Invasions of the past mean future retreats

May 29, 2000|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- We have seen this scene before: The Israelis marching out of southern Lebanon after more than 20 years of occupation and the enemy rolling in, waving their strange flags. The scenario is the same as it was in Vietnam, the French and then the Americans marching out after decades as the enemy rolled in, waving their flags.

We will, sadly, see it again in Kosovo -- in a year, two years, a decade, a generation. The Americans and our NATO allies will march out in fine order, leaving the land and the people there to the tender mercies of the enemy. The only difference is that we still don't know from which direction the enemy will come, whether it will be Albanian Muslims from the south or Serbs from the north. But they will come, and we will go.

The script of television news these last few days should have been written by Dickens. This is no "Christmas Carol," but we are seeing the ghosts of invasions past, occupations present and retreats future.

Technological superiority and world opinion count for nothing in the long run. And the running is inevitable because all the smart weapons and well-trained warriors always lose in the end to the people who have been there forever, are there now and will be there in the future. We always leave and they always stay. They have no place else to go.

When we leave -- we, the Romans, the Turks, the French, the Israelis, the Americans -- we can only hope that the locals who befriended us, or whom we bought, will not be slaughtered or starved or imprisoned. The Israelis have the power and discipline to get their troops out safely, leaving behind the memory of the more than 1,000 Israelis killed in southern Lebanon since 1978 -- but they cannot protect the members of the South Lebanon Army, mostly Christians, whom they will leave behind.

Those who changed their names and ways to suit the conqueror -- the betrayers to their neighbors -- inevitably become the betrayed. That is the same as it was in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the Muslims are still seen, hundreds and hundreds of years later, as those who served the Ottoman Turks. That is the way it was in Vietnam. That is the way it is or will be in southern Lebanon.

It was no victory for the Clinton administration to win the little political struggle last week over whether to set a deadline for the United States to get out of Kosovo. All that vote accomplished was to protect Vice President Al Gore from having to explain what went wrong during this year's campaign. In fact, if you listen to what NATO generals are saying now, they are talking of occupation for a generation.

But it doesn't matter how long we stay. The situation will be the same or worse than it is after a year. That is the lesson of a generation of Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon: Nothing changed except that advancing missile technology meant that Hezbollah guerrillas could fire cheap rockets into Israel from farther away.

Meanwhile, in Kosovo, the commander of the occupying NATO troops, Gen. Claus Reinhardt, a German, was saying: "When NATO came into Kosovo, we were only supposed to fight the Yugoslav army if they came back uninvited. Now we're finding out that we have to fight the Albanians."

No kidding, general? If that's what NATO was thinking, it gives you a better idea of how bad the endgame will be. Perhaps the generals and the politicians ordering them in really did believe that modern warfare is about rocketry and bombs. In fact, as always, warfare is about the situation on the ground, where the people are.

The people have not changed, and they will not. The General Accounting Office has just issued a report saying the attacks on NATO occupiers are increasing. The reason, quoting testimony to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, is: "The former warring parties largely retain their wartime goals."

It was ever thus. That was the situation in Vietnam, that is the situation in Lebanon and that will be the situation in Kosovo when we come marching home.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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