Lebanon as Israel’s Vietnam

Posted December 8, 2006

[The following interview, edited by David Finkel and Dianne Feeley for publication here, was conducted by Suzi Weissman for her program “Beneath the Surface” on KPFK radio, August 14, 2006. Transcribed by Meleiza Figueroa. A brief excerpt appeared in Against the Current 124, September-October 2006.]

Suzi Weissman: Welcome to Beneath the Surface, I’m Suzi Weissman. Well, it’s official — the war in Lebanon is officially over — yet right up until the ceasefire went into effect early this morning, Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters battled fiercely to the last minute. The shock campaign has terrorized the population, crippled the economy and destroyed the infrastructure in Lebanon, while equally terrifying the population of northern Israel. Hezbollah’s rockets were symbolic and strategic, forcing Israel to give up reliance on air power alone, and undertake a massive ground invasion in a country that already has been called “Israel’s Vietnam.”

Gilbert Achcar calls this the “sinking ship of U.S. imperial designs,” in which the clumsy execution of gigantic imperial power on the part of the United States has been matched by equally disastrous mistakes on the part of Israel in its attempts to pulverize the resistance of Hezbollah and Hamas. I’m very pleased to have Gilbert with us to discuss these issues. Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, he teaches political science at the University of Paris VIII, his bestselling book, The Clash of Barbarisms has just come out in a second expanded edition, and a book of his dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, Perilous Power, is forthcoming — both from Paradigm Publishers. He joins us by phone from Berlin.

Gilbert, the war has officially ended as of midnight.  Do you really believe that it’s over?

Gilbert Achcar: Of course it officially ended as of 5 AM GMT.
That was very precise. What is over for the time being — what they call the
hostilities — doesn’t mean that the war is over. This remains to be seen, as
it depends on several factors; not the least of them is the part of the UN Security
Council resolution related to the deployment of an international force in southern
Lebanon, which is something rather complicated to implement. Organizing this
force, sending this force to southern Lebanon, and especially sending it with
a clear mandate and an agreement with Hezbollah –all this cannot be taken for

How Big a Defeat?

SW: But can we say — given that obviously we’re going to
have to stay tuned to see if this is really over, given that the ceasefire was
long in coming, and in fact Condoleezza Rice took her time in getting there,
she went to play piano first in Kuala Lumpur, while the U.S. was sending weapons
to Israel — can we say that this has been a huge defeat for both the United
States and Israel?

GA: It has been of course an obvious defeat. To say a “huge”
defeat depends on the sense you would give the term. Of course, there was nothing
like Dien Bien Phu, the kind of military defeat that the French in 1954 faced
in Vietnam, before the United States intervened in that country. But the defeat
is related to the goals that Israel set itself — and the United States, from
behind Israel, set itself to win this war — and it is quite clear that these
goals were not achieved.

SW: That’s very interesting that you bring in Vietnam and Dien Bien Phu, because that clearly was a watershed in that struggle. And maybe this incursion into Lebanon will be seen as a very symbolic one that ends the aura of invincible Israeli power — one in which it seems that disastrous mistakes were made on the part of Israel and certainly the United States; and maybe it’s going to change the tactic. It seems to me that the choice from the beginning was either for Israel to make an all-out assault, or do the sensible thing in my view, which would have been a prisoner exchange. But obviously Israel felt there was no point in a limited military response because it wouldn’t work. But couldn’t they have just exchanged prisoners? Or is this war something that you would argue was part of a larger design in the region?

GA: First of all, the “aura” as you say of the Israeli army had already been lost, you know. It had been lost when it was compelled to leave Lebanon in the year 2000 unconditionally — the first time in Israeli history that Israel abandoned an occupied territory unconditionally. That never happened, even when they invaded part of Egypt — they withdrew from Egypt, but with a set of political conditions that they obtained after that.

So, this aura had already been affected by the situation in Lebanon.  And as you said, to depict Lebanon as Israel’s Vietnam is not new. The same image was used at the time of its previous occupation of Lebanon. And as a commentator said at the beginning of this recent war, that was exactly like the United States going back into Vietnam — that was the second attempt at taming the Lebanese guerillas that are led by the Hezbollah. And for the second time, it proved to be a real failure.

