Gaza Humanitarian Aid Port is a Terrible Idea

Just like people, countries also suffer greatly when they do not learn from their mistakes. While we do not always get to choose where and whom our military fights, if we are honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that a lot of these missions are optional. If we did not undertake them, our national security would remain intact. And the money that would otherwise be spent and the lives that would be lost would instead remain among us.

Consider the ill-fated American deployment to Somalia in 1992.

Humanitarian Missions Often Go Awry

America was riding high in those days. We had just decisively won the Gulf War, and George H.W. Bush promoted the concept of a New World Order—a fancy phrase for the United States’ domination of the rest of the world using its ample power-projection capability justified by resolutions from the United Nations Security Council.

At the time, Somalia was a typical third-world shithole and remains one today. Indeed, it has always been a bit worse than average, even by the standards of Africa. In 1992, it was emerging from one of its many civil wars, after which the belligerents used control over food aid to starve their enemies. Our troops were there to secure the delivery of food aid. The military gave the mission a wholesome name: Operation Restore Hope.

Once our troops arrived on the scene, it soon became apparent that the only way to protect the aid was to neutralize some of the armed factions. And the only way to do that was to designate some of them as the good guys and others as the not-so-good guys. Pretty soon our army was in a real fight, and locals resented our presence because, like people everywhere, Somalians were not too fond of outsiders telling them what to do and didn’t like us shooting their relatives.

Eventually, one of these groups conducted a very successful counter-ambush after an American raid to capture one of their leaders. Although the raid successfully snatched the target, the Somalis shot down a Blackhawk helicopter during the extraction phase. Soon, the entire neighborhood was shooting guns at the Americans. When it was over, 18 Army Rangers and Special Forces soldiers were dead—an event memorialized in the movie Blackhawk Down. The American people went from indifferent to hostile overnight.

What were we even doing there? The political class never had a good answer. Sensing public weariness with the ill-defined expedition, President Bill Clinton quickly withdrew our troops after the Blackhawk Down incident.

Peacekeeping Can Put Our Forces in an Impossible Position

Even worse than Somalia was the Lebanon peacekeeping mission in 1982. The vague mission was ambitious and ambiguous enough to border on insanity.

After being expelled from Jordan, Yassir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) set up shop in Lebanon in 1970, much to the annoyance of many Lebanese. In those years, the PLO occasionally shot rockets or sent raiding parties into Israel, but they were equally hostile to the Christian-dominated Lebanese government. These factors contributed to the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975.

Against this backdrop of hostile anarchy, Israel had set up a separatist, pro-Israel rump state manned by its Maronite Christian allies in the south of Lebanon. Even so, attacks on Israel continued.

Its patience having run out, Israel’s defense minister, Ariel Sharon, decided to cut the Gordian Knot by attacking Lebanon in 1982. The invasion was ambitiously named Operation Peace for Galilee.

Pretty soon, much like their current operations in Gaza, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were bogged down with difficult urban combat. This was no blitzkrieg along the lines of Israel’s impressive armored feat in the 1967 Six Day War. The war dragged on and eventually morphed into an unconventional war.

Like current operations in Gaza, the IDF’s use of artillery against civilian targets, including the Beirut Airport, led to extensive civilian casualties and widespread international condemnation. When the IDF eventually surrounded the PLO, the United States envoy negotiated a deal whereby the parties would observe a ceasefire and the PLO would depart for Tunisia. To protect the participants, the United Nations authorized a multinational peacekeeping force, in which the French, the Italians, the British, and the U.S. Marines famously participated.

The peacekeepers were there to supervise the mutual departure of the PLO and IDF and support the fragile Lebanese state while keeping the various militias and other belligerents separated. This mission was complicated by the presence of Syrian forces, Shia, Sunni, Druze, and Christian militias, non-PLO Palestinian militant groups, and a large number of IDF elements. Each of these groups was alternately hostile or allied to one another in unpredictable ways.

This is where things went sideways. Not quite sure how to deal with peacekeeping and also trying to manage the widespread Vietnam Syndrome among the American public, the military and civilian leadership made some very odd decisions to emphasize the peaceful nature of the intervention. This included not allowing the Marines to have magazines loaded or rounds in the chambers of their weapons, along with the imposition of restrictive rules of engagement that increased the danger to the American forces.

