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Lessons in Diplomacy from Wartime Lebanon

Reflecting on his perilous days as a US military attache in Beirut, Amb. Frederic C. Hof argues there is more to successful diplomacy than conferences

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Lessons in Diplomacy from Wartime Lebanon
Hezbollah demonstrators in the streets of Ouzai, south of Beirut, Lebanon, in 1986. (Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images)

Diplomacy is much more than people practicing elaborate politesse around a conference table. Indeed, diplomats and others engaging in diplomacy or related efforts spend far more time and effort collecting and reporting information than they do on the give-and-take of formal negotiations (and certainly the grand summits and conferences that dominate the highlight reels of world politics). As Charles W. Freeman Jr. wrote in “Arts of Power,” “ … diplomats are the visible eyes and ears of their state in foreign lands … . The purpose of diplomatic reporting is to enable the state to act to shape events to its advantage or to mitigate the impact of unfavorable developments.” Those who do the collecting and reporting are not just civilians trained in skills of eliciting information as professional diplomats. Among the most prolific of American embassy collectors and reporters are Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine officers serving overseas with diplomatic status as military attaches under the direction of the ambassador.

These matters have recently been on my mind. Thinking about the future, I’ve been wondering about the state of the world, diplomacy’s place in it and the careers and lives of diplomats in the decades to come. Contemplating the past, I’ve been thinking about my own career and life — especially my time in Lebanon. As ever, I learned or remembered lessons while preparing to teach. Updating a Bard College class on diplomacy, I have discovered a splendid book on the subject and its different practitioners: “Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics,” an edited volume, whose writers successfully erase the artificial (and incomplete or simplistic) definition of diplomacy as the peaceful alternative to war.

Arguing that such a definition has for too long dominated international relations theory, the editors and contributors remind readers that diplomacy’s aims are not always nonviolent — even if its practice is. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov demonstrated this in the lead-up to Moscow’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine. The book’s eighth chapter addresses military diplomacy in practice, describing accurately and efficiently the roles of American military attaches serving in embassies and the histories of the military services (especially the U.S. Army) in developing foreign area officers able to perform diplomatic tasks and speak the pertinent languages. As I read the chapter, I began to reflect on my own experiences as a military attache during a particularly difficult time in the history of Lebanon. While thus looking to the future, be it of the world or of diplomacy’s place therein, I have again drawn on the past — and drawn lessons from Lebanon.

I served as an American military diplomat in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war (1975-90). It was not an easy assignment. Throughout the war, forces in Lebanon targeted various diplomats and citizens from several states. In September 1984, for instance, Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah penetrated the new American Embassy compound at Awkar, north of Beirut, and detonated a massive car bomb — killing two uniformed members of the embassy’s defense attache staff. This followed the much larger attack less than a year earlier, when Tehran and others orchestrated the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps’ battalion landing team’s headquarters, adjoining Beirut’s airport. They killed 241 American servicemen. The chaos that was Lebanon presaged the collapse, in and since 2019, of what Michael Hudson labeled “The Precarious Republic.”

From the mid-1970s to 1990, Lebanon was as atypical a place for embassy duty (civilian and military) as anywhere on the planet. The Defense Attaché School in Washington had difficulty designing a training program peculiar to a country lacking state authority right down to the level of traffic policemen — a place where law and order seemed to exist only on the grounds and in the buildings of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), one of many armed elements vying for power and influence under the watchful gaze of a powerless president and other weak establishment politicians.

Often, military attache candidates bound for Lebanon were, for training purposes, lumped into what was called “the hostile environment track,” populated mainly by officers headed for the Soviet bloc. But “hostility” in terms of a difficult working environment was quite different in Budapest than in Beirut. In the former, hostility was organized, supervised by a state and applied with cold deliberation. In the latter, it was often a ground-up affair in an atmosphere of random chaos.

