Jim, I’m not arguing that Reagan’s Lebanon intervention “is a good model for the war on terror.” I agree that it was an ill-conceived mission in which Marines essentially became sitting ducks for terrorists, and at the time, withdrawing was the right thing to do. My point is that even in that case, in which there was a broad consensus that we needed to pull out, the act of withdrawing had disastrous long-term consequences. It demonstrated to terrorists that with all our military strength, if they caused some casualties, they could get us to surrender. The Beirut withdrawal (along with our pullout from Somalia) was an important part of the narrative that bin Laden constructed to convince his followers that terrorism works. If Paul is going to cite Reagan’s pullout from Lebanon to demonstrate that Reagan came to terms with the irrationality of the Middle East, if he’s going to lecture us on how we need to pay more attention to what the terrorists are actually saying, it’s only fair to look at the flip side and see what they say when we withdraw. And it’s worth keeping in mind as we contemplate what to do in Iraq. The scope of the Iraq intervention is much greater than Lebanon, our commitment of soldiers is much larger, and thus a defeat there is likely to have even more disastrous repercussions. Opponents of the war argue, correctly, I believe, that we went to war without giving enough thought to what would happen once we toppled Saddam. There is a danger now that in their desire to see us wash our hands of Iraq, opponents of the war are not adequately considering the consequences of withdrawal. That is not to say that this should be the ultimate trump card in any argument about what to do with regard to Iraq, but we should seriously be considering the consequences of leaving in the cost-benefit analysis of what to do there. If we can’t win, we have to consider ways to make it as little a victory for al Qaeda as possible.
In a broader sense, I’m not arguing that when contemplating military action, we shouldn’t consider how it would be perceived by those who live in the region, or whether it could motivate more terrorists than we could eliminate by taking such an action. But Jim is making an argument that’s much more rational than Paul’s. Paul is an extreme non-interventionist who is arguing that if we go back 50 years and imagine an alternate universe in which America never got involved in the Middle East, we’d be safer today. But that would mean that during the Cold War we would have faced an Iran that would have been controlled by a Soviet-friendly government instead of one friendly to the U.S., it would have meant Soviet domination of the entire Middle East during the Cold War (given that Israel would have been weaker or perhaps even non-existent), and Saddam raking in oil money from Kuwait to fund WMD programs that we know he had in the early 1990s. The world is a complicated, messy place that often forces us to choose between many undesirable options. Paul has the advantage in that his extreme non-interventionism has never been tried, so he can point to problems in the world that are the result of the world being messy and say that if only we had never meddled in the affairs of others, we’d be safe. Saying that we should be more cautious in our foreign interventions is one thing, but Paul thinks we can pretend we’re still living in the 19th century.
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