In addition to the difficulties of fending off attacks from hostile militias under these restrictions, America’s ostensible allies in the IDF began to harass the American Marines. This put the Marines, who were technically present as neutral peacekeepers, in an untenable position.

After weeks of rising hostilities, one of the Lebanese militia groups—likely Hezbollah—successfully attacked the Marines’ Beirut barracks with a suicide bomber, killing 241 Marines and sailors in the process. Occurring only a few years after the Iran hostage crisis, the American public was shocked, angry, and also confused about the goals of the Lebanon mission. President Reagan said there would be vengeance, but he and his cabinet soon decided to end the mission and withdraw our forces in 1984.

As Andrew Bacevich described the matter in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, “The sad fact is that those who sent the Marines into Lebanon had no real idea what they were doing or what they were getting into. For the most part, the resulting failure there served to broadcast American ignorance, ineptitude, and lack of staying power. As for those expectations of dramatizing America’s role as peacemaker, enhancing U.S. credibility in Arab eyes, and demonstrating a capacity to police the region: None of it happened.”

Indeed, one can say much the same about the recent, long-running campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, we lost a lot of men, failed to find weapons of mass destruction, and created a democratic ally of Iran. In Afghanistan, after the initial dispersion of al Qaeda, we spent a fortune trying to impose western values and create law and order, only to have the Taliban retake the country and reimpose their austere vision of Islam as we hastily departed.

Three Is Not A Charm

It is with all of this in mind that I must respond with horrified concern to the idea recently proposed by Joe Biden that the U.S. military will be building a temporary port to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

In the current campaign, Israel has significantly slowed aid coming through Egypt, ostensibly to prevent the smuggling of arms to Hamas. The people in Gaza are now starting to experience real hunger because of the destruction of the infrastructure necessary to support a population of millions. The proposed American port is supposed to relieve this hunger while assuaging Israeli concerns about weapons smuggling since the aid delivery would be supervised by the United States.

The United States is a staunch ally of Israel and has supplied it with money, arms, ammunition, and other forms of support for decades. The perception of complicity with the IDF’s worst excesses has caused Biden real grief with the younger, more progressive voters in the Democratic Party. Perhaps he hopes a success with the humanitarian port would mollify those blaming the United States for complicity with the ethnic cleansing of the civilian population in Gaza.

This is doubtful. Gaza is becoming uninhabitable because of the ongoing destruction of thousands of civilian buildings. This is a manifest Israeli policy, not a mere side effect of a precision bombing campaign. Photos of Gaza look more like Dresden, Hiroshima, or the surface of the moon than they do a city. Even if it arrives, the food aid will not easily undo the effects of destroyed roads, water pipes, power lines, medical buildings, and people’s homes.

This proposal also creates substantial reputational and physical risks for our military. What would happen if some armed faction of Palestinians attacked the Americans building the humanitarian port or delivering the food aid? Would a response with force cause our troops to be seen as actual belligerents on the side of Israel? Won’t they be perceived as such in any case because of extensive and ongoing American financial and military support for Israel?

And what are our troops supposed to do if they are threatened or attacked by the IDF? After all, things like this happened in the 1982 Lebanon intervention. Such an event would be a moral and diplomatic disaster for both countries.

While there is a lot to criticize in American foreign policy, there is something noble in the widespread American desire to do some good around the world and remain above the fray of primitive, tribal conflicts. But ideas and impulses can be both idealistic and also really dangerous. Foreign policy must not be a realm of sentimentality and good intentions but of hard-headed caution and prudence.

Our country has a track record of failed humanitarian interventions in this part of the world. Public support is usually a mile wide and an inch deep and quickly collapses if there are significant casualties or a lack of progress. Like Somalia and Lebanon, the Gaza mission would likely end in tears and lost lives while providing very little tangible help to the Palestinians. The mission would also risk direct conflict with both Hamas and the IDF.

Instead of deepening our involvement in the Middle East, we should be pulling the plug on military and foreign aid to Israel and its neighbors and create maximum distance from the belligerents, lest we be pulled again into this hopeless vortex of violence and intrigue.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.


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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: GAZA - MARCH 15: People are seen near the construction site as works for a temporary port off Gaza are ongoing on March 15, 2024. Construction materials and heavy duty machines have been dispatched for the port, which is claimed to be built to facilitate humanitarian aid entry into Gaza. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)