History speaks as US preps for peacekeeping
"Know the mission, protect your own, and prevent internal strife" - this is the advice of military and political experts for 200,000 US fighting men and women as they charge through the Arabian sands into an unstable nation of 24 million Iraqi citizens.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The experts contend that the history of 20th century US peacekeeping efforts can and should be instructive, if not necessarily encouraging.
President Bush has touted the possibility of Iraq evolving into an example of democracy for the Arab world. Senior Pentagon officials, however, say they will sustain existing institutions in Iraq - such as the security forces - by paying them to continue to help run a new nation.
Past mission to examine: Lebanon, 1982-1983.
When President Ronald Reagan sent 1,500 US marines to Beirut in September 1982, he called it "a mission of enabling the Lebanese government to restore full sovereignty over its capital, the essential precondition for extending its control over the entire country."
Dan Tschirgi, an American professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, says: "The precise mandate of the Marines was never clear. The US ground troops were there, in part, to help stabilize the Maronite leadership of President Amin Gemayel, but this angered opposing ethnic and religious groups."
A year later, the Marines had become "the enemy" of Muslim militant factions. On Oct. 23, 1983, Marine Sgt. Stephen Russell watched a smiling Muslim suicide bomber drive a five-ton dump truck at high speed through the gates of the US Marine compound near Beirut's international airport. The ensuing blast killed 241 American servicemen.
In "From Beirut to Jerusalem," author Thomas Friedman describes the Marines in Beirut as "good, milk-faced boys who stepped in the middle of a passion-filled conflict, of whose history they were totally innocent and whose venom they could not even imagine."
Professor Tschirgi, the author of "The American Search for Mideast Peace," says: "Just like what we are hearing today, senior American officials boasted in 1982 that Beirut would be 'our shining moment in the Middle East.' Instead, it was our time to become embroiled in the Lebanese quagmire and withdraw in utter humiliation. We hear National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice taking the line that US forces will go in to occupy the country and that Iraq will turn out to be a democracy. I hope this is only empty rhetoric, because a serious US effort to attempt this is just begging for a catastrophe."
Taking a more optimistic view of current US goals, Joanna Spear of the King's College Centre for Defence Studies in London says she sees it as encouraging that once-isolationist Republican officials are talking openly about the great tasks of "nation building." She says that if the president and his top advisers are serious about approaching Iraq like the seven-year reconstruction of Japan, they might possibly succeed.
"On the other hand, they are also talking about using existing structures like the Iraqi Army to help in these tasks," she says. "Here you could run in the danger of perpetuating the inequalities and ethnic differences that already exist in Iraq. This wouldn't necessarily be a 'liberation' at all, and might turn US troops into the enemy."
Iraq has been a hotbed of interethnic strife for the past century. Middle East experts already predict that Shiite Muslims in the east and south of the vast country will seek quick revenge against members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party.
Past mission to examine: Bosnia, 1995-1996.
Some 45,000 US and NATO troops, along with international peacekeepers from 30 nations, entered a nation with about one-fifth of Iraq's population in a mission to divide feuding ethnic factions, keep the peace, and build institutions.