The main tasks of a military attache serving in Lebanon during the civil war were identical to those of a military attache anywhere: to advise the ambassador and embassy country team on military matters (of which there were plenty); to represent one’s military service to the host government and military; and to report to the U.S. Department of Defense on political and military developments in the country. Reporting on the many aspects of Lebanon’s violent torment was, by far, the most time-consuming and hazardous of these tasks. It required careful observation, which often mandated extensive travel through a small but topographically challenging and militarily divided country.

During the time I served in Lebanon, two areas were off-limits to embassy personnel by order of the ambassador: Palestinian camps and those parts of southern Lebanon under the command of Saad Haddad, a former Lebanese army officer collaborating with Israel to oppose armed Palestinians. Everywhere else, including a Beqaa Valley region containing Syrian army units and SA-6 antiaircraft batteries, was territory to be covered.

In military attache parlance, automobile travel involving observation of military units, weaponry and facilities was known as “road reconnaissance.” When embarking on such an outing, I would have a specific objective in mind and a copy of a 1930s edition of the “Michelin Guide Bleu” for Lebanon on the seat next to me. The edition was famously comprehensive in its listing of historical monuments and other touristic sites throughout Lebanon, including in places occupied by military forces. To be stopped and questioned by armed elements at checkpoints was routine. To be able, when questioned, to show an illustration of a nearby antiquity and ask for directions usually worked, especially when sentries proved unable to link either the license plates or the driver’s Chrysler ‘K’ car to the American Embassy.

One notable success occurred in the northern Beqaa Valley, with the Kamouh al-Hermel (or “Pyramid” of Hermel) cited as the touristic objective. Acceptance of the ruse by a Syrian checkpoint sergeant enabled a slow drive alongside the Orontes River through what appeared to be a regiment-sized encampment of Syrian soldiers. A subsequent report of what was observed was greatly welcomed by order of battle analysts in the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Whenever possible, I would leave the overly conspicuous K car at the embassy and travel with the military attache of an allied country. My colleague would do the driving; I would do the observing. My favorite “road recon” companion of all was a British counterpart, Maj. Tony Box.

On one such occasion, however, the infallible “Guide Bleu” failed me. One fine day, Tony and I headed north toward Zgharta and then east up into Lebanon’s famed cedar groves. My objective, however, was a Syrian unit — rumored to be special forces and to be located along a road linking the mountain town of Hadath al-Jebbeh to Tannourine al-Faouqa, to its south. (The Syrian military had entered Lebanon in 1976 under the pretext of preventing a Palestinian-led victory over Christian militias. It would remain until 2005.) Our cover, as I recall, was a search for an old Maronite monastery mentioned by Michelin.

Alas, as we drove through a sizable Syrian encampment spread out on both sides of the country road, we were stopped by soldiers manifesting no interest in our touristic objective or diplomatic status. We were ordered from the car (a Fiat, as I recall), which was thoroughly examined to the extent of seats removed. When the auto was reassembled, we were ordered (at gunpoint) back into the front seats and directed by two Syrian soldiers — seated behind us — to drive to the unit’s headquarters. As Tony drove, I ingested, as inconspicuously as possible, notes I had written on rice paper.

Eventually, we were escorted into a large tent and confronted by an angry Syrian lieutenant recently roused from a midday siesta by a report of strange foreigners trying to drive straight through the regiment. The lieutenant ordered our documents confiscated. I protested, citing diplomatic immunity, but made no impression on the officer. Studying Tony’s documentation, he ordered a soldier to bring him a bayonet. My Arabic was good in those days, so I understood the order. Tony, whose Arabic was sketchy, asked me what the lieutenant had said. When I informed him, his reply struck me as appropriate: “Oh, bloody God.”

As it happened, however, the lieutenant — lacking a staple remover — merely needed something to detach papers (which were medical in nature) stapled in Tony’s passport. I tried to reduce the tension by apologizing for our ignorance of the area’s military sensitivity, reiterating the touristic nature of our travel and asking the lieutenant if there was an embassy-related service I might provide in thanks for our immediate release, which, in any event, was required by international law. He replied that he had a cousin in Houston, Texas, and would welcome a visa. I told him I would see to it personally if he could present himself at the American Embassy in Beirut or Damascus. He seemed pleased and ordered us to leave immediately.

