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Setting the Record Straight: The Beirut Barracks Bombing

Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster recently marked the 34th anniversary of the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Their remarks may have comforted the families and honored the sacrifice of the 242 American service members—222 of whom were Marines—who were killed. But both officials presented such a distorted version of the events of that horrible day that, if not corrected, they will cause more harm than good to our national security.

According to Pence and McMaster, the attack on the Marine (and French) barracks was an early version of the attacks of 9/11. In their view, terrorist bombers, aided and abetted by Iran, committed mass murder and inspired Osama bin Laden by attacking U.S. and allied military forces that were simply in Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission. Moreover, the attack demonstrates that their boss, President Trump, was right not to certify the nuclear deal with Iran.

However, close examination of the events reveals that while the U.S. and French military forces were initially engaged in a peacekeeping mission, by the time of the attack their nations were waging war against the allies of Iran in the Lebanese civil war.

The multinational force, composed of troops from the U.S., France, and Italy, arrived in Lebanon in August 1982. Their presence was part of a ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which followed the American-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon in early 1982. Their mission was to oversee the peaceful withdrawal of Yasser Arafat and the members of the PLO from Beirut. Within a month, the PLO withdrawal was completed and the troops left, in effect, ending their peacekeeping mission.

Rescue and clean-up crews search for casualties following the barracks bombing in Beirut on October 23, 1983. (Department of Defense)

But shortly after the withdrawal, the assassination of the Lebanese president-elect, Bashir Gemayel—the Phalangist leader of the Lebanese Forces, a unified Christian militia—sparked a new wave of violence in which Christian militiamen, who were strong supporters of Gemayel, killed upwards of 800 Palestinians, mostly women, children and elderly, in refugee camps. In the wake of these killings, known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre [1], U.S. troops returned and became involved in the civil war.  

By early 1983, the situation seemed to have stabilized until, in April of that year, a car bomb destroyed the U.S. embassy in Beirut. In July, after Israel began a unilateral withdrawal, fighting between the competing militias intensified and violence against the multilateral force, who were now seen as allies of the Christian militias, escalated. As a result, U.S. Marine positions routinely came under small arms and mortar fire which, by late August, the Marines began returning.  These skirmishes led to the death and wounding of several militiamen and some Marines even before the attack on the barracks.

The crucial turning point occurred in early September, when the U.S. began providing naval gunfire support for the U.S.-backed Lebanese Army—something that was opposed, as journalist Nir Rosen has pointed out, by the State Department, the CIA, and even Marine Commander Col. Timothy Geraghty.

In an article [2] he wrote on the 25th anniversary of the attack on his marines, Geraghty recalled the situation:

The Marine and the French headquarters were targeted primarily because of who we were and what we represented. … It is noteworthy that the United States provided naval gunfire support—which I strongly opposed for a week—to the Lebanese Army at a mountain village called Suq-al-Garb on 19 September and that the French conducted an airstrike on 23 September in the Bekaa Valley. American support removed any lingering doubts of our neutrality and I said to my staff at the time we were going to pay in blood for this decision.

The Marines’ deaths certainly need to be remembered. But the real problem is that when we went back into Lebanon after withdrawing, the U.S. took sides in a civil war that it could not and did not need to win. And while Iran certainly bears some responsibility for the deaths of these brave warriors, this does not mean the Iranians had anything to do with 9/11.

In fact, right after the attack, Iran held a candlelight vigil condemning it, and later provided intelligence to help the U.S. drive the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2001. And the Iranians persuaded their allies in the Northern Alliance to support the establishment of the Karzai government at the Bonn Conference in December 2001. Moreover, condemning Iran for these attacks in Beirut—as Pence and McMaster did—ignores the fact that we were de facto supporters of Iraq when that country not only invaded Iran in the early 1980s, but used chemical weapons against them. Finally, using the events of 1983 to undermine a nuclear deal with Iran, completed some 32 years after the attack, makes as much sense as our not wanting to conclude a nuclear arms agreement with the Soviet Union in the early-1970s because of the assistance they were providing to the North Vietnamese to kill Americans.

Rather than using this horrible event to push their agenda, Pence and McMaster should have praised President Reagan for having the foresight not to expand the war after the attack, as many of his hawkish advisors wanted. Instead, Reagan listened to my then-boss, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and strategically redeployed the Marines to their ships; that is, withdrew them from Lebanon in early 1983. Moreover, as a result of this tragedy, the Pentagon developed what became known as the Powell Doctrine, which established stringent criteria Washington should use before becoming involved in wars of choice.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress [3] and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information [4]. He was formerly director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relation [5]s, and served as President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics) from 1981 to 1985.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Setting the Record Straight: The Beirut Barracks Bombing"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 9, 2017 @ 12:03 am

Iran attacked the US in Lebanon and also sank the USS Liberty.

Any member of Congress or mouthpiece from the executive branch knows this. AIPAC and Murdoch told them so –

#2 Comment By MEOW On November 9, 2017 @ 5:20 am

How refreshing to hear a balanced viewpoint. We still mourn the loss of these brave Americans. The poodle of state must stop being led around by the current handlers of our foreign policy. Vacate the Middle East and protect America.

#3 Comment By Mark Pando On November 9, 2017 @ 6:51 am

I was a young naval officer on board the USS TRENTON (LPD-14) when those USMC personnel were redeployed shipboard back in February 1984. Beirut taught me one valuable lesson: Before engaging in foreign military adventures ask yourself this: For who, for what, and why? If you cannot definitively answer those questions, don NOT pull the trigger or you will come to regret it! Lebanon was a civil war–Iraq and Afghanistan are not much different–connect the dots and see how we have failed miserably. We should have never been there, and we continue to repeat the same mistake over and over again. Our Military Industrial Complex couldn’t be happier!

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 9, 2017 @ 8:18 am

Note:

1. plenty of reasons to be mindful of Iran

2. Iraq did not become an open civil conflict until our invasion.

#5 Comment By Michael Kenny On November 9, 2017 @ 9:01 am

“Rather than using this horrible event to push their agenda …” Isn’t that exactly what Mr Korb is doing in this article?

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 9, 2017 @ 10:08 am

Nothing must ever be forgiven or forgotten, guaranteeing limitless pretexts to wage wars excused as revenge for the past on untold future generations. The real reasons lie elsewhere, in current imperial ambitions of ruler elites.

#7 Comment By GregR On November 9, 2017 @ 10:14 am

This is what so frustrates me about the US Military fetishists sometimes. While The bombing was a tragedy for the families, the attack was a legitimate act of war. We were actively partisans fighting in a civil war, does anyone think it unacceptable for them to shoot back?

Once the shooting starts you are either on ‘my side,’ ‘their side,’ or by being very careful and absolutely neutral no side. But you cannot start shooting at one side in a war and be shocked that they are going to shoot back.

#8 Comment By EarlyBird On November 9, 2017 @ 11:44 am

Imagine any president today, let alone a Democrat, being politically able to withdraw troops after such an attack as Reagan had the wisdom to do? Any president would today be excoriated for “cutting and running” and “emboldening our enemies,” and being “weak.” The pressures to double-down on stupid and not learn the lesson would be enormous.

God help us.

#9 Comment By Professor Nerd On November 9, 2017 @ 11:48 am

Regardless of our partisan affiliations, we should be louder in