But the failure this time has been more dramatic because of the very scale of the very brutal, very murderous offensive by the Israeli armed forces. And this dramatic scale just emphasized their failure — their defeat at achieving any of the goals that they set from the beginning, including to stop these Katyusha rockets launched on the north of Israel. If we look at it from the Israeli point of view — I mean, from the point of view of the Israeli establishment — that was really a big problem.

Had they resorted to what you are right in calling a rational or peaceful or political solution, and negotiated an exchange of prisoners, the credibility of the Israeli deterrent would have been very much affected. But now, through this military operation that they thought would contribute to enhancing this credibility, which had been affected when they left Lebanon in the year 2000, their credibility was affected much more than it had already been six years ago.

SW: I’m glad you mentioned that, especially the view of the deterrent, as you called it. It seems that Israel probably couldn’t have imagined the outcome of this incursion — as you say, not the first, but a further defeat. And I’m wondering whether you think that the push into Lebanon had more to do with Israeli internal politics, or whether it was Washington-driven.

I bring that up because you mentioned “the deterrent,” and I always thought that Hezbollah was meant to be the deterrent for the American attack on Iran. And now that Israel was determined to eliminate it, do you believe that meant the United States sees the attack on Iran as more likely and/or even inevitable?

GA: As you just said, if Hezbollah is to be regarded as part of the Iranian deterrent, of course the outcome of this war as it emphasized Israeli failure — and behind Israel, the United States’ failure — is something which goes against the ability of the United States to consider a military onslaught on Iran. I mean, the United States is in a weak position, it faces a quagmire in Iraq, the human resources of the United States armed forces are very much under stress, and now you have Hezbollah achieving this political victory in Lebanon; so overall, the balance of forces have tilted in favor of Iran in this last confrontation.

A Convergence of Interests

Back to your starting point, I would say that this war was one perfect case of convergence between Israel’s interests and the United States government’s interests.  This convergence is not always there. There were instances where the history of relations between the two countries — even since a strategic alliance was built between the two countries in the sixties — there were many instances where the interests were not completely convergent or overlapping.

This time, the convergence was absolutely clear. Israel had an interest, first, in regaining its lost credibility (and) an interest in crushing the Hezbollah, and taming Lebanon as a source of concern for Israel. And the United States, of course, had the same interest — not so much because of Lebanon per se, which, is not much of an important piece of real estate from the point of view of Washington — but because of what Lebanon means in the regional confrontation going on between the United States’ imperial drive and Iran as the main stumbling block facing this imperial drive.

SW: In this convergence of interests of the United States — or at least the neoconservatives within the United States — and Israel, both seem to agree that they need to reformat the terrain of the Middle East — bringing down Iran, disciplining the Palestinian resistance, using Lebanon to teach Iran a lesson. But I’m wondering whether the way that this mission is being carried out might lead, rather than towards something rational, to pressure from the right in Israel to do something even bigger…and that would be like attacking Iran?

GA: I would doubt that, unless you have some dramatic change in the political majority in Israel, which is not of course to be excluded. But this Israeli government is a lame duck now, having suffered a terrible defeat in Lebanon. You can see already the very harsh tone of the critics of this government in the Israeli press — just read [the leading Israeli daily newspaper] Ha’aretz every day and you’ll find the harshest possible comments one can find about the performance of the Israeli government.

To measure the extent of the failure, one has to take into consideration the fact that after Israel was already anguished by the fact that it’s no longer the essential tool for the United States. This was proven by the direct military involvement of the United States with the first crisis (1990-91) around Iraq — now we are in a case where Israel does rely on the United States even to solve the issue of Lebanon. That is, Israel failed miserably in its attempt in Lebanon, and now the only hope of the Israeli establishment is that the United States could achieve by other means — by some combination of international forces and internal political dynamics in Lebanon — what Israel failed to achieve by its own military power. And the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s speech at the Knesset, trying to boast about victory — is really, absolutely pitiful.

