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The Unlearned Lessons of the Beirut Barracks Bombing

35 years later, United States foreign policy is still dangerously indecisive in the Middle East.

Jim Bourdier/Associated Press

The man drove his truck up the road. Plowing through flimsy wire fencing, he veered through the lot, and shot towards a building in the back.

He smiled. And then he blew up the building. Using around 20,000 pounds of TNT, the terrorist set off the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II and killed 241 American servicemembers—220 of them Marines.

In response to the Beirut barracks bombing, U.S. President Ronald Reagan—busy bringing morning to Americans, questing for easy wins to rouse them out of a crisis of confidence—doubled down on the American intervention in Lebanon’s civil war. “We’re not somewhere else in the world,” Reagan explained, “protecting someone else’s interest. We’re there protecting our own.”

The Marines would stay, punish the perpetrators, and help the Lebanese restore order, rebuild their state, and promote peace—thereby protecting the American interest itself. “With patience and firmness,” Reagan declared, the Marines would “help bring peace” to Lebanon and “that strife-torn region.”

They left a few months later.

Having never developed a coherent strategy or forward-looking policy, American officials spent the early 1980s sliding and stumbling into an activist approach in Lebanon (much like their successors have, for instance, slid towards some semblance of a strategy in Syria over the past seven years). The Marines and American allies in Lebanon, among others, paid the price.

The U.S. Marines first came to Beirut in 1958, when then-president Camille Chamoun requested help under the Eisenhower Doctrine. Fearing that the July coup in Baghdad would lead to the collapse of the Western position in the area, American officials lurched from resisting intervention to sending in tens of thousands of Marines, sailors, and soldiers, stumbling without a strategy into a military success that perhaps gave both American officials and Lebanese leaders a false sense of confidence about improvisation.

Lebanese and Palestinian factions began fighting in Lebanon in 1975, after skirmishing for about a decade after the Six Day War. Former president Chamoun and his foreign policy czar Charles Malek formed the Lebanese Front with Lebanese President Sleiman Franjieh, Pierre Gemayel of the Maronite-majority Phalange Party, and Charbel Kassis, a Maronite abbot. Lebanon’s leftists under Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt allied with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

As they had in the 1950s, Lebanese leaders tried to tempt outside countries into intervention, even while lambasting each other for trying to ride foreign tanks into power. Chamoun and Malek tried to pull the Americans in on their side, hoping to again trigger an intervention by intensifying the conflict. American officials frustrated them by offered assurances without sustained tangible support, again maddened Malek and Chamoun as they had decades earlier.

By 1980, as militias replaced parties and sons replaced fathers atop the Lebanese order, Israeli Premier Menachim Begin, incoming Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and Lebanese Forces leader Bashir Gemayel—Pierre’s son—stepped onto the stage, ready to remake the Levant according to how they’d reimagined it. Reagan, too, favored a more active approach than his predecessors. But American officials were deeply divided about strategy, the uses of military power, and the value of diplomacy. They did not form forward-looking policies, instead rushing to manage crises during “policy-forcing” events. 

Of these, there were plenty. Bashir spent the early 1980s consolidating his power and, like Chamoun before him, trying to push outside powers into attaching their Middle East policies to his political ambitions. He helped trigger the 1981 Syria-Israel Missile Crisis, in which the Israelis shot down Syrian choppers and the Syrians installed Russian-made anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon. Reagan promptly sent Lebanese-American diplomat Phil Habib to broker a deal.

Increasingly investing in each other, the Israelis and Bashir spent a year planning to crush the PLO, orchestrate Bashir’s election as president, and transform Lebanon from a divided state into a Christian-led ally. American officials fretted over such schemes. But they declined to wean Lebanese leaders—including Bashir, on whom political appointees, diplomats, and intelligence officers tended to disagree—away from the Israelis or clearly oppose the allies’ plans.

Unchecked, the Israelis invaded in June 1982, smashing the PLO and besieging Beirut—a bridge too far for the Reagan administration. Habib went back to Beirut, cutting another deal in August.

American, French, British, and Italian troops provided peacekeepers—operating jointly as the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF)—to oversee the withdrawal of foreign forces. The Israelis and Syrians withdrew from the city, staying in the slices of Lebanon they would end up occupying for years. PLO leaders and fighters left Lebanon, for a time—overall a large victory for Bashir and the Israelis.

Cowed, Lebanese legislators elected Bashir as president. Not even the Syrian regime, which still had as many as 30,000 troops in Lebanon and a family of factions supporting its presence and policies, could overtly oppose the order. An assassin, however, did. A man with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party—a fascistic group with a reputation for thuggery, even by Lebanese wartime standards—bombed the building in which Bashir was meeting with party and militia leaders. Bashir and 26 others died.

Seeking revenge, Lebanese nationalist militiamen—mostly Christians affiliated with the Lebanese Forces and a smaller Israeli proxy militia—massacred hundreds of civilians in Sabra and Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut. They killed—in the most intimate, twisted ways—for three days. Israeli commanders and soldiers allowed the militiamen to enter the camp, lit flares at night, and watched the attack from nearby rooftops, resulting in the sort of slaughter which had led leaders to create the MNF in the first place.

Lebanese leaders requested that the MNF return and help them restore order. American officials decided they needed to help the Lebanese reconstitute some sort of state to confront the militias warring over the country’s carcass. And, so, Reagan sent in the Marines again.

