Lesson Unlearned

Don't blame Hezbollah for the Marine barracks bombing. The United States is at fault, for becoming a combatant in Lebanon's civil war.


Another October 23rd has come and gone, another anniversary of the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut — and more inane articles written by people drawing the wrong lessons. As usual, the authors perceive the United States as some innocent Little Red Riding Hood attacked unjustly and without provocation by evil wolves. Last year, former Reagan-era National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane penned an especially ill-informed piece titled "From Beirut to 9/11." McFarlane blamed Hezbollah, though the Shiite resistance group did not yet really exist and nobody knows who actually committed the attack.

A short history lesson is in order: The 1983 bombing, in which suicide bombers driving explosives-laden trucks killed 241 U.S. military personnel and 58 French servicemen, was in response to an American attack. The United States, at McFarlane’s behest, chose to back one side in Lebanon’s civil war. Opposition groups, composed of Lebanon’s various religious sects, battled the Lebanese Army, which was acting as a sectarian Christian militia. The United States had just given the Lebanese Army a great deal of military equipment. The opposition forces confronted the Lebanese Army in Suq al-Gharb and were defeating the U.S.-backed forces, which could have led to an end to the civil war and a victory for the opposition forces. There was little consultation within Ronald Reagan’s administration when McFarlane decided to call for the USS New Jersey off the coast of Lebanon to provide gunfire support for its beleaguered allies. Until then, the United States had maintained a fairly neutral stance, but after this attack the U.S. warships continued to sporadically shell the opposition fighters. At this point, the United States became just another militia in the Lebanese civil war.

The United States chose not to raise the alert level for the Marines participating as part of the multinational peacekeeping force in Beirut because it thought that would imply that the Marines were also implicated in the attack. But, as U.S. military personnel, of course they were implicated — McFarlane had made them so, and their blood is on his hands. The attitude among some at the National Security Council was that it was time to teach the Lebanese opposition forces — read: Muslims — a lesson. At the State Department’s political and military affairs bureau, "we were shocked" by the shelling at Suq al-Gharb, one former senior member told me. "We were left speechless." They knew there would be retaliation for this American act of war.

Interestingly, my views are supported by none other than retired Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, the man who commanded the Marines in Beirut 25 years ago. Geraghty wrote an article last year for the U.S. Naval Institute’s publication Proceedings: "The Marine and the French headquarters were targeted primarily because of who we were and what we represented. … It is noteworthy that the United States provided direct naval gunfire support — which I strongly opposed for a week — to the Lebanese Army at a mountain village called Suq-al-Garb on 19 September and that the French conducted an air strike on 23 September in the Bekaa Valley. American support removed any lingering doubts of our neutrality, and I stated to my staff at the time that we were going to pay in blood for this decision."

Geraghty was not the only military expert who has doubts about the U.S. role in Lebanon during the 1980s. Robert Baer was a CIA field agent covering Lebanon out of Damascus at the time of the bombing. "Don’t forget the Lebanese Christian forces kidnapped the Iranian chargé d’affaires, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officer," he told me. "The Iranians held the U.S. responsible. As far as they were concerned, we opened the first shot in the war."

Clashes between the Marines and the Lebanese Shiites living in Beirut’s southern suburbs also turned the United States into a combatant in the Lebanese civil war. "The Marines killed a lot of Shiites. So we’re talking about simple revenge. Well, on second thought, revenge isn’t that simple. The problem in any war is that there is no such thing as a precision weapon," Baer continued. "We didn’t have a clue who we were killing [in Lebanon]. … It was just numbers. It made good above-the-fold headlines. An eye for an eye."

This year, an entirely new crop of articles has emerged on the Marine barracks bombing. Barry Rubin, the right-wing director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, criticized the Obama administration’s statement on the anniversary of the bombing because it neglected to name Hezbollah, which did not yet exist in 1983, as the culprit, "under the guidance of Syria and Iran." Rubin is also upset that Hezbollah is no longer considered a terrorist group. But it does not engage in terrorism, so why should the United States consider it a terrorist group any more than it does the Irish Republican Army? Hezbollah under Hassan Nasrallah is a very different organization than the one that existed in Lebanon’s chaotic 1980s.

