A U.S. Embassy guard searches through
the rubble of the American Embassy in
West Beirut.

1983 Beirut Bomb Still Reverberates Today

October 23, 2008 04:32 PM
by Josh Katz
On the 25th anniversary of the Beirut bombings, commentators debate the legacy the 1983 events and whether they offer some lessons for current U.S. policy.

Beirut Remembered 25 Years Later

Oct. 23, 2008, marks the 25th anniversary of the 1983 Beirut suicide bombings that killed 241 American service members, mostly Marines, and 58 more Western troops. In the first attack, a suicide bomber drove into the four-story American barracks at the Beirut airport at around 6 a.m., where more than 300 troops were stationed. The truck carried six tons of TNT in what is considered the “largest non-nuclear bomb in history,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“All our bunkers around the perimeter of our building just collapsed,” First Lt. Glenn Dolphin told The Charleston Gazette. “The blast was so devastating, it blew birds out of the sky—just killed them dead.”

The second attack occurred at the French forces’ compound later in the day. President Ronald Reagan withdrew American troops from Beirut three months later.

A Hezbollah splinter group carried out the attack. Hezbollah, then a small group of guerilla fighters, did not have the substantial political sway it holds in Lebanon today. The man who planned the bombing reputedly “inspired” Osama bin Laden, the Tribune writes.

Years earlier, Jordan had banished the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the PLO had sought refuge in Lebanon in the 1970s. In 1975, battles raged between Christian and Muslim militias, each backed by nearby countries such as Iran, Syria and Israel. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to flush out the PLO, and later withdrew to be replaced by a United Nations peacekeeping force of British, French, Italian and American troops. The Americans were in Lebanon as part of that UN peacekeeping force.

The U.S. base at Beirut International Airport was a vulnerable location, because the airport maintained its operations and factions battled in the mountains nearby. American and allied support for Christian forces in the Lebanese government strengthened the opposition. Earlier in the year, in April 1983, a car bomb killed 63 people at a U.S. Embassy.

Opinions have varied on how, if possible, the U.S. could have handled the conflict in Lebanon better, and what the repercussions have been. Some claim that Reagan should not have pulled out American troops because it signaled the country’s weakness in the face of terrorism, and possibly encouraged future terrorists like bin Laden, according to Stars and Stripes.

“We invested all this time and money and sweat and blood, and then we just leave,” Former Navy journalist Joe Ciokon said, the Tribune reports. “Why did we give these lives?”

Others contend that Reagan should never have sent troops to Beirut in the first place. “You should never again commit forces to a peacekeeping role unless there is a peace—a truce. We didn’t have that,” said retired Gen. Al Gray, who was commander of the 2nd Marine Division at the time of the bombing and later became Marine Corps commandant, Stars and Stripes writes.

But many do agree that that strategically, the United States made major errors in Lebanon, and some say the country’s military has repeated those mistakes in recent wars. “We went into Afghanistan without any clear plan for stability operations or nation-building,” said Anthony Cordesman, of the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “It took us years to recognize how serious the situation was.”

Opinion & Analysis: The legacy of the Beirut bombings

In a Wednesday New York Times op-ed, Randy Gaddo, who served in Beirut during the bombing, indicates that America’s retreat from Lebanon probably contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: “Had we stood our ground 25 years ago instead of pulling out after the bombing, it is possible that 9/11 would not have happened. Likewise, anyone who thinks we can pull back into a shell now and hope terrorism will go away simply isn’t looking at the lessons history offers.” He goes on to say that the United States has achieved success in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hopes that the lessons of Beirut will inspire America not to pull out of those countries too early.

An op-ed making similar points by Robert C. McFarlane, who served as national security adviser from 1983 to 1985, appeared in Thursday's New York Times. He calls the American stint in Beirut “one of the most tragic and costly policy defeats in the brief modern history of American counterterrorism operations.” According to McFarlane, the U.S. decision to pull out of Lebanon proved to the terrorists that America folded under attack, and encouraged the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as well as other future attacks against the country. He also critiques the lack of a “clear military mission” in Beirut, and blames Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for refusing to “undertake military operations that might result in Muslim casualties and put at risk Muslim goodwill.”

Robert F. Turner, who was the acting assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in 1984–1985, places much of the blame for the failed Lebanon campaign on the Democrats, singling out vice presidential candidate Del. Sen. Joe Biden. In a Wall Street Journal piece, Turner claims that the Nov. 1973 War Powers Resolution, advocated by liberals, undercut U.S. security. The resolution handed Congress control over the use of the military abroad. Turner says that the Democrats, trying to win political points before the 1984 elections, used the resolution to find out “exactly when the troops would return home” from Lebanon. Because America backed out of Beirut, Turner writes, “Osama bin Laden concluded that America could not accept casualties and ordered the 9/11 attacks.”

James Bovard, the author of “Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice & Peace to Rid the World of Evil,” offered a different opinion on the Lebanon attacks in a 2003 op-ed published by Counterpunch, in which he holds the Republican Reagan administration accountable. He argues that the Reagan administration tried to skirt responsibility for numerous security lapses in Beirut and at the barracks, and for mistakes during a mission that the U.S. should not have been a part of in the first place. He argues that, by arming Lebanese forces against one another, the U.S. government helped to incite the hatred against Americans. According to Bovard, “The 1982–84 deployment of U.S. troops in Beirut achieved nothing. And, contrary to the arguments of today’s hardliners, a larger, longer deployment would have merely boosted the number of body bags arriving at Dover Air Force base.”

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