At the end of a Washington Post op-ed criticizing John McCain for labeling Republicans who oppose intervention in the Libyan war “isolationists,” George Will writes (emphasis added):
Regarding Libya, McCain on Sunday said, “I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today.” Wondering is speculation; we know this:
When a terrorist attack that killed 241 Marines and other troops taught Reagan the folly of deploying them at Beirut airport with a vague mission and dangerous rules of engagement, he was strong enough to reverse this intervention in a civil war. Would that he had heeded a freshman congressman from Arizona who opposed the House resolution endorsing the intervention. But, then, the McCain of 1983 was, by the standards of the McCain of 2011, an isolationist.
Will may want to rethink his use of this historical analogy. The “terrorist attack that killed 241 Marines” was the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks. It was orchestrated by Iran and its chief terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. The success of the attack, not just in terms of carnage but also in driving American forces out of Lebanon, emboldened jihadists for decades to come.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Hezbollah launched a string of hijackings, kidnappings, and attacks on American targets because the terrorist group and its sponsors believed the U.S. was a “paper tiger.” America never did anything to punish those leading the terrorist assault against her citizens, so the terrorist assault grew worse. For example, Hezbollah kidnapped and then tortured to death William Buckley, the CIA’s station chief in Lebanon, in the mid-1980s. The 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia was undoubtedly launched with the conviction that it would make America think twice about stationing troops in the Middle East. That attack, like the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing, was also launched by Hezbollah and Iran.
Watching the events of 1983 was a young Saudi citizen of Yemeni descent named Osama bin Laden. While his jihad was then focused against the Soviets in Afghanistan, bin Laden was emboldened by the swift retreat of American forces. Twenty years later, in early 2003, bin Laden was still referencing it in his messages to Muslims. Bin Laden argued on the eve of the Iraq war: “I could also remind you of the defeat of the American forces in the year 1982 [sic], when the sons of Israel destroyed Lebanon, and the Lebanese resisted. They sent a truck loaded with explosives into a U.S. marine base in Beirut, sending more than 240 of them to Hell, the worst possible fate.”
Bin Laden’s argument was simple, but wrong: America will cut and run from the Middle East just as she has in the past.
Bin Laden was so impressed with the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, which coincided with a near simultaneous attack on French paratroopers, that he turned to Iran and Hezbollah for help in replicating the attacks. Bin Laden and al Qaeda were headquartered in Sudan at the time. Part of this story was told by the 9/11 Commission in its final report.
“In late 1991 or 1992,” the Commission wrote, “discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support – even if only training – for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States.” The Commission continued (emphasis added):
Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983. The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.
Later on in its report, the 9/11 Commission discussed the result of bin Laden’s “interest” in the 1983 attack: al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The Commission found:
Al Qaeda had begun developing the tactical expertise for such attacks [note: the 1998 embassy bombings] months earlier, when some of its operatives – top military committee members and several operatives who were involved with the Kenya cell among them – were sent to Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon.
During the embassy bombings trial in 2001, U.S. prosecutors introduced Jamal al Fadl, an al Qaeda member, as a key witness. Al Fadl explained that Hezbollah showed al Qaeda “how to explosives [sic] big buildings” during the training.
“Big buildings” like the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Hundreds were killed in 1998, just as hundreds were killed in 1983. The embassy bombings were a mirror image of Hezbollah’s own twin suicide truck bombings – a deadly innovation in terrorism. Al Qaeda adopted Hezbollah’s modus operandi precisely because it exposed what the terrorists thought was America’s inherent weakness.
Thus, Reagan’s retreat from Lebanon was not a “strong” decision, as Will would have it. It not only emboldened Sunni and Shiite terrorists alike, it helped Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria turn Lebanon into a cauldron of terror for decades to come.
There is plenty of room for rational debate on the course ahead in Libya, but citing one of the weakest moments in American foreign policy decision making in the last thirty years does not help Will’s case.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.