The evacuation of American citizens and foreign nationals from Lebanon this week presented a study in emergency logistics and also a diplomatic opportunity for the United States, according to an MIT engineering professor who specializes in logistics, supply chain management and resilient enterprise development.
The Beirut evacuation follows Israel's bombing of southern Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers and the bombing of northern Israel by Hezbollah, a Shi'ite militia group based in Lebanon.
Yossi Sheffi, professor of engineering systems and director of the Center for Transportation & Logistics, described the situation as "chaotic," as thousands of people, plus trucks, cars and buses, clogged the roads en route to the port city in hopes of getting on boats to Larnaca, Cyprus, 40 miles away.
"The British brought in a warship; for them, this was a second Dunkirk," Sheffi said, referring to the 1940 rescue of British troops from mass death on the French shoreline during World War II. "Reaching that many people, finding out who wants to leave, managing the sick, infirm, and children, arranging supplies and getting everyone all to safety requires the coordination and communications of a military operation."
The basics of such an operation have some elements in common with the situation that faced Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel after Hurricane Katrina tore through and flooded New Orleans in August 2005. The challenge of locating people, finding out what their condition is, establishing priorities on the fly and managing the information flows are traits common to both the Beirut evacuation and the post-Katrina efforts, Sheffi noted.
But America's position in the Middle East and its relationship with Israel sets the American evacuation of Lebanon apart from other countries' evacuation efforts and from any domestic crisis, even the worst.
"Like the Gulf Coast after Katrina, planners need to have the mentality of asking for forgiveness, not permission. The war zone in Lebanon is a very dynamic, constantly changing environment, and every plan is time-sensitive. So commanders and specialists on the ground have to improvise and invent processes on the spot, rather than follow pre-established procedures," Sheffi said.
According to Sheffi, much of the criticism aimed at the slowness of the U.S. response is unfair, however. "The challenge for the U.S. is unlike the challenge to other nations since U.S. assets may be a target.
"Sinking a ship with hundreds of Americans on board would be a big win for Hezbollah. This is not the case for, say, Italy or France," Sheffi said.
The logistics and security issues overlap on land as well. "The most complicated part of the evacuation is getting people who are dispersed around Lebanon to the port without gathering too many in one staging area at the same time. Such a concentration means congestion, access problems and difficulties providing basic necessities. In addition, any large concentration of Americans in one place makes them an enticing target for Hezbollah," he said.
Despite America's unique security issues -- and in many ways, because of them -- U.S. officials and military leaders should have widened their view of the crisis in Lebanon to a systemic and holistic one and applied U.S. assets to helping everyone escape the war-torn region, Sheffi said.
"We missed a huge diplomatic opportunity by defining the challenge as rescuing Americans only. We have the world's largest Navy: it is more than three times larger than the combined navies of the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
"Imagine the international goodwill we could have generated if the U.S. had said, 'We'll move many assets in very quickly and evacuate everyone! Americans, Arabs, Europeans -- anyone who wants to get out, get on board!' That would have generated a significant change in the perception of the U.S. around the world. In the future, we should think of our assets in a global perspective," Sheffi said.
Sheffi is the author of "The Resilient Enterprise" (MIT Press), a book on how companies can plan for and respond to significant operational disruptions.