On February 1, 1984, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives agreed on a non-binding resolution calling for “the prompt and orderly withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Lebanon in the wake of a suicide bombing at the Marine barracks in Beirut and declining public support for the peacekeeping mission. President Reagan was publicly defiant.
“Yes, the situation in Lebanon is difficult, frustrating, and dangerous,” Reagan said in his weekly radio address on February 4. “But that is no reason to turn our backs on friends and to cut and run. If we do, we’ll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people.”
Despite Reagan’s tough words, later that month, the U.S. did, in fact, cut and run. And as predicted, it sent a signal to terrorists everywhere.
This week, with Democrats aiming to reconcile House and Senate versions of the Iraq funding bill calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, America finds itself facing another showdown between a Democratic Congress and Republican president over an unpopular military entanglement. As with all historical comparisons, drawing parallels between the U.S. pullout from Lebanon in 1984 and the current debate over U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is not without its problems. U.S. involvement in Lebanon was much more limited both in terms of the amount of troops, the number of casualties, the length of stay, and the scope of the mission. But there are also eerie similarities between the two conflicts, and specifically, the debate over whether to withdraw or stay the course.
Just as with the Iraq War, in Lebanon, the U.S. found itself in the middle of a multifaceted conflict involving government forces, sectarian militias, terrorist groups and regional actors. To critics, it wasn’t worth risking American lives in another nation’s civil war, let alone one in which there was scant hope of a successful resolution. To supporters of intervention, U.S. Marines had a key role to play in restoring peace and stability in a crucial part of the world.
As casualties mounted and the situation deteriorated in Lebanon, President Reagan frustrated his critics with his stubborn commitment to the mission and what they saw as an inability to face up to the reality on the ground. To justify the continued American presence in Lebanon, Reagan employed many of the same arguments that Bush has been using to defend U.S. policy in Iraq.
On October 23, 1983, a Hezbollah terrorist drove a truck filled with over 12,000 pounds of TNT into the Marine barracks at the Beirut International Airport, killing 241 Marines in what was at the time the deadliest terrorist attack on Americans in history. At a press conference the following day, Reagan reiterated the importance of the mission. “By promoting peace in Lebanon, we strengthen the forces for peace throughout the Middle East,” Reagan said. “This is not a Republican or a Democratic goal but one that all Americans share.” He added, “We must not allow international criminals and thugs such as these to undermine the peace in Lebanon…. If others feel confident that they can intimidate us and our allies in Lebanon, they will become more bold elsewhere.”
In the months following the Marine barracks bombing, public support for the mission continued to erode, and by January, an ABC poll showed that 57 percent of Americans wanted the Marines withdrawn from Lebanon. With the presidential primary season already in full swing, and prospects for a successful outcome growing dimmer, any semblance of bipartisan support for the intervention disappeared, resulting in an increasingly hostile political climate and a clash over executive and legislative wartime power that mirrors today’s debate over the Iraq War.
Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who had backed Reagan the previous September by corralling congressional support for the authorization of an additional 18-month stay in Lebanon, turned decidedly against the operation. By February 1, House Democrats agreed on the wording of a non-binding resolution calling for the withdrawal of troops. Reagan brushed it aside. “I’m not going to pay any attention to it,” he declared.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt, published February 3, Reagan was asked what he felt about O’Neill’s contention that the Lebanon policy was a failure. “He may be ready for surrender, but I’m not,” Reagan boasted.
An angry O’Neill fired back. “The deaths of the U.S. Marines are the responsibility of the President of the United States,” he said, according to the account of historian Richard Reeves in President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. “He is looking for a scapegoat. The deaths lie on him and the defeat in Lebanon lies on him and him alone.”
Despite Reagan’s public statements and his private desire to stay the course, a highly critical Department of Defense report on the barracks bombing, growing congressional opposition, the collapse of the Lebanese government and lack of progress in training the Lebanese Army led Reagan to capitulate. On February 25, the last group of Marines left Beirut.
While we’ll never know what would have happened had the U.S. Marines stayed in Lebanon, we do know what happened after they left. Hezbollah became one of the fiercest terrorist groups in the world, and established a state within a state in southern Lebanon that continues to stand in the way of reform and is a threat to peace in the region, as evidenced by their kidnapping of Israeli soldiers that triggered last summer’s war. But even more important was the message the pullout sent to terrorists.
Osama bin Laden, for one, took notice. In a 1996 fatwa, bin Laden cited the Beirut Marine barracks bombing in making his case that America was a paper tiger whose leaders talked tough but would withdraw at the first sight of casualties.
More specifically, there is a strong relationship between the Beirut bombing and al Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. Embassies in Africa 15 years later. The attack on the Marine barracks was studied at al Qaeda training camps, and bin Laden sent al Qaeda operatives to Lebanon to obtain explosives instruction from Hezbollah and to learn how to bomb large buildings, according to Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. In Sudan, Bin Laden met with Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh, who was the mastermind of the attack on the U.S. Marines as well as an April 1983 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
Ali Mohamed, who at bin Laden’s request did surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, years before it was attacked by al Qaeda, spoke of the group’s tactics and objectives in an October 20, 2000 plea agreement with the U.S. government. He said: “based on the marine explosion in Beirut in 1984 [sic] and the American pull-out from Beirut, they will be the same method, to force the United States to pull out from Saudi Arabia.”
As the nation debates whether to withdraw from Iraq, the Lebanon experience provides a cautionary tale. In 1984, there was a strong case to be made for pulling out of Lebanon, but there were also disastrous long-term consequences stemming from that decision. Should the U.S. leave Iraq, it would not only ensure terrorists a safe haven, but reinforce the view that America, for all of its military might, does not have the stomach to fight terrorism. Let us have an honest and open debate about the challenges we face in Iraq, but let us be under no illusions as to the consequences of leaving.
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