After Defeat, the Temptations

SW: You say that this shows that Israel now has to rely on the United States to kind of clean up, yet the United States has made its own equally or even more disastrous policy in Iraq and is bogged down. This has done the opposite of what Washington wanted to do, and has increased the threats against it in Iraq. Given all of these things, can we expect further development of both anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. forces in the region, to further weaken U.S. power? Even while the United States has messed up and ignited an Islamic revolt, Europe has stood strong behind the United States, as have Arab regimes. Have the neocons just screwed up but U.S. power remains?

GA: You asked me about whether I believe that Israel would be tempted to strike at Iran. Actually, of course this risk exists much more on the United States side. Faced with this accumulation of failures, of disasters, the present U.S. administration — which you know better than I do is anything but what you would call rational, as you have said more than once — could react like a wounded beast by attacking Iran. Given the balance of forces, Iran will certainly be tempted to stick to a hard line on nuclear power development, and stick to what Iran considers to be its right. Ten the United States will be faced with a very serious challenge.

To be sure the United States has a tremendous military power, and as I stress in “The Sinking Ship of U.S. Imperial Designs” (www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10718) which you’ve mentioned, the United States spends as much as the rest of the world combined for its military. Just imagine: there are only 14 countries in the world whose GDP, gross domestic product, is superior to U.S. military expenditure. U.S. military expenditure alone is higher than the economies of the overwhelming majority of the states of the world! So this is absolutely monstrous. I mean, this is a huge military power, but — and this is something which is very important — in all respects U.S. military might has tremendously increased since Vietnam, except in one: the decisive one for imperial control.

When you have imperial designs, when you want to exert control over other populations in a kind of neocolonial fashion, as the United States is doing presently in Iraq, well, what you need is troops, not military technology. I mean, the drones or remote controlled gadgets cannot control populations; that’s strictly impossible. That’s the Achilles heel of U.S. imperial power — that they are no longer able to deploy a vast occupation army, because of Vietnam, and because of the fact that the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” has not been bypassed or overcome, as Bush Senior thought when he launched his attack on Iraq in 1991.

On the contrary — this Vietnam syndrome is very much with us and is a very important legacy, which weakens very much the ability of the United States empire to impose its will on the rest of the world. You can see how they are not able to control Iraq, even the Arab Sunni areas of Iraq, meaning 20% or less of the Iraqi population. They are not able to control them — not to speak of Afghanistan; it’s a real joke to speak of any control over Afghanistan by the United States beyond its military bases in that country.

You have a real disaster for the image of the United States empire. In Washington-ese, or in the political language of the establishment, they would say that they lack “soft power” although they have a lot of “hard power.” What I would say is that they lack two things; not only soft power, but they lack human power, and of course they lack soft power in the sense that they lack the ideological ability to be accepted by the populations they are trying to control. And they are so clumsy that even when they have some trend of people feeling or thinking that they could find some convergence with them, they manage to waste it.

Look at what happened recently: One major aspect of the confrontation between Washington and Tehran is about winning the hearts and minds of the Arab Sunnis; that is, the overwhelming majority of Arabs belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, not to the Shiites, who are dominant in Iran and a majority in Iraq. So Washington, in the recent period, has been very much playing again the Sunni card with its Arab Sunni allies — mainly the Saudi kingdom, Egypt and Jordan — and pointing at this very dangerous slide toward a civil war in Iraq, which the United States has actually been fueling for this whole period! Then comes this Lebanese issue, which turned the whole thing upside down.

Sliding Toward Civil Wars?

Already you had the victory of Hamas, which was a major blow for the United States project — all the more in that Hamas is in alliance with Tehran, and Hamas is not a Shiite organization, on the contrary, it’s the most prestigious Sunni Islamic fundamentalist organization. So that would be a terrible political blow for Washington and its Arab clients.

Now you have the situation created by the Lebanese war. All attempts at the beginning by Washington’s Arab clients to take a stand condemning Hezbollah have backfired, and you have had a sweeping wave at the level of public opinion in all Arab countries overwhelmingly supporting or feeling sympathy with Hezbollah — to the point that Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s prestige in the eyes of Arab public opinion has been compared to that of Gamal Abdul Nasser. This comparison is a little bit overdone, but it’s true that Nasrallah has become the most prestigious Arab leader since Nasser, the leader of Egypt in the 1950s and ’60s, up to his death in 1970. This is a very important development and a major aspect of Washington’s failure in the Lebanon war.

