The prime minister of His Majesty s Government, the rotund Lord North–reputed (falsely) to be the bastard son of George III – once sniffed to his cabinet that if it were not for the interference of France, the American colonists would surely return to the loving arms of their mother country. He said this in the midst of the dark winter of 1776, when George Washington s ill-clad army was traversing the ice-clogged rivers of New Jersey to do battle with Hessian mercenaries that the parsimonious North had hired. The result was predictable: when Washington attacked the Hessians (groggy from their Christmas libations), the British-paid militia dropped their arms and fled, giving the Americans their first military triumph.
North had great faith both in British power and in the Sceptred Isle s capacity for good. He sent several messages to America s leaders: all we want is what is good for you, he said – our interests are secondary. When told that his messages were greeted with derision, that the colonists had formed armed militias (those words, exactly) and that His Majesty should send an army to defeat them, North scoffed. The Royal Navy was the greatest navy in the history of the world; entire nation s quelled at its appearance. Four or five frigates will do the business without any military force, he clucked dismissively. And so it was that while North s Hessians were fleeing pell-mell through the streets of Trenton, the Royal Navy was blithely riding at anchor offshore – waiting for the rag tags to wet their homespun breeches.
Not all historical parallels are exactly parallel. Trenton is not Beirut, the Continental Army is not Hezbollah, and Lebanon s internal security forces are not mercenaries. And yet … and yet, I am struck by how George Bush s projection of American power proved as misguided as North s, and by how America s armed and trained security force – Lebanon s ISF – evaporated as quickly as North s paid mercenaries when faced by a dedicated opponent. This all happened in May, you might remember, and I was there in the immediate aftermath of the events. I was told that the Internal Security Forces (well turned out, with shiny SUVs) disappeared suddenly: not in days, but hours. Then too, the dispatch of the USS Cole to the shores of Lebanon had as much impact as North s deployment of the 64-gun HMS Intrepid (His Majesty s mightiest ship), some 240 years ago. No one was frightened. And the $464 million paid by America to train the ISF was as poorly spent as the Crown s money to bribe the Elector of Hessen-Kassel to equip some 17,000 Germans to fight the colonials. Like the ISF, they were there to hold ground, not to fight for it.
Think of how the Hessian s felt as what was left of them ran from the frozen fields of Trenton, leaving their dead behind. They had been promised that should there be trouble with the colonials, the vaunted British Army, just over the hill, would come to their rescue. It had not happened. So too, in May, the ceaseless American pledge of support that they (we!) would stand by our allies in Lebanon (all we want is what is good for you, we had said) had proven hollow. The Redcoats did not come to help their allies in Trenton, nor the Marines to help ours in Beirut. Like the Intrepid (which boarded New Yorkers loyal to the British crown – to save them from the mob) the USS Cole s real purpose in steaming off of Lebanon s shore can now be told: it was not to make a show of American force, but to aid in the evacuation of US nationals.
The message could not have been any plainer: you re on your own.
It is said that Lord North was an intelligent man but out of his depth. In fact, he was really very stupid. In the wake of the American victory at Trenton, he dispatched more troops to the colonies, adopted a harsher military strategy (which alienated the only friends the British had left in America) and abandoned his normally frugal financial policies. In so doing he nearly destroyed the British Army and set the British government on a policy that almost ended in its bankruptcy – in 1820, the Intrepid was sold for the cost of wood and iron to help pay down the government debt.
George Bush is not anything like Lord North: he may be out of his depth, but he s not stupid. Having no Marines to dispatch (they are busy just now, you might have heard, in Iraq), he has instead deployed the American secretary of state to explain away this humbling of American power. Not surprisingly this, like so much else, has proved beyond her ken: Hezbollah has lost something very important which is any argument that it is somehow a resistance movement on behalf of the Lebanese people, she told a group of journalists. She then thought for a moment. Yes, I think they have been hurt in the long term.
You can imagine how relieved the American people were to hear this. For a minute there, we actually thought we might have suffered a defeat.
Mark Perryis co-director of Conflicts Forum and is based in Washington. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.