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Learning A Lesson From Lebanon

This column was written by Jeffrey Azarva.
On January 17, Sen. Hillary Clinton declared her support for the "beginning of a phased redeployment out of Baghdad and eventually out of Iraq completely." Her statement is the latest from prominent Democrats who oppose President Bush's intention to deploy additional U.S. troops in Iraq to secure Baghdad and quell sectarian violence.

Many of those who oppose a troop surge say the opposite strategy is needed. For example, in a January 5, 2007, letter to President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi advocated a "phased redeployment of our forces in the next four to six months." The only way to force Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make tough decisions, the argument goes, is to impose benchmarks and a timeline for withdrawal. This idea first gained steam in November 2005, when Rep. John Murtha argued that withdrawal at "the earliest predictable date" would incentivize Iraqis to take action.

Such logic may be attractive in theory, but precedent suggests that it does not hold in the reality of the Middle East. On March 2, 1999, at the height of Israel's election campaign, Labor leader Ehud Barak promised that, if elected, he would end Israel's presence in southern Lebanon within a year of his inauguration. During Israel's 15-year occupation of the south Lebanon security zone, the Israel Defense Forces lost 256 soldiers; another 840 were wounded in combat. By the late 1990s, Israeli citizens were finding it difficult to stomach the zone's human and financial costs. In a 1999 poll conducted by the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth, nearly 60 percent of the populace backed calls for unilateral withdrawal.

As the last Israeli solider withdrew from Lebanon on May 24, 2000, Barak declared an end to Israel's "tragedy." Washington applauded his move. President Clinton said the withdrawal would impose "a greater sense of urgency" on the peace process. It was also popular in Israel. Eytan Bentsur, then-director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israelis could breathe "a collective sigh of relief."

But Barak's pledge to "bring the boys home" on a self-imposed timetable did not augment Israeli security. Between 1985 and 2000, the security zone had foiled a number of raids on Israeli soil; only two guerilla squads infiltrated the Jewish state during this time. While Hezbollah continued to launch Katushya rockets on northern Israel, the buffer zone had decreased the accuracy of such attacks.

Talk of Israel's imminent departure did not pacify Hezbollah. The 1999 campaign season passed without a sharp escalation in cross-border attacks — in fact, the number of raids was stable during these months. But by laying Israel's cards on the table, Barak had guided Hezbollah's strategy. Given his intention to quit Lebanon, Hezbollah lay in wait. Its leadership calculated that an escalation in terror might push the Israeli electorate to Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak's hawkish rival and a defender of the Israeli presence in Lebanon.

Once Barak's victory was secure, Hezbollah changed tack. As Barak celebrated his election victory in a Tel Aviv hotel on May 18, 1999, dozens of Katushya rockets rained onto the Galilee region. The following month, terrorists fired another barrage on the Israeli city of Kiryat Shemona, killing 2 and injuring 13. In early 2000, in an effort to spin the impending retreat as capitulation, Hezbollah stepped up its assault on Israeli military and the South Lebanese Army (SLA). As Hussein al-Khalil, an aide to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, said at the time, Israel "will be seen to be the big losers in this war."

The chaotic May 2000 pullout reflected the futility of Barak's gambit. Two days before the redeployment's completion, the SLA — Israel's allies in southern Lebanon, who had helped to stave off Hezbollah infiltration — disintegrated. As the SLA laid down its arms, Hezbollah assumed vacated positions on the border. Two days after the withdrawal, Nasrallah proclaimed Israel to be "weaker than a spider's web." He implored Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to follow suit. Just four months later, Palestinian terrorists obliged and launched their second intifada against Israel.

The lesson of the Lebanon debacle is that short-term political gambits should not compromise long-term national security. Barak may have "quieted" the Lebanese front — only 17 IDF soldiers would be killed there between the pullout and 2006 — but his strategy was a pipedream. Rather than bolster Israeli deterrence, his policy undercut it. Israel's enemies took notice. As Hezbollah licked its wounds, Iran and Syria pumped arms and cash into Lebanon. Conflict erupted with renewed vigor and increased intensity little more than six years later.

As damaging as Capitol Hill timelines are, what is equally harmful is the tendency of Pentagon officials to pander to them. In a January 12, 2007, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified that if the troop surge succeeds, "we may, in fact, be able to begin withdrawing" by year's end. Such rhetoric could easily backfire if it convinces insurgents, militiamen, and America's allies in Iraq that Washington lacks staying power.

To be sure, Washington is not Jerusalem and Baghdad is not Beirut. In Lebanon, Israeli officials only sought a 328-square-mile beachhead against terror, but in Iraq, the Bush administration has pinned U.S. and regional security to the transformation of the country into a stable, democratic state.

In Iraq, augmenting troop numbers may work, but timelines probably will not. Withdrawal — the end result of a firm timeline — would create a vacuum. If the Iraqi Armed Forces crumble, militias and death squads will metastasize. As Hezbollah did with the South Lebanon Army, the insurgents' first targets will be those Iraqis who chose to stand with Washington. Then, as Sen. John McCain said, America's enemies would follow us home.

By Jeffrey Azarva