SW: Your point on the need for troops is absolutely echoed in this morning’s Los Angeles Times by an analyst who said that they needed to do “shock and help” — meaning to help by creating infrastructure, bringing medical supplies, rebuilding and doing everything to win over the support of the population, and they’ve done all this very badly.

But you ended up by saying that the Lebanon war has created tremendous sympathy, that Hezbollah has come out as a winner and Nasrallah is almost seen as the new Nasser. From this side, all you hear is that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Yet it’s a nationalist party with deeper roots, it has preformed social service functions, much as Hamas in Palestine does. And I’d like you to just inform our listeners: What is Hezbollah?

GA: Hezbollah is an organization which came to embody the Lebanese national resistance to Israeli occupation. It was created in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Its birth was a kind of conjunction — I like this formula — between the shock wave of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the effect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, especially on the Lebanese Shiites, who are the overwhelming majority of the population of southern Lebanon.

Even if one assumed that this or that so-called terrorist action abroad had been really executed by Hezbollah — although none of those operations attributed to it are recognized by Hezbollah — that would be a very marginal aspect of its activity.

Of course, as with any resistance force that wages a resistance fight through guerilla type of struggle, they are labeled as terrorists by the occupying power, by Israel. They have been labeled ‘terrorist’ by the godfather of the occupying power, by the United States, and considered an enemy because they are close allies of Syria and Iran, those states considered in Washington as major enemies of U.S. designs.

So Hezbollah resounds as an organization, as you can see right now on the television screen. You are seeing, I guess — because I’ve seen some of them on CNN — those masses going back to southern Lebanon and raising the flag of Hezbollah. People have suffered all that they have suffered, and instead of turning against Hezbollah, as Israel wanted or thought that they would, they have been confirmed into supporting Hezbollah. Hezbollah has won a much wider popularity than it had before this whole war. That’s the fact — this is an organization with very popular roots, which has members in Parliament, many members of Parliament, they have two ministers in the Lebanese government — but there’s no standard by which Hezbollah could be considered a terrorist organization.

SW: I want to raise two final questions. One, because we’re talking about Lebanon, what’s going to happen now that its newly built infrastructure has been degraded and its population has been pushed into more sympathy with Hezbollah? Then on the other side, what about Israel? What now? It seems to me that this has just been a tragedy all around, has increased anti-Semitism in the world, in some way it has amplified anti-Zionist predictions about Jews being trapped in Israel, rather than fighting anti-Semitism in the areas that they came from.

GA: Well, on the Lebanese issue, I think that now the stratagem for Washington is to try to foster the division between the Lebanese — which they couldn’t achieve as long as the war was going on — to try, now that the war has stopped, to push some dynamics which would be as dangerous as the one you have in Iraq in a sense,.

The possibility of a civil war looms on the horizon in Lebanon. This is a country, after all, which overcame its own civil war only fifteen or sixteen years ago. And that’s one point — Washington would want to have some kind of combination of a split in the Lebanese society, and acting through the international force that is going to be sent to Lebanon, in order to increase its interference and to try, as I said, to achieve by other means what Israel was not able to achieve by its military onslaught.

Now at the level of Israel, I can only share what you just said. This is part of an ongoing tragedy. It’s true in that what so many Jewish anti-Zionists have emphasized, just commenting on the Zionist project even before the birth of Israel, that this would create a dangerous trap for the Jews.

It’s completely confirmed by what we are saying. Israel is turning more and more into the most dangerous place for any Jew on earth. I mean, this is a very dangerous country, and the more it behaves in such a brutal, murderous manner, the more it will increase the hatred toward it, the more it will become difficult to even dream of a political settlement and a peaceful settlement of the problems of that area, and the more likely will be the fact that at some point, some very dangerous weapon could be used on Israel, compared to which 9/11 would pale.