The recipients of my eventual report in Washington were greatly amused by the predicament I had created for myself and my British colleague. They also found it funny that the “Guide Bleu” was no longer a “get out of jail free” card for all of Lebanon.

I never did hear from the Syrian lieutenant about his visa.

Not all reporting required extensive travel up and down Lebanon’s twisted, mountainous terrain. My arrival in Beirut as the U.S. Army attache coincided with the arrival on the same day of a Syrian militia — the Red Knights — taking up positions on a former soccer field directly across the street from my apartment in Ras Beirut.

Within 20 minutes of entering the apartment in the company of my superior, Defense Attache Col. John Tolnay (a volcanically direct Marine Corps officer), all hell broke loose. The Knights, as it turned out, had decided to announce their presence by hosing down Beirut’s Corniche Boulevard with automatic rifle fire. They did so just after noon, first stopping vehicular traffic but still killing and wounding a handful of pedestrians literally in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I crawled out onto the sixth-floor balcony to observe the proceedings. After a few minutes, I was spotted by one of the Red Knights, who vigorously gestured me back into the building. I told Tolnay (wisely seated on a sofa well-removed from the balcony) what I had observed. His reply: “Good. This will be your first [intelligence report]. As soon as the shooting stops, let’s head down to the embassy. You can start writing.”

The Red Knights — who came to be known, thanks to the true color of their uniforms, as the Pink Panthers — were the subjects of several reports. As it happened, they were under the ultimate command of Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Syria’s president. Tolnay, in his own reporting, would refer to them as the Rosenkavaliers. Before the year was out, they would again, without warning, spray the Corniche with gunfire, this time killing a Belgian U.N. peacekeeper. In October 1981, they would treat the residents of Ras Beirut to an hour of celebratory gunfire on the news of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination. (Sadat had, to the profound displeasure of Damascus, signed a peace treaty with Israel.)

Months after my introduction to the Pink Panthers, I was behind my desk in the embassy writing reports when our operations coordinator handed me an urgent cable from the U.S. defense attache in the embassy in Tel Aviv. According to the cable, Israel had spotted a “terrorist helicopter” under construction in southwestern Beirut. Anticipating a Palestinian suicide operation in the offing, Israel’s air force was preparing a mission to destroy the helicopter. Timing was uncertain, but our colleagues in Israel gave us the precise coordinates of the area undergoing target development.

I consulted a map and determined that the location cited was in a densely populated residential area perhaps 20 minutes by car from the embassy; it was not inside a Palestinian camp. I jumped into the K car and drove as quickly as I could to the designated location. What I found alarmed me. The sanded, smoothed-off and freshly painted remains of a small helicopter — probably a long-retired veteran of Lebanese civil aviation — sat atop a metal shed in what seemed to be a playground, perhaps associated with a nearby school. It was bolted down, free of instrumentation and weaponry and, with a small ladder leaning against the shed, obviously meant to serve recreational purposes.

I raced back to the embassy — this was many years before cellular communications — and, once inside the building, started drafting a “flash” (highest priority) cable to our Defense Attaché Office in Tel Aviv. It took me perhaps 15 minutes to compose the cable and get it off. It was partly written in verse, albeit bad poetry. “There once was a chopper, it is no more. It has no engine, it has no door … ” This descent into doggerel aside, I concluded in prose that the planned operation needed to be canceled for a disaster to be averted.

Colleagues did not take kindly to this approach. My resort to poetry was criticized — appropriately so, perhaps — as “unprofessional” by the Tel Aviv defense attache. But my intent had been to maximize attention both in Tel Aviv and Washington to help avoid something truly horrific. And my Tel Aviv colleagues, to their everlasting credit, wasted no time in enabling Israel to cancel the planned operation. I wonder to this day if the potential catastrophe had been the product of faulty air reconnaissance analysis, false reporting by a Lebanese informer or some combination of the two. During my tenure in Lebanon, I was not aware of and had no occasion to report terror operations on the part of Israel. Indeed, the Israel Defense Forces may have been counting on an American military attache in Beirut to eyeball the prospective target before taking additional steps.

