The Spark That Lit the War on Terror

The ill-fated U.S. intervention in Lebanon’s civil war fueled the rise of Islamist terrorism. And 34 years on, it still provides lessons about America’s failed Middle East policies.

US marines continue to search for victims, on October 31, 1983, after a terrorist attack against the headquarters of the U.S. troops of the multinational force that killed 241 American soldiers on October 23, 1983 in Beirut.        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE BOUCHON/AFP/Getty Images)
US marines continue to search for victims, on October 31, 1983, after a terrorist attack against the headquarters of the U.S. troops of the multinational force that killed 241 American soldiers on October 23, 1983 in Beirut. (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE BOUCHON/AFP/Getty Images)

It all seemed so easy back then. When American Marines landed in Beirut 34 years ago this month, they came, as their commander put it, “to help our Lebanese friends.” The problem was, friends can be fickle. The Reagan administration saw white hats and black hats in Lebanon, when in fact, they all wore shades of gray.

Coincidentally, a man named Reagan was the first American casualty in Lebanon. Cpl. David L. Reagan of Chesapeake, Virginia, just 21 years old, was killed clearing ordinance left over from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which claimed at least 10,000 lives.

“It is our expectation that our people will not become involved in any combat that will result in loss of life,” White House Spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters after the fact. By the time the Marines humiliatingly withdrew 17 months later, 264 American servicemen and 15 diplomats and CIA employees were dead; the United States had fought, and effectively lost, a war. Instead of a Benghazi-style lynch mob, Congress carried out a thoughtful investigation and ultimately issued a set of recommendations to avoid such disasters in the future. But that was before the era of hyper-polarized politics and media.

Contrast that to the “Kill ‘em all and let God sort it out” approach to terrorist attacks these days.

“You’ve got to get over there and make them pay where they live,” New Jersey governor and Donald Trump apologist Chris Christie said in response to the Orlando massacre, conveniently ignoring the fact that the killer was a New York-born U.S. citizen. “It is unacceptable to allow this type of stuff in our country and for us to not fight back.”

America’s disastrous Lebanon incursion is a cautionary tale for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as they compete over who will be tougher in neighboring Syria. Lebanon marked the first military intervention in the Middle East in the post-colonial era and the first time Americans fired in anger on Muslim troops since fighting the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It ended in disaster. In Beirut, the United States planted the seeds of the terrorism that today encircles the globe. We saw the terrible cost of policy based on the arrogance of D.C. heavyweights who thought they knew more than the experts on the ground, and we witnessed the consequence of a White House worldview that automatically assumed all Muslims were bad and all Christians were good.

The seminal moment of the Lebanon experience came on a quiet Sunday morning in October 1983 when a truck bomb leveled the U.S. Marine barracks near Beirut airport, claiming the lives of 241 American servicemen. The devastating attack was part of a convulsion of anti-American violence that marked the birth of modern radical “Muslim” terrorism — though the Shiite militiamen of Lebanon were fighting for a fundamentally different cause than the Sunni radicals of Islamic State and al Qaeda now do. The explosion shook me awake in my bed miles from the blast site. The scene that awaited when I arrived a half-hour later — bits of U.S. Marines with whom I had been drinking beer and shooting hoops the evening before were hanging from the leafless trees; the hands of trapped Marines and sailors reaching from between slabs of broken concrete; rows of bodies lined up on the ground — will forever shape my view of the troubled interplay of Islam and American policy.

In the coming months and years, I would find myself covering suicide bombings of U.S. embassies in Lebanon and Kuwait; the hijacking of a TWA flight packed with Americans; and the kidnappings of U.S. citizens from the streets of Beirut, some of them my friends.

“We must find out what is going on,” Donald Trump told Americans the day after the Orlando massacre. “We need to tell the truth, also, about how radical Islam is coming to our shores.”

It might be a mystery to Trump, but it doesn’t take a Middle East expert to know the answer. It is clear to anyone who has paid attention to the news over the past few decades, or studied a little history. The U.S.-backed anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, American troops in Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq in 2003; these all fueled the flames of terror that have spread around the world and has now arrived on our city streets and in our shopping malls. But the spark was lit in Beirut.

There, the Reagan White House sided with one set of armed factions because they happened to be Christian against another set of armed factions that happened to be Muslim, turning would-be allies into enemies and creating an opening for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to foment anti-American chaos. For future American policymakers, Lebanon should have been a cautionary tale. White House operatives, led by Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East, ignored the resident diplomats and military experts alike.

“We’re sitting ducks down here,” the commander of the Marines battalion, Col. Timothy Geraghty, told McFarlane when ordered to open fire on Druze and Shiite Muslim positions, as I recounted in my 2003 book on the conflict, Seeds of Hate. Geraghty later wrote that the decision “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.”

