Military occupations - the good, bad, and ugly

War is always an unpredictable, tragic undertaking. We cannot foresee the future course of the US-led campaign against Iraq, though we know that people are already being killed, maimed, and traumatized because of it. What we can foretell with some degree of confidence is that if the war continues, the US-led coalition will win militarily and will end up controlling all or most of Iraq.

What then?

From the vantage of, say, 2008, might Americans look back and say that getting into Iraq was the easy part - but that getting out still, as of then, looks really difficult?

To answer that, we need to be clear about the status of US and allied forces inside Iraq. President Bush and his advisers claim that those forces are there as "liberators." But as a matter of international law, their status is that of "military occupiers." (This latter term is not a moral judgment. It's a technical term that describes the status of armed forces who, in the course of any war, end up controlling territory that's not their own.)

A military occupation is, almost by definition, not pleasant for most of the folks being "occupied." It does, after all, involve being ruled by a foreign military force. But over time, an occupation can end up being judged successful by everyone concerned - if it leads to the rebuilding of the "occupied" nation on a sound basis, and to a healthy regional order that prevents the resumption of war. Or, an occupation can turn out very badly indeed.

By these yardsticks, the multiyear, US-led occupations of West Germany and Japan after World War II were both extremely successful. And Israel's occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, 1967-1979, looks fairly successful. There was a nasty war along the way there in 1973. But in 1979, Israel withdrew from Sinai and the two countries concluded a peace that has since endured.

Some other military occupations in the Middle East have been far less successful for the occupiers.

Iraq's occupation of part of Iran in 1980 led to an eight-year war in which around 1 million people from both sides perished. Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait prompted Kuwait's exiled leaders to call in a huge, UN-authorized military force that liberated Kuwait and imposed tough postwar punishment on Iraq.

Both those Iraqi military occupations ended up imposing massive costs on the Iraqi people as well as on their neighbors.

Israel's occupations of all of the West Bank and Gaza, and of parts of Syria and Lebanon, have also turned out badly.

The most instructive case for Americans today may be the occupation that Israel maintained in parts of Lebanon, from 1982 to 2000.

Israel went into Lebanon in 1982 in what most Israelis now say was a war of choice, not necessity. One major war aim was regime change in Beirut.

At first, the project looked successful. Israeli troops were greeted as "liberators" by many Lebanese. Israel got the regime change it sought. But only briefly. For within months, Lebanon's citizens started turning against the Israelis, whom they came to view as bullying occupiers, not liberators.

That occupation proved very expensive for Israel in blood and treasure. Israel's leaders always, quite credibly, stated they had no intention of staying in Lebanon. But it took them 18 years to get out. And when they did, they still had no peace treaty with Lebanon. What's more, when they left Lebanon in May 2000, they left hundreds of thousands of deeply resentful Lebanese poised along their northern border.

One thing is clear from such examples. Running an occupation is always an expensive business. Paying the financial and human costs required to run one may, in a best-case scenario like Japan or Germany, prove to be a sound investment in a better future. But in a worst-case scenario these costs just end up imposing a massive drag on the national economy, national morale, and international status of the occupier.

Here's a quick checklist on what can make an occupation "work" for all concerned:

• Readiness to invest whatever's necessary, for as long as necessary, to rebuild the occupied zone's economy and society.

• No pursuit at all of annexation.

• No attempt to move civilian nationals of the occupying country into the occupied zone.

• No pursuit of long-term control over the zone's natural resources.

These last three conditions are all fixed requirements of international law. The first requires a breadth of vision like that shown by President Truman after World War II.

I still hold that this present war is a terrible, tragic mistake. I still maintain it can be stopped at any point if Mr. Bush is prepared to hand the Iraq issue back to the UN.

But if the war goes on, then America's leaders and voters need to understand what it means, in reality, to run a military occupation.

Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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