How Not to Invade

Patrick Cockburn

  • Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East by David Hirst
    Faber, 480 pp, £20.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 23741 8
  • The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle by Michael Young
    Simon and Schuster, 295 pp, £17.99, July 2010, ISBN 978 1 4165 9862 6

Why has Lebanon been the graveyard of so many invaders? In the 1960s Israelis used to say that one of their military bands would be enough to conquer the country; sometimes, before Israel and Egypt agreed a peace in 1979, they added: ‘I don’t know which will be the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but I do know the name of the second.’ Lebanon, half the size of Wales and with a population divided by communal, sectarian and party hatreds, would be a pushover. Its Maronite Christian minority was thought an obvious ally for Israel against the forces of Arab nationalism, and the well-earned reputation of the Lebanese for commercial ingenuity and a capacity to survive in all circumstances suggested that they would be unlikely to die in a ditch fighting an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.

Such a picture seemed plausible enough 40 years ago, but it’s turned out that the best day for anybody invading or even interfering in Lebanon is usually the first. So it has been with Israel. Within a few years of the invasion of 1982, Israeli soldiers returning home would throw themselves to the ground to kiss the soil as soon as they crossed the border, thankful only to have made it back alive. When the last Israeli troops withdrew in 2000 from the slice of territory they still held in south Lebanon, they stole away in the middle of the night, abandoning their local Christian allies to triumphant Hizbullah guerrillas.

The gross underestimation of the ability of the Lebanese to defend themselves is the main theme of David Hirst’s elegantly written and highly informed history. For many years one of the most perceptive correspondents in the Middle East, he says he decided to write this book after the 34-day war in the summer of 2006, when Israel rained explosives on Lebanon in a vain bid to cripple Hizbullah. An ill-organised ground invasion succeeded only in destroying Israel’s reputation for military invincibility. What was meant to be a demonstration of strength – notably by the Israeli air force – turned into an almost comic illustration of ineffectuality. ‘Could it even be said,’ Hirst asks, ‘that Lebanon – the eternal victim – has now become the perpetrator too, posing no less a threat to greater states than they habitually posed to it?’ He doesn’t quite go along with the postwar claim made by Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbullah, that his fighters had won a ‘divine victory’, transforming Lebanon, one of the ‘small’ states of the Middle East, into one of its ‘great powers’. But he has no doubt that Israel, having gone to war to re-establish its own power, ended up undermining it.

It is scarcely news that small states are more dangerous than they look. Hirst takes his title from Mikhail Bakunin, who told a friend in 1870 to ‘beware of small states.’ It wasn’t just that they were vulnerable to strong neighbours, but that these neighbours would pay a price if they became involved in the affairs of their victims. Half a century earlier, the Duke of Wellington had made a similar point: ‘Great nations do not have small wars.’ This is as true of Iraq today as it was of Lebanon 150 years ago. When the Ottoman Empire lost its hold over Lebanon in the 19th century, the British backed the Druze and the French the Maronites. ‘If one man hits another,’ a local chieftain complained, ‘the incident becomes an Anglo-French affair: there might even be trouble between the two countries if a cup of coffee gets spilled on the ground.’ Nothing has changed much today except now the rivals are Israel and Syria, neither of which can afford to let the other win uncontested control of the country.

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