Still, Israeli aircraft frequented the skies over Beirut all the time. In turn, they provided the grist for my second intelligence report — just days after the first Pink Panthers episode.

I was reporting officially to the Lebanese army headquarters in Yarze, perched above Beirut in the hills and mountains to the southeast. I was required to present my credentials: a letter from U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger officially designating me as his choice to serve as the U.S. Army attache in the Beirut embassy. I presented the letter to Col. Johnny Abdo, the LAF’s chief intelligence officer and a close adviser to President Elias Sarkis. An engaging individual, Abdo urged me to enjoy my stay in Lebanon and to rely on him and his staff to provide me any information I might need to transmit to Washington about the country’s military situation. He suggested that tennis would be a good pastime.

Having presented my credentials and engaged in opening overtures, I went — or was escorted — to the office of the LAF commander, Gen. Victor Khoury, a gregarious and capable officer (and world-class poker player) widely regarded throughout the LAF ranks as “a real Lebanese.” Conversing cordially, Gen. Khoury and I suddenly heard loud booms in the distance. He suggested the time might be right to end the conversation. After thanking him and saluting, I moved as quickly as I could outside the building to a spot offering an open and complete view of Beirut. I saw a specific building being targeted (and, indeed, specific windows in the building being struck by powerful munitions). Scanning the clear skies, I saw no helicopters or jets. For about a minute, the rounds continued to strike very precisely and powerfully, coming from sources not visible to me.

Within two hours, I had dispatched a report to Washington describing what I had seen or, more to the point, what I had not seen. My conclusion was, I thought, reasonable: An Israeli attack on a building probably believed to house a prominent Palestinian figure had likely been undertaken from a high altitude using high-technology guided missiles.

Washington’s response, coming within 24 hours, was summarily dismissive, suggesting my observation had been fatally flawed. It insisted, for reasons not specified, that I withdraw the report.

Col. Tolnay read the Washington response and smiled. “Fred, my boy, you’ve stirred up a hornets’ nest. The last thing Washington wants to hear is that Israel violated the terms under which these munitions were provided by using them for something other than self-defense. It means that someone would have to raise hell with the Israelis. Who wants to do that?”

I was unaware of the political sensitivities surrounding my report. I had (or so I thought) merely said that the observable circumstances suggested the use of advanced technology munitions — hardly, in my view, a categorical accusation. Yes, I might have been wrong. But my job as a military diplomat was to report, and what I had seen were multiple explosions taking place within a very tight target area with no delivery systems visible. Maybe my speculation about the nature of the munitions had been gratuitous. Perhaps I should have simply stuck to what I had seen and not seen. I did not feel comfortable having angered Washington’s officialdom during my first week on the job.

As Tolnay and I pondered what to do next, we received an unexpected visitor: the Greek defense attache, an air force colonel who had been trained extensively as a fighter pilot in the U.S. He came to report his observations of a very recent air attack on a building in downtown Beirut. He had been in a meeting nearby and had made his way to a rooftop to observe the attack. He described powerful, precise munitions — one after the other — impacting a tight rectangle of perhaps eight or 10 windows. He had searched the skies for aircraft and could spot nothing. I noticed the very expressive, Hungarian-American face of John Tolnay begin to contort itself into a cold-eyed smile.

The response to the Pentagon was, within 30 minutes of the Greek colonel’s departure, on the wires. It was written by Tolnay. He reported the Greek colonel’s observations and concluded with his own: If high technology munitions had not been employed in the attack, Israel had cornered the market on the precise delivery of conventional iron bombs from very high altitudes. This time there was no reply. Years later, preparing to teach a course on diplomacy at Bard College, I read the following words penned by Charles Freeman in “Arts of Power”: “Governments that condone candor will get it; those that don’t, won’t. Diplomats must alert their governments to facts and the implications of these facts even when their government manifestly does not want to be alerted.”

