Thursday, October 23, 2008

Beirut Barracks Bombing 25 Year Later

On this day 25 years ago, 241 Americans were killed and hundreds more wounded when an explosion the size of 12,000 pounds of TNT – the largest ever non-nuclear blast investigated by explosives experts— was detonated by a suicide bomber at the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. This attack was the largest the Marines had experienced since Pearl Harbor. Ultimately, the Reagan administration decided to pull US troops out of Lebanon. This attack and the subsequent withdrawal of US forces has become an important part of the discussion around US actions in the War on Terror. Furthermore, the implications and consequences of this attack are still being played out today.

Although the US pulled the Marines out of Lebanon a few months after the attack, it has not forgotten the incident. The group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility- a group that many believe is a nom de guerre of Hizbullah. In February of this year Imad Mughniya, believed to be a top Hizbullah leader who was key in planning the 1983 attack, was killed in a bomb blast in Damascus. It is widely suggested that Israel may have perpetrated the bombing, and the State Department expressed its satisfaction with Mughniya’s fate. Additionally, in 2003 a US civil case was brought against the state of Iran as a responsible party to the Beirut bombing. The families of the marines killed in the blast won the suit. Although Iran has not, and may never, pay the amount awarded to the victim’s families, there have been recent efforts by the plaintiffs to seize Iranian assets in the US. Finally, the National Museum of the Marine Corps recently unveiled a display commemorating the 1983 bombings.

In addition to the focus on finding ways to punish those responsible for the attack, there has been much discussion of the barracks bombing as a cautionary tale against retreating in the face of extremism. The US troops stationed in Lebanon in 1982 were supposed to be there as peacekeepers. However, at the time, as well as today, critics pointed out that the Marines were never given a clear mission and were vulnerable to attacks. Although after the bombing President Reagan vowed that the US would stay in Lebanon, by the February 1984 the military was moved offshore and eventually returned to the States. The criticisms have increased in intensity since 9-11 and the War on Terror. Critics, some we have read for this class, assert that US withdrawal gave groups like Al Qaida the perception that America would not risk lives in fighting extremist groups in far away places like the Middle East. Some analysts have asserted that this incident was “a turning point in asymmetrical warfare, especially in the Middle East.” Critics believe this not only strengthened groups like Hizbullah, but it also showed that these types of acts could make superpowers like the US change their policies. Consequently, many supporters of the War on Terror use the Beirut barracks bombing as an example of why the US must not retreat from the fight against extremists.

Yet, I have to wonder what would have happened if the US had committed itself to stay in Beirut after the attack. Lebanese politics are just as, if not more, complicated as Iraqi and Afghani politics- blending religion, clan, and even nationality. The Lebanese conflict is also intricately tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have to wonder if it would have been in the best interest of the US at the time to stay and fight. Perhaps the military could have shown enough resolve that extremist groups would not have attempted to target the US in the future. Perhaps the US could have even ended the conflict in Lebanon and secured an open and favorable government that would be an ally to the US and even Israel, instead of being mired in a civil war that was fueled by regional rivalries. On the other hand, perhaps the US would have ended up bogged down in the complicated and deadly politics that characterized the Lebanese Civil War.

Although the US did not stay in Lebanon after the attack, the barracks bombing has continued to shape American policy in the War on Terror and in the region. It has come to be a cautionary tale, but lesson that the US should learn from the incident can still be debated.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not addressed in this article is the question of security measures exercised by the marines themselves to prevent such an assault. The lone road/ramp access to the concrete structure was "guarded" by a sole truck mounted machine which, drum roll please.. had no bullet belts in it! Yes, under direct orders from President Reagan, against the wishes of the Marines or their officers,the marines were forbidden to have live ammo loaded in the mayhem that prevailed. I doubt if the Reagon library highlights this unpleasant fact.