Currently, two nations are being wracked by crises. In Lebanon, the terrorist group Hezbollah is taking over more and more of Beirut and the country in general, shoving aside the government (deliberately kept weak by Syria) and taking over in a slow-motion coup d’etat. And in Myanmar, literally tens of thousands are dead and more are dying each day after the devastating cyclone mauled much of the nation and the military junta that runs that nation refuses to ease its iron grip on power to allow other nations to assist its suffering people.
Lebanon reminds me of Afghanistan. There, after driving out the Soviets, the Taliban seized power from the other members of the fragile coalition that had won that battle and began not only a reign of terror against its own people, but turned the nation into a haven for terrorists in a chain of events that climaxed in the 9/11 attacks. It also reminds me of the Gaza Strip, where an absolutely unrepentant and unreconstructed terrorist organization took control of the government (such as it is, and through free and fair elections) and promptly began a violent purge of its enemies, a crackdown on its own people, and repeatedly reaffirmed (and demonstrated) its commitment to waging terrorist war — while demanding to be treated as a sovereign state.
In Myanmar, the dictators seem to have the mentality of “we’d rather our people die than let our absolute control of them slip in the slightest.” Their fixation on maintaining their power prevents them from allowing the desperately-needed humanitarian aid from flowing.
And in both cases, the United Nations seems content to sit around and wring its hands and say “tsk, tsk.”
I find myself wondering if, in either case or both, a military intervention is called for.
In Myanmar, the obstacle is the government. The first plan that comes to mind to present them with a quiet note: “We’re going to be bringing in relief supplies and workers, starting tomorrow. You can save face and welcome us, or you can oppose us and the next flights will involve forces who will destroy any and all military power you possess. If you continue to oppose us, we’ll look into deposing you.”
In Lebanon, the obstacle is the incredibly weak government. Lebanon has been dominated by Syria for decades, most of the time directly through military occupation. Hezbollah (Arabic for “Party Of Allah” — they’re Muslim extremists sworn to destroy Israel, if you’ve forgotten) has been a creature of Syria and Iran for their proxy war with Israel. A brief, all-out attack on Hezbollah by the US and our allies, justified under “enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 1701,” could tip the scales and — for the first time in close to half a century — give the Lebanese people a chance to truly govern their own fate.
On the flip side, both of these efforts could be disasters. It’ll be a long time before I — or anyone — can or should forget what happened the last time the US sent military forces on a “purely humanitarian” mission, with no US interests at stake. “Feed the starving Somali people” ended with the maimed bodies of US Rangers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu after a battle that cost the lives of 18 Americans and one Malaysian, the wounding of another 80 Allied forces, and the deaths of literally thousands of Somalis (at best estimate). On the long list of disgraceful deeds by the first (and, I hope, only) Clinton administration, that one ranks high.
And our history in Lebanon isn’t much better. In 1982, we sent “peacekeepers” to Beirut. It worked out well — if you define “peace” as “let’s stop fighting and attack that guy over there.” In the end, a suicide bomber killed 241 American troops (220 Marines, 18 Sailors, and 3 Army soldiers) and the United States fled the nation with its tail between its legs. Among the failures of the Reagan administration, I consider this one of the worst.
And both instances were cited by Osama Bin Laden (among others) as proof of the United States’ weakness: all you have to do is bloody our noses a little, and we’ll run away.
In both cases, the violated principle was the same: choose your battles carefully, and make damned sure you win. Because a loss in this arena means we will have to face many, many more battles in the future, as our adversaries will see the loss as weakness and seek to exploit it.
I honestly don’t know if either intervention would be a good idea (defined as “achieving the desired results at an affordable cost, both in money and lives.”) My gut instinct says “no” to Myanmar” and “maybe” to Lebanon.
I come down against Myanmar for the coldest of reasons: there is no compelling US interest to be served. Much like the genocide going on in the Darfur region of Sudan, there is very little to gain in intervening, and much to lose. The prime motivating factor seems to be “we have to do SOMETHING,” and when the response to that is military action, it almost never ends well.
In Lebanon, the stakes are considerably higher. The world is running the risk of yet another nation falling to a terrorist organization. We saw that in Afghanistan, and we all paid the price of allowing terrorists to control the resources and credibility and status of a nation-state, and we’re seeing that start to evolve in the Palestinian Territories. Plus, Hezbollah’s goal is to wage war with Israel, as a proxy for Iran and Syria, and that could set off yet another major shooting war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and that would be a very bad thing. Finally, as noted before, the US has a long-outstanding debt of blood it owes Hezbollah, and I feel fully confident in saying that the Marine Corps quite clearly remembers its last visit to Beirut, and wouldn’t mind a chance for some payback.
But do we have the resources to commit to such an action? Would it achieve what we want — a decimation of Hezbollah to the point where the Lebanese government could stand on its own and shake off the domination by Syria and Iran? And could we count on the support of the UN and the world community to back us as we enforced that Security Council Resolution?
OK, that last one was a joke. No, I’m not seriously thinking that might happen. In fact, I could pretty much write the Resolution that would be put forth condemning the US for its actions in supporting a legitimate government against a terrorist organization, and I’m sure you could, too.
As I said, I don’t have a solid opinion on either matter. That’s why I’m inviting you folks to offer your opinions in the comments. (But refrain from partisan hackery, please — this is a question about United States policy, not a Democratic/Republican position. The disemvowelling tool is ready at hand for use against those who will use this as an excuse to bash their political opponents. As I pointed out above, using Clinton and Reagan, neither party has a great record on this one, and I’m looking towards the future, not interested in rehashing the past.) But I do know that the problems of Myanmar and Lebanon are not unique, and are likely to recur in other nations in the future. I believe we need to think very carefully about how we want to handle these types of crises — both today and tomorrow.