A second experience with a shaking building occurred in mid-December 1981. I was seated at my desk in the embassy doing paperwork: a major part of any military attache’s job, ranging from writing intelligence reports to evaluating the performances of subordinates (all of whom served with great distinction). Suddenly, the building began to shake. The first thing that entered my mind was “earthquake,” a tentative conclusion perfectly consistent with Beirut’s seismic history. But the shaking quickly ceased, and within minutes an embassy officer appeared in my doorway. “Fred,” he said, “we’re getting reports of a huge explosion not far from here, maybe in the vicinity of Spinneys grocery store. Can you check it out?”

I got in the trusty (well, occasionally trusty) K car and headed for Spinneys. Approaching the store, however, I was stopped at a hastily configured LAF checkpoint: a rare manifestation of an otherwise nonexistent state. I identified myself and asked about a nearby explosion. A junior officer put his face near mine. “Yes. It is the embassy of Iraq. It has been hit.”

Hit it was. The embassy had been destroyed by a suicide bomber driving a car. Scores of embassy staff had been killed, including the ambassador. Given that Iraq’s invasion of Iran was approaching its 15th month, it was not difficult to speculate reasonably about the identity of the perpetrator or orchestrator. What I did not anticipate was that, within two years, Lebanese car bombers representing Iran would bring down the embassy in which I myself had worked, along with the headquarters of the U.S. Marine peacekeepers near the airport.

At the time, I had no inkling of bombings — of embassies or otherwise — to come. There was no shortage of military-related collection and reporting targets in Lebanon. Moreover, Col. Abdo’s offer of information sufficient for reporting purposes proved, through simple testing, to be insufficient for my mission. Once, he handed me a list of Syrian SA-6 antiaircraft batteries in the Beqaa Valley, each one accompanied by precise location data. This prompted a road reconnaissance and resulted in a report to Washington detailing (and correcting) the many errors in the LAF’s list. Another time, Col. Abdo briefed me about heavy overnight shelling in northern Lebanon by the pro-Syrian, Christian Marada militia, aimed at the anti-Syrian, also Christian Lebanese Forces militia a few miles to the south. I thanked him and drove north. I stopped at the Lebanese Forces positions reportedly under attack, then drove through a fertile valley separating militia ridgelines and proceeded through Marada territory. “All quiet,” all said. Indeed, it had apparently been “all quiet” for quite some time. Another report went off for Washington’s edification.

In my travels around Lebanon, whether through regular work or due to Abdo’s tidbits, I did accomplish something of note: I mildly annoyed the intelligence staff of the defense ministry at Yarze. Among other jobs, they had the unenviable task of overseeing the military attache corps. As per published regulations and guidance from the LAF, they were to be notified of all attache travel beyond the municipal limits of Beirut. Samir al-Khadem was my usual contact. A scholarly and friendly Lebanese naval officer, later an admiral, Khadem urged me with unfailing courtesy and good humor to abide by the rules. I told him, quite accurately, that my travels violated no Lebanese laws and were fully in keeping with my rights and duties as an accredited diplomat. Still, he tried his best to rein me in. One day, he put a point on it all. “Confiding” to me that the “attache rules” had never been rendered in acceptable English, he asked for help with the translation. I obliged and, thus, enabled him to report that the rules had been conveyed to me in the clearest manner possible: I had literally written — and thus read, at inception — the English-language edition in his presence!

No matter. After all, Beirut itself was also a venue for interesting opportunities to collect and report information — and not just in instances of embassies going up in smoke or airstrikes on a “terrorist helicopter” averted. A Lebanese army officer I had befriended years earlier had been assigned to an LAF office in West Beirut commanded by Gen. Sami al-Khatib, the LAF’s liaison officer to the Syrian military’s “deterrent force” then stationed in Beirut, the Beqaa Valley and parts of Mount Lebanon.

