October of this year marks the 30th anniversary of a major setback for Western influence in the Middle East. On October 23, 1983 220 Marines and 21 other U.S. service personnel were killed when terrorists exploded a truck bomb inside their compound at the Beirut airport. It was the most deadly day for the Marine Corps since the fighting on Iwo Jima in 1945, and led to a quick retreat of Western forces from the country (58 French paratroopers were killed in a separate truck bombing the same day). I dedicated my first book to one of the Marines who died at Beirut, a bright and likeable officer named Mike Haskell whom I had taught at Georgetown. As I observed in the book, it wasn’t so clear what he and the other members of the Marine Battalion Landing Team were supposed to be accomplishing in Beirut.
I’ve been thinking about that ill-fated mission as the Obama Administration gears up to take limited military action against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad following use of chemical weapons against noncombatants near the Syrian capital of Damascus. It may well have been Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who ordered the truck bombing 30 years ago, but what really got Mike Haskell killed was the ignorance of civilian leaders in Washington. They simply didn’t understand what they were getting into when they backed sending a multi-national peacekeeping force to Lebanon, and the locals figured out it wouldn’t take much to convince the Reagan Administration it had made a mistake. President Obama’s plan to selectively bomb Syrian military sites has much the same flavor — an attempt to reconcile conflicting impulses that will satisfy no one and could easily backfire.
It doesn’t take much reflection to see why President Obama thinks Mr. Assad needs to be punished for gassing civilians. Doing nothing would encourage further atrocities. But the public isn’t behind the President on this one, and his administration looks unprepared for what Syria’s allies might do in retaliation. We live in a world in which extremists of every stripe have been empowered — largely by American technology — and yet we seem incapable of grasping just how vulnerable that has made our nation. So even though Obama owes his presidency to the mis-steps that his predecessor made in the Middle East, here he is proposing yet another military intervention there. Needless to say, neocons and assorted friends of Israel are urging him to act, just as they cheered on George W. Bush when he decided to root out Iraq’s non-existent nuclear weapons.
This all sounds depressingly familiar. During the six decades since I was born in the midst of the Korean War — my parents were Army officers who met there — America has settled into a self-destructive pattern of getting entangled in one country after another without really understanding the nature of the place or the implications of U.S. involvement. Vietnam. Lebanon. Afghanistan. Iraq. None of these campaigns has worked out well, and with the exception of Afghanistan none of them was necessary. Even in the case of Afghanistan, the operation could have been limited to a focused search for the perpetrators of 9-11. Instead we turned it into a surreal exercise in “nation-building,” and so we now find ourselves subsidizing the world’s most corrupt nation — a place where the main cash crop is illicit opiates and women are treated like lepers.
Nobody doubts the President’s motives for contemplating military action in Syria. But this may be one of those times when the real proof of leadership is to admit error rather than pressing ahead. Let’s stick with the Asia-Pacific strategy and leave the Levant to its own devices.
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