Another egregious article was penned by fallen New York Times star Judith Miller, titled "War by other Names." Miller tries to draw a connection between the 1983 bombing and the September 11 attacks. "The attack offers several lessons, some of which are being resisted by those who favor compromise with militants who seek a worldwide Islamic caliphate and the imposition of a strict Islamic order on their fellow Muslim and non-Muslim citizens." First of all, no Shiite wants to restore the caliphate, which is primarily a Sunni concept. On a practical level, I’ve spent a lot of time with Islamist fighters in Somalia, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, and elsewhere, some of them linked to al Qaeda or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Nobody spoke about the caliphate or seemed to care about it.

Restoring the caliphate isn’t really a motivation for most groups, not for the Taliban and not for al Qaeda, and definitely not for their recruits, who are usually responding to specific or general grievances. The Arab and Muslim worlds are too divided, nation-states and nationalism are too important, the Sunni-Shiite conflict is too serious to allow for them to take this seriously. Islamic metaphors or language are just a different discourse for older struggles, and those are typically more local and mundane, like foreign occupation, oppression, and support for Arab dictators.

Miller continues with more mistakes. "The first lesson is that by 1983, militants had already managed to overcome the historic divisions between Sunni and Shiite Islam. The Beirut attacks were a collaboration between Sunni Muslim Syria, a supposedly secular, leftist Baathist regime, and the Shiite Muslim Islamic Republic of Iran," Actually, the historic divide is much bloodier today, and more intense, than it was then. Sunnis were not fighting Shiites in the Lebanese civil war, but these days there have been Sunni-Shiite clashes here in Beirut, where I am writing from. The Iraqi civil war between Sunnis and Shiites is barely over, and the Shiite victory has made Sunni dictators in the region nervous, just as Hezbollah’s victory over Israel has also struck fear into the hearts of these so-called "moderate" Sunni countries. Furthermore, it is wrong to view Syria in the 1980s as a Sunni Muslim state. This is the Syria that was massacring thousands of its own Sunni Islamists. Surely, Miller must remember that? It was happening practically at the same time. At the time of the Marine barracks bombing, the struggle was not about the Sunni-Shia rift. Today’s sectarian strife, on the other hand, is very much a result of the American occupation of Iraq and sectarian agitation on the part of the Americans and the Saudis.

"Another lesson of Beirut is that terrorism works," Miller explains, because the Americans and others on the multinational peacekeeping force pulled out of Beirut following the attack. "[T]he United States abandoned Lebanon to its fate: years of civil war and the rise of Hezbollah as an entrenched political party that sponsors terror when violence suits its aims." However, it defies the imagination to believe that Lebanon’s future would have been brighter if the Americans had remained as occupiers. Hezbollah is powerful because it is a successful model of resistance to Israeli and American hegemony and because it effectively serves its constituency, the largest group in Lebanon, nearly all of whom support it.

Bizarrely, Miller found hope in an official of the Saudi Interior Ministry — an institution which tortures, executes, and holds people without charges or trial — an official of the state which supports the very ideologies that lead to al Qaeda, the Taliban, hatred of Shiites, and the oppression of women. "Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon are both gaining ground," Miller also warned. This conflation of two national liberation movements, which have nothing in common with al Qaeda or the Taliban, is a dangerous and irresponsible misreading of the Middle East’s political landscape.

There are indeed lessons to draw from the bombing 26 years ago: America should avoid meddling in civil wars it doesn’t understand. An even simpler lesson is to leave people alone. Stop killing Muslims, and there won’t be any Muslims who want to kill you.

<p>Nir Rosen is a fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security. He has reported extensively from the Middle East, and his book In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq was published in 2006.</p>