After the Syrian “peacekeepers” had arrested Maj. Box and me in the Tannourine area, as described above, I decided to pay a visit to my Lebanese friend. After a brief courtesy call on Gen. Khatib, who welcomed my visit and promised full cooperation, I sat down with my friend and explained that other embassy staffers and I had a problem: As we traveled around Lebanon, trying to enjoy the country’s immense beauty, we were encountering occasional difficulties at Syrian checkpoints. I recounted my recent detention up north, not mentioning Box but emphasizing my touristic intent of visiting a monastery. I then asked for a favor: Could I please get a list of Syrian units in Lebanon, perhaps with commanders, locations and telephone contacts, so that untoward incidents might be resolved quickly and painlessly?

My friend smiled.

“Fred, would you mind working with a document typed in Arabic?” I assured him this would not be a problem. After all, I’d just assisted the LAF in composing an English version of military attache rules and regulations! He excused himself and, after five minutes at a copying machine, handed me the list I had requested, perhaps 30 pages of names, locations and contact information.

Thanking him, and then thanking Khatib for his assistance on my way out, I remembered suddenly that I had an appointment at Yarze. While this was not normally a problem, I then realized I would be crossing the “green line” dividing combatants in Lebanon’s capital and navigating Syrian checkpoints while carrying a manila envelope bulging with sensitive order of battle information on Syrian forces in Lebanon. Not only would I have to traverse these checkpoints on the way there and back, but I would have that envelope in LAF headquarters — where I would be powerless if someone sufficiently determined wanted to relieve me of it. In the event, I lucked out. No one was unpleasant going up to Yarze, meeting there and returning to the embassy. Eventually, though I needed time to process the information and translate it adequately, I was able to send a thorough report to Washington in installments. It was a big hit, especially with analysts geeking out over the Syrian order of battle in Lebanon.

However, this big hit was followed by a colossal misfire. In my final report from Lebanon, in the spring of 1982, I sought at Washington’s request to answer a question very much on the minds of officials and others around the Beltway: Would Israel invade Lebanon?

I, too, had been thinking a lot about this question. Two things — or, in some senses, two assessments of mine — struck me as especially pertinent. First, Lebanese Shiites were clashing with Palestinian forces in southern Lebanon. Second, notwithstanding the conventional analysis and the representations of some of its leaders, the Lebanese Forces militia was unlikely to contribute meaningfully to an Israeli military campaign.

The Shiite uprising in the south was real. Years earlier, the armed Palestinian presence had been mostly welcomed by locals. Unlike the distant government in Beirut, the Palestinians demonstrated interest in building health clinics and the like. But the violent back-and-forth between Palestinians and Israelis had eventually alienated Lebanon’s southern Shiites from Yasser Arafat and his forces, who now had to contend with a popular uprising along with Israeli gunners, Israeli combat aircraft and the aforementioned Maj. Haddad. Why would Israel risk complicating such a welcome development?

Moreover, or so I assessed, the Lebanese Forces would not react to an Israeli invasion by helping the invaders fight Palestinians and Syrians. If anything, the militia would acquire influence at the expense of or settle scores with other Lebanese. Surely, I reasoned, the Israelis were as aware of their ally’s strategic priorities as I believed we were. At the very least, the Lebanese Forces had conflicting priorities or interests. If a key ally’s position might not have been a stand-alone deterrent to an Israeli invasion, surely it — combined with the uprising in southern Lebanon — would receive serious consideration in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“No,” I concluded: Israel will not invade.

Back in Washington, my report made a big splash and was hailed as something of an analytical masterpiece. Then, in early June 1982, Israel’s ambassador in London was shot by Palestinian extremists and nearly killed. The invasion was launched. Sure enough, the Lebanese Forces, rather than coordinating with their Israeli allies, charged up into the Chouf Mountains to confront the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a longtime enemy. And Lebanon’s southern Shiites initially welcomed the invaders, a condition that would not endure for long. The implications of all this would prove disastrous over time. Within a year, the LAF, with the support of naval gunfire from the U.S. Navy’s battleship New Jersey, would be battling Jumblatt’s forces, inadvertently making targets of the U.S. Marine Corps peacekeepers operating out of a headquarters near Beirut’s airport. On the early morning of Oct. 23, 1983, the building housing those Marines would be lifted off its foundations and dropped to the ground by a truck bomber representing an extremist Shiite organization — one that would go on to adopt the name “Hezbollah” — operating at the behest of Iran.

