Perhaps The Gipper’s Greatest Blunder


The New York Times published what I thought was an interesting Op-Ed yesterday written by former Reagan Administration National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane; the timing was the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 of our people and 58 French soldiers.

As McFarlane tells it…

The attack was planned over several months at Hezbollah’s training camp in the Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon. Once American intelligence confirmed who was responsible and where the attack had been planned, President Reagan approved a joint French-American air assault on the camp — only to have the mission aborted just before launching by the secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. Four months later, all the marines were withdrawn, capping one of the most tragic and costly policy defeats in the brief modern history of American counterterrorism operations.

One could draw several conclusions from this episode. To me the most telling was the one reached by Middle Eastern terrorists, that the United States had neither the will nor the means to respond effectively to a terrorist attack, a conclusion seemingly borne out by our fecklessness toward terrorist attacks in the 1990s: in 1993 on the World Trade Center; on Air Force troops at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996; on our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998; on the destroyer Cole in 2000.

I don’t know if McFarlane considers former President Clinton to be “feckless” for apprehending seven of the eight suspects in the ’93 bombing, as noted here (Ramzi Yousef, the eighth, was captured in Iraq – yeah, that ol’ Saddam sure was collaborating with al Qaeda, wasn’t he…interesting blog title, by the way).

And, as noted here, Clinton launched air strikes against Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan in response to Al Qaeda’s bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 20, 1998 (some have questioned the intelligence used to justify the attacks, but Clinton did respond).

Also, the indictments in the Khobar Towers bombing were issued after Clinton left office (noted here), and no action was pursued in the bombing of the Cole partly because we did not have an extradition treaty with Yemen at the time (the country where the suspects were located), and also because of the timing of the bombing so close to the 2000 presidential election. Anyone who wants to blame Clinton will do so regardless of what I say, I realize, but those are the facts.

McFarlane continues…

In 1983, the Marine battalion positioned at the Beirut Airport was assigned the mission of “presence”; that is, to lend moral support to the fragile Lebanese government. Secretary of State Shultz and I urged the president to give the marines their traditional role — to deploy, at the invitation of the Lebanese government, into the mountains alongside the newly established Lebanese Army in an effort to secure the evacuation of Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon.

Secretary Weinberger disagreed. He felt strongly that American interests in the Middle East lay primarily in the region’s oil, and that to assure access to that oil we ought never to undertake military operations that might result in Muslim casualties and put at risk Muslim goodwill.

Cabinet officers often disagree, and rigorous debate and refinement often lead to better policy. What is intolerable, however, is irresolution. In this case the president allowed the refusal by his secretary of defense to carry out a direct order to go by without comment — an event which could have seemed to Mr. Weinberger only a vindication of his judgment. Faced with the persistent refusal of his secretary of defense to countenance a more active role for the marines, the president withdrew them, sending the terrorists a powerful signal of paralysis within our government and missing an early opportunity to counter the Islamist terrorist threat in its infancy.

These are particularly damning charges, and I’m sure a response will be forthcoming (I’ll keep an eye out – not saying McFarlane is wrong, though).

I want to also focus on one of the events that followed the attack, and that was our invasion of the island of Grenada soon afterwards. This New York Times story from October 1983 captures the reactions of some of the senators in office at the time (Chris Dodd maintained a “wait and see how the facts play out” posture, along with former NJ senator Bill Bradley; Frank Lautenberg said, “I’m not willing to make my final judgment on Grenada. I think the reasoning they got us there is a relatively weak argument.”)

Also, former New York senator Patrick Moynihan said about the Grenada invasion that ”There is something that makes me uneasy. An act of war may be in the interests of the United States or maybe not, but it was not in the interests of democracy in Grenada. I don’t think they should have gone in, in the way they did.”

I wanted to get the reactions from the senators in office at the time to make it clear that, despite what McFarlane tells us, the invasion was not as universally accepted as he would have us believe (indeed, the strongest condemnation, as noted in the Times story, came from former Republican Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker).

And I also have to say that moral judgments from McFarlane are a little funny when you consider the fact that, as noted here, he would end up hip deep in the Iran-Contra scandal a few years later like many others in the Reagan administration, including Ronnie himself; sadly, he tried to kill himself over it, but fortunately he was unsuccessful, and was eventually pardoned concerning Iran-Contra by Poppy Bush in 1992.

I will admit that McFarlane is hardly a typical neocon, having served this country with distinction in the military (Wikipedia also tells us that he’s an advisor to the Palin-McBush campaign). And that makes his disrespect for his former chain of command all the more surprising to me, to tell you the truth.

However, I always though it was ridiculous to put our people in the middle of a Beiruit airstrip expecting nothing would happen, and then engage in an invasion of a Caribbean country to rescue medical students as a diversionary tactic in response. And if McFarlane’s column draws more attention to that sorry chapter for the purpose of reasoned analysis, so much the better.

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