Muslim militia leaders, locked in conflict with the Christian-dominated Lebanese government, also sought to avoid war with the United States. “I’m giving this small advice to the U.S. Marines to stay away from the Lebanese Army positions,” Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, told me at the time. “It is better for them and better for me. If they don’t, they could get caught in the crossfire [and would] unfortunately suffer the consequences.” The Druze, an esoteric offshoot of Shiite Islam, would ultimately end up fighting the Americans alongside Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim militias.

The Marines had been rushed to Beirut after Christian militiamen, supported by Israeli troops, massacred at least 800 Palestinian and Shiite civilians in Beirut’s southern slums. Muslims had welcomed the Americans as protectors. But the Marines’ mission was ill-defined. When clashes broke out between Christian and Muslim rivals, the White House sided with the Christians under the guise of supporting the “legitimate” government of Lebanon, which was anything but.

“And he, whose whole course of proceeding seemed like a deliberate crusade against Mohammedan susceptibilities, never appeared to reflect for one moment that he was thereby supplying the springs to an under-current of fierce and deadly fanaticism,” Col. Charles Churchill, a 19th-century British officer, wrote of an earlier ill-fated Western intervention in the region.

Oblivious to the irony, Reagan warned Middle East governments: “Those outsiders who have fed the flames of civil war in Lebanon for so many years need to learn that the fire will consume them, too.”

And so it did, erupting into a global conflagration we continue to battle today.

It was in Lebanon that today’s tactics of terror were first employed against Americans. “Is it more brave to shoot bombs from the sea?” Akram, a Shiite militiaman, asked me as we sat drinking sweet tea in a bunker facing the Marines’ positions as shells from the USS New Jersey roared above our heads. “We have no New Jersey. We do not have jet planes. We have many trucks, so we use them. What is the difference between dropping a bomb on a building from the sky and driving it from the street?”

Osama bin Laden later told Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah’s operations chief, that he was inspired by the suicide bombings that Mugniyeh used to bring America to its knees and adopted them for himself, an Arab intelligence source related to me years later.

There were no simple answers then to the question of how we stop terrorism, nor are there today — no matter how hard some politicians try to convince us otherwise.

“You can run, but you can’t hide,” Ronald Reagan declared in 1985 after a plane carrying Palestinian hijackers who had murdered an American was intercepted by U.S. jets. It was, he said, “a message to terrorists everywhere.” A year later, Reagan would assure the nation, “History is likely to record that 1986 was the year when the world, at long last, came to grips with the plague of terrorism.”

Would that it had been so.

In the three decades since, we have learned just how difficult it is to strike back against Islamist extremists. Despite countless drone missiles, special operations raids, and F-16 airstrikes, terror continues to metastasize. The war against terrorism does not lend itself to “shock and awe” solutions. It is a painstaking, complex, and methodical battle, often carried out far from the glare of television cameras. But American politicians have never let those facts get in the way of a good soundbite.

“When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive,” George W. Bush promised, oh so many dead camels ago. But as terrorism has spread, American rhetoric has only grown louder — on both sides of the aisle. “They are going to be on the run wherever they hide,” President Barack Obama declared after the June terrorist attack on Istanbul airport. “And we will not rest until we have dismantled these networks of hate that have an impact on the entire civilized world.”

“We have to knock the hell out of ISIS — and we have to do it fast,” Trump said in Monday’s presidential debate. “We have to smash ISIS’s strongholds with an accelerated coalition air campaign, more support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground, and intense diplomatic efforts in Syria, Iraq, and across the region,” Hillary Clinton declared the morning after the New York bombings.

It’s understandable that we want instant gratification. But there are no simple solutions. Our drunken lurching from disengagement to intervention in the Middle East, from coddling autocrats to democracy-building and back again, is ready evidence of that.

If George W. Bush’s team missed the cues from Beirut when they set out to redraw the map and create a democratic, new Middle East, we now have Iraq from which to learn. The Syria primer for the next administration should have a chapter on each of those conflicts: same patchwork quilt of rival ethnic and religious groups, same ever-shifting array of regional proxy wars. But Americans cannot afford for the next occupant of the White House to repeat the mistakes of the past. Slow and careful is also a policy.

Donald Trump’s insistence that we should “take the oil” in Iraq as war reparations, repeated in Monday’s debate, makes clear that the words “careful” and “methodical” are not part of his vocabulary. But he got one thing right in his April foreign policy speech, “We have made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before.”

Yet on the campaign trail, the candidates’ muscle-flexing continues to give voters the simplistic bromides they so desperately want to believe. “I have a simple message for them,” Trump said of the Islamic State in April. “Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. But they’re going to be gone. And soon.”

Now where have we heard that before?

Photo credit: PHILIPPE BOUCHON/AFP/Getty Images

Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar who was the founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent, Pintak has covered dozens of wars, conflicts, coups, and revolutions on three continents. His latest book is America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump.

Twitter: @lpintak

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