So recently the object of multidirectional praise, with the aforementioned “big hit,” my predictive or analytical abilities suddenly became the object of mocking humor after this big misfire. While much of it was good-natured, some was not. In time, I would wonder whether Israeli leaders would have behaved differently if they had read my report and considered the pluses and minuses of invasion more soberly. (Then again, some in Israel itself had warned against such an invasion.) Perhaps they might have come to the same conclusion I did and avoided (or delayed) a costly occupation of southern Lebanon that, among other things, would help give rise to Hezbollah and enable Iran’s penetration of the Levant.

At the time of the invasion, I felt badly about having been so wrong. I blamed myself for having written a report that had failed to consider the most critical variable affecting Israel’s decision: Israel’s political leadership and the biases of that leadership on the question at hand. True, I was stationed in Lebanon, not Israel. And, true, I was a U.S. Army major. So, I was not intimately familiar — certainly not as intimately as others were — with the thinking of Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin or his influential Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Perhaps I could and should have qualified my report, mentioning the criticality of a decision-making process in Israel not necessarily dictated by truth or at least by fact. Perhaps I could have used the same analytical empathy that I expected the Israelis to apply when considering how different Lebanese would behave. But no: I had instead applied my version of a rational actor model and concluded an Israeli invasion would not happen.

And I was wrong.

I served in Lebanon four decades ago. Today, I find myself reflecting on what I experienced then in the context of events unfolding now. I have no doubt that these accounts of collection and reporting challenges I faced in civil war Lebanon have their analogs today in American defense attache offices around the world.

I imagine, for instance, American military attaches in our embassy in Kyiv, providing reports and assessments as I and others once did in the Levant, contradicting the assumption widely held a year ago that Ukraine’s armed forces would fold quickly in the face of Russian invaders, who were numerically superior, if nothing else. Moreover, U.S. military personnel in the Moscow embassy may have been able to collect and report information highlighting the shortcomings of Russia’s military. While that would have been a difficult undertaking at best, it would have been possible.

In Armenia and Azerbaijan, I suspect American military attaches have made every effort to reach the front lines of combat raging periodically between their respective host countries. There is, of course, a balance to be struck between safety and on-the-scene reporting. The precise nature of this balance is hard to establish. Military attache personnel tend to be aggressive in fulfilling their collection and reporting requirements.

In the embassy in Baghdad, military attaches today face many of the challenges encountered by their colleagues in wartime Lebanon — including an Iranian presence and Iranian-supported activities that are deadly for the host country and dangerous for Americans residing therein. Nor is Lebanon today necessarily any safer for being more stable or for not being mired in a civil war. Indeed, American military attache personnel and other embassy personnel still face challenges and risks operating there (not least with Hezbollah exercising considerable political and military clout over the remains of a precarious republic that it and its allies in Lebanon’s political class helped to kill).

American military attaches play a vital diplomatic role in keeping Washington accurately informed about political and military matters. Yes, they are accredited diplomats who represent their military services to the host military and often engage in ceremonial events to that end. Yes, they advise the ambassador and other members of the embassy country team on military matters. But they distinguish themselves, and make their greatest contribution to American diplomacy, by collecting and reporting timely information under challenging circumstances. Although wartime Lebanon has now been consigned to the pages of ancient history in the eyes of many generalists, the women and men of America’s military attache corps continue to play a diplomatic role often overlooked in (or even unknown to) academia. They do so in circumstances that resemble that of the Lebanon I, and so many others, knew. For decision-makers in Washington, these military diplomats play a role whose value continues to be deeply appreciated.

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