail, and giving in can be costly.

Jimmy Carter was effectively paralyzed for the last year of his presidency because Iranian clerics were holding more than fifty American hostages. A few years later, Ronald Reagan’s legacy was seriously damaged by his willingness to trade arms to Iran in return for American hostages.

The sad fact is, hostage taking often works…as does terrorism.

Again, the Lebanese example is an important one. In October 1983, the worst terrorist attack the US had ever suffered prior to 9/11 took place in Beirut. In an operation organized by Iran and Syria, a suicide bomber drove a five ton truck-load of explosives into the US Marine barracks in Beirut killing 241 Americans.

Not long after, the Reagan administration decided that the better part of valor was to get out of town. The spin-doctors of the day called it a “re-deployment” of US forceS…the troops were initially put onto ships stationed off the Lebanese coast. But no one in the Mid-east bought that. An act of terrorism had forced the mighty United States to retreat, a fact which became part of terrorist folk-lore and strategy, and almost certainly is inspiring today’s insurgents in Iraq.

Certainly one of the lessons of Lebanon is that a super power like the US, once it is deeply involved in a conflict, must not be seen to be intimidated by terrorists. But there is also no point in just staying around to kill and be killed. There must be a viable plan.

To borrow a cliche, there is no silver bullet, but remember that the countries of Europe and the Mid-East also have a large stake in not having Iraq fall into chaos to become another terrorist haven. So if I were President Bush, I would be on the phone to all of America’s key allies to propose an immediate summit, with the promise to truly share power in determining Iraq’s future. The goal would be to put together a robust international force to provide security and to give a free hand to the United Nations to organize the transfer of power to a genuinely representative Iraqi group.

This may be too late, but it has a better chance to succeed than continuing on the present course, which now seems to be doomed to fail.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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