Bashir’s brother Amin Gemayel became president, inheriting a medley of mismatched relationships and incompatible interests. He needed to neutralize militias, placate the Israelis, or satiate the Syrians. While no Lebanese leader could have done all of these things, Amin was unable or unwilling to do any of them.

On May 17, 1983, the Lebanese and Israelis signed an American-sponsored treaty. None of the treaty’s signatories were willing to work to implement it over time. The Israelis withdrew unilaterally, leaving Lebanese factions to take over Israeli positions in Lebanon, while the Syrians stayed in their slices of the country.

As Lebanese factions fought to fill the void left by the retreating Israelis, the Marines stepped up their support for the Lebanese government.  At first, they worked to train, reequip, and reorganize the military. But after urgent requests from Lebanese leaders, they also began shelling and strafing Syrian-supported forces encroaching on vital thoroughfares or facilities like the Lebanese Ministry of Defense. In turn, having already sniped at them for months, Syrians and Syrian-supported militias fired mortars at Marines still sitting in Beirut.

By September 1983, all American officials appreciated that the Marines were in a precarious position. Reagan authorized “aggressive self-defense”—a directive, drafted in diplo-speak, that again involved reaction instead of anticipation. In October 1983, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz wrote of “a basic underlying problem” in a memo to Reagan: Lebanese leaders, he explained, had come into office “when Israeli military power was dominant. We committed our prestige to [these leaders]. Since then, Israel has decided that it is not prepared to try to remove the Syrians by force or take casualties for the sake of influencing the political future of Lebanon. This has created a vacuum, which we have been drawn into to sustain [the Lebanese].” 

Schultz recommended doing more. He wanted to integrate the intervention into a comprehensive “political-military strategy” of “mutually reinforcing diplomatic, economic, and security initiatives.” Others recommended doing less. U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, wanted to withdraw altogether. They’d opposed to the intervention from the outset, having also assessed that they’d need more than 50,000 servicemembers in Lebanon if their goal was to prop up the Lebanese state.

American officials ended up doing just enough to get into trouble, but not enough to make the sort of difference they were seeking in their purported policy. They decided to keep some 1500 Marines in Lebanon. Ten days after Shultz’s memo, the suicide bomber struck the barracks. Minutes later, a second bomber struck French military barracks as well.

Lebanon was, is, and may forever be a “harsh teacher,” as a former head of the Middle East office of the National Security Council put it in 1984. It was especially harsh on that sunny Sunday morning, thirty-five years ago.

The Marines and those who sent them may have meant well. American officials were more confused than malicious or naïve; they understood the relevant risks—but were once again torn between interests and ideals, between their impulses to intervene and their reflexes of restraint.

While they missed the men who blew up the barracks, for instance, American officials knew that Syrian-supported militias were working to expel them—making their decisions, and relevant rules of engagement, all the more confounding. For months before the bombing, Iranian, Syrian, and Lebanese terrorists had been blowing up or plotting to blow up buildings—American and European embassies, Israeli command centers and presence posts—in Beirut and South Lebanon. (They often did these deeds through the “Islamic Jihad Organization,” which may have been a front for, or proto-party of, Hezbollah.)

But U.S. officials did not link military activity, diplomatic initiatives, and political objectives, and they stumbled into a vaguely-defined, ever-shifting strategy—never committing sufficient resources to achieve what they claimed to desire. The Marines dropped in and out of Beirut multiple times throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

This indecisive American pattern of policy in the Middle East persisted after the attack—in empty vows of reprisals, in contrary declarations about maintaining the peacekeeping force right up until the moment of withdrawal, and in the inconsistent attitude towards terrorists and kidnappers in the Iran-Contra affair shortly thereafter. At the end of the decade, American officials were still declaring that they’d be assisting their allies in Lebanon. But they settled on the “Syrian solution” to the civil war, allowing the Syrian regime to occupy most of Lebanon and shape the post-conflict transition just as it had shaped much of the war—through presence and patience.

For the following two decades, American officials abandoned interests in Lebanon, believing the small state offered more risks than rewards. Meanwhile, the Syrian and Iranian regimes cultivated Hezbollah in the garden of chaos left by weak Lebanese leaders and reckless Israeli officials, and American strategists who’d by then lurched from ill-considered intervention to abject abandonment.

Over the past decade, officials in vastly different American administrations—those of George W. Bush, Barack H. Obama, and Donald J. Trump—have continued what sometimes seems like a saturnalia of inconsistency. They’re continuing a pattern that began in the Cold War, with the United States torn between intervention and caution: as seen in the invasion of Iraq, intervention in Libya, and a general policy of no-intervention in Syria coupled with a slow slide to a presence in its northeast and east. From Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, to an ever-evolving struggle to balance the American approach towards Saudi Arabia and Iran, officials in American administrations have reversed and reversed the positions of their predecessors—or even their own.

American activity in the Levant may not have been destined for a disaster, but officials’ pattern of half-measures, reactivity, and intervention contributed towards creating one. Once again embarking upon an absurd adventure in Lebanon, which in the 1980s was a far more brutish place than when the Marines touched down in the 1950s, U.S. policymakers were indecisive and incoherent within and across administrations. Their own people—and others—paid the price.