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Lessons of Beirut Lost in Baghdad
Published on Thursday, October 23, 2003 by the Detroit Free Press
Lessons of Beirut Lost in Baghdad
by Lawrence Pintak
 

It all seemed so simple. Send in U.S. forces. Free and protect the local population. Install a pro-Western government acceptable to all factions. Build a wider Middle East peace. Then depart to the cheers of a grateful citizenry.

But President Ronald Reagan's encounter with Lebanon did not go nearly as smoothly as he had expected. Now, two decades later, another U.S. administration is lost on the road map to peace.

For anyone with a sense of history, the recent suicide bombings in Iraq carry with them haunting memories of the Oct. 23, 1983, destruction of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which claimed the lives of 243 U.S. Marines and sailors, and similar attacks on two U.S. embassies in that city.

Americans like to say that on Sept. 11, 2001, ``everything changed.'' In fact, the real turning point came 20 years ago. We just didn't know it at the time. For as the Marine headquarters in Beirut collapsed, so too did the myth of American invincibility. And with its death was born modern Islamic terror.

In the wake of the Beirut bombing, the Marines found themselves under siege. The steady drip of American blood on the sands of Iraq recalls the frustration and fear of soldiers who didn't understand who they were fighting or why.

``In the past, the terrorists have cited the examples of Beirut and Somalia, claiming that if you inflict harm on Americans, we will run from a challenge,'' President George W. Bush told the nation in his September 2003 speech. ``In this, they are mistaken.''

The lessons of history tell a different story. America's brief encounter with Lebanon lasted less than two years. But it was long enough to show the world that a handful of men and women with a few hundred pounds of explosives and a willingness to sacrifice their lives could bring a superpower to its knees. The anti-American militants have learned their lessons well; the same cannot be said for inhabitants of the White House.

The Reagan administration sent the Marines into Lebanon to protect Muslims and ended up at war with them. It announced it was going to create a democracy then propped up a minority regime. It launched an ambitious Middle East peace plan, only to see it wither and die because Washington couldn't rein in an expansionist Israeli government.

And now, it may all be happening again in Iraq.

At first, Lebanese Muslims did genuinely welcome the American Marines and other members of the Multinational Force, which came to replace Israeli occupation forces around Beirut. But by the end in Lebanon goodwill was squandered, just as the Iraq invasion has drained the reservoir of post-911 sympathy in the Islamic world.

As it attempts once more to sell the invasion of Iraq as the cornerstone in its battle against ``evil,'' the Bush White House would be well served to recall that America's Achilles Heel in Lebanon was the Reagan administration's preconceived notion that it was fighting the ``Evil Empire,'' when in fact it faced a complex tapestry of competing and overlapping ethnic, religious, ideological and economic factors.

Donald Rumsfeld saw the consequences of that simplification. He was White House Middle East envoy when it all went bad. It is therefore understandable that he and other Lebanon alumni have been champing at the bit to punish Hizballah, the Shiite group blamed for the Marine bombing and other outrages, along with its Iranian and Syrian patrons.

Shortly after 9/11, the White House promised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Hizballah would be targeted in ``the next phase'' of the terror war. Many in the Middle East fear Israel's recent attack on Syria was the first shot in that new campaign. The desire for revenge is human. But the price to American interests could be steep. Shiite support is critical to American success in Iraq. A complex web of religious, political and family ties bind the Shiites of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. An American or American-backed Israeli attack on Lebanon's Shiites would likely inflame Iraqi Shiites and pave a new road to disaster.

The actions of Iranian-backed provocateurs helped turn the Shiites against America in Lebanon. They are trying to do it again in Iraq. A war on Hizballah - particularly one spearheaded by Israel - plays right into the hands of the radicals and is counter to American interests in Iraq and the broader Islamic world as a whole.

Yet despite the lessons of history, the administration appears determined to press on with a policy of reshaping the Middle East and exacting revenge on those who wronged America in the past.

``We will stay the course. We will complete our job,'' Bush declared as part of the administration's new Iraq public relations campaign. Reagan said much the same thing when the suicide attacks began in Beirut.

Veteran journalist Lawrence Pintak, who has covered the Islamic world for more than 20 years, is the author of 'Seeds of Hate: How America's Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad', published this month. He is the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan.

Copyright © 2003 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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