On March 26, 2003, five days into the American-led invasion of Iraq, I wrote a column for the Daytona Beach News-Journal outlining why the invasion was wrong and unwinnable, and predicted the catastrophic sectarian breakdown of the country that would follow and the carnage that American soldiers would endure. I reproduce the column here as it remains a necessary marker against the suggestion that some of us may have come to oppose the Iraq war either for politically motivated reasons, or when it became convenient or safe to do so. My opposition is not informed by American politics so much as Middle Eastern realities, which American politicians to this day presume, at great cost to the region's progress and to their own credibility, to have the power to influence their way.
In Gothic novels the bombshell princess is typically shackled to the whims of nasty men and foul-mouthed step-mothers and suffers indignities by the bushel until she’s liberated by Prince Charming. The novels always cue The End before Princess discovers that her Fabio look-alike is actually twice the bastard her tormentors had been, and a serial womanizer: He’s the guy hopping between Harlequin covers while she ends up dog-eared and spineless at the secondhand bookshop.
The gothic novel has its real-life equivalent in geopolitics. Instead of a helpless, persecuted bombshell, you have a beleaguered, persecuted country that dreams of deliverance. Deliverance may come, but The End doesn’t conveniently follow. The story must go on. The next chapter often reads like a morgue manifest.
Learning by Lebanon's Example...
I speak from experience here. When I was a boy in the early years of Lebanon's civil war, all we dreamed about was some kind of savior to liberate us from mayhem. In 1976 we got the first in a series. The Syrian army marched in to keep us Christians from being slaughtered by a coalition of Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims. We welcomed the Syrians with the ritual rice-throwing, although it was probably Minute Rice, not something fancy like basmati: We didn’t trust the Syrians.
Sure enough, a minute later, relatively speaking, they turned their guns on us and became the occupying army they have remained ever since. So we started dreaming of new liberators and, for a time, we were convinced Israel would oblige. Looking back, that was like wishing for Huns to liberate you from Visigoths, us poor beleaguered Christians being no less Vandals for wear. Between one bombardment and another I was ferreted out of the country and have kissed and licked every day’s peace ever since, but obviously kept an eye on Lebanon's torments.
... Followed by Israel's Example
In 1982 the Israelis did finally invade. They got the rice treatment, too, because the Palestinians had turned south Lebanon into their private little Idaho , militia-style.
Sure enough, the Israeli occupation, one of Ariel Sharon’s Guernicas, proved no less grotesque than the Palestinians'. The Christian-inspired, Israeli-managed massacres of a few thousand Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila camps precipitated yet more foreign interventions. This time it was the multinational force of Italians, French and Americans. For that one, the Lebanese sprung for Uncle Ben’s. They thought America would finally save them as no one else could.
The U.S. Marines in beirut
Then America got in the nation-building business. And as it did, it took sides—siding with the Israeli-backed Christian government of Amin Gemayel, a playboy with brie for brains.
Then, in quick succession, those quiet Americans met the unquiet wrath of Arab savagery. The American Embassy in Beirut was suicide-bombed, killing 63. On Oct. 23, 1983 , the Marines’ barracks south of Beirut was suicide-bombed, killing 241. A simultaneous bombing of the French barracks (remember those “surrender monkeys?”) killed 58. At the time, the bombers were from a little-known faction of renegade Shiite Muslims called Hezbollah. Little-known no more: Hezbollah is today’s al-Qaida’s spiritual mistress.
Themselves defeated, the Americans left shortly after the barracks bombing. I was glad. Not because I wanted them out of there as a Lebanese chauvinist, but because by then I was reacting as an adopted American. My allegiance was wholeheartedly with those Marines, who never should have been put in such a wasteful situation in the first place. I happened to know the Lebanese—the Arab—mentality of the moment. It isn’t worth the fight, and it is certainly not worth a drop of American blood, no matter the idealistic quest then or now. Freedom? Liberation? Democracy? Arab nations wouldn’t know what to do with any of it. As Charles Glass, once a reporter with ABC news, wrote a dozen years ago, they’re not nations. They’re “tribes with flags.”
Iraq As Lebanon Writ Large
And it is into that mayhem, that Lebanon writ large, that President Bush is sending his army.
American soldiers will probably get the rice treatment. They’ll get the hugs and the roses. The pictures will be grist for a month of Bush-pumping propaganda back in the “homeland.” But the gratefulness of liberation doesn’t outlast the afternoon nap.
Those trigger-happy Shiites the Marines last knew in Lebanon , incidentally, form Iraq ‘s majority, and the country is crawling with Balkan-tempered minorities. Planning the California-scale creation of a pro-American nation out of a Washington Beltway blueprint in the Arab heartland is science fiction with a death wish. It is colossal hubris. It is Icarus on crack.
With Afghanistan still smoldering with chaos, the Anglo-American country-hoppers don’t know what gothic nightmare they’re getting into in Iraq , what they’re getting us all into. And it won’t end well, no matter the bushels of rice riddling Americans’ welcome along Mesopotamia's shimmering, shifty sands.