Lessons from the Cold River


The annals of military history are notably free of heroic deeds executed by the Lebanese armed forces. The tiny republic boasts three military branches: an army that recently ended its mass-conscription policy, a navy without any ships and an air force which has not fielded an airworthy fighter plane in more than 20 years. Legendary as a cohort of disgruntled enlisted people and pampered, barely competent officers, Lebanon’s regular fighting force was the butt of a joke from the early history of Israel: When forced to fight all the Arab countries at once, the story went, the Israelis would dispatch their marching band to handle Lebanon. (This joke seemed to come true in Israel’s war against Hezbollah last summer, during which the regular army offered no real resistance.) The token armed forces held a kind of negative symbolic value as the brand of a fractured society and a dysfunctional government of a state unable even to control the use of violence within its own borders.

So there was been one small ray of hope in the recent fighting in the north of Lebanon. As the vicious battle at the Nahr el Bared refugee camp winds down (and winds down some more), we can take solace in the fact that this slow, mismanaged and very ugly win was, in fact, a win. It may seem like small beer that a regular army with total operational control, reinforced by American supplies and assigned to flush out some terrorists in a confined space, can achieve victory after two months. But as anybody who’s ever ordered a pony-sized bottle of Almaza can attest, Lebanon is all about small beer.

It’s somewhat more impressive to say that the global surge of Islamist terrorism, whose bloody fingerprints are visible in places as far-flung as Glasgow and Brisbane, is not the limitless force it frequently appears to be. When pushed to the wall (and when a host of forces line up, as in this case, where the Shiite Hezbollah militia was out of sympathy with the vaguely Al Qaeda-linked terrorists), the forces of secularism and modernity can still assert themselves. In fact, even the enfeebled, poorly motivated troops of one of the most dysfunctional states on Earth—a nation whose elected officials have not even been able to convene for more than half a year—can impose their will against the sort of heaven-bound martyrs who seem imposing precisely because they never doubt their own cause.

Again, it would be silly to overstate the scale of this victory, and sillier to take too literally the sort of global-network associations that come to mind when we refer to an “Al Qaeda-linked” group. Fatah al Islam agents started the current round of violence by robbing a local bank—pretty strong evidence that the group doesn’t have access to some worldwide stream of terrorist petrodollars. Through this lens, the fight at Nahr el Bared appears to be unmingled bad news: The terrorists just need to get together a few guns and bombs in order to tie up the forces of order for months at a time. The Middle East never lacks for Chicken Littles, and the fighting in Lebanon has led to broad claims about a new Al Qaeda campaign against this remarkably fragile society.


But some runts are tougher than they look. There’s a tendency among the Western left and the international media to view Lebanese society with contempt, to dismiss the notion of the multicultural and multi-denominational shopkeeper nation as a fantasy served by the “elites” of Beirut to gullible westerners. The flipside of this notion is that the romantic warriors of Hezbollah and the champions of the ever-sympathetic Palestinians (who somehow have managed to preserve their “refugee” status while living through many decades and generations in camps that are indistinguishable from full cities) are always speaking for the Lebanese “street.” Nowhere was this prejudice more evident than when this year’s World Press Photo award went to Spencer Platt’s picture of what looked like a group of young Beirut hipsters touring a bombed-out slum—as it turns out, the war tourists were actually local residents, one of whom was returning to check out her family’s bombed apartment building.

The forces of secular law and order can’t help looking flimsy next to wild-eyed zealots who are content to wage holy war until the end of time. The goals of a regular army or police force—maintain order, allow room for peaceful transaction, minimize collateral damage—are more functional than inspiring. The breakdown of the American mission in Iraq can be seen as a test of the respective wills of progressive and fanatical societies. Throughout the Middle East the secularists seem to be losing.

The problem only gets harder when the army in question serves a nation that commands no respect even from its own citizens. Yet the Lebanese army managed to prevail, waging a complex campaign that involved tens of thousands of civilians, hampered by a difficult battle space and an insane 1969 agreement that ostensibly prevents the army from entering refugee camps. Jihadists may believe that they’re on the right side of history, but that doesn’t mean everybody else has to believe it. If the Lebanese army can stand up to the terrorists, anybody can.

Tim Cavanaugh is web editor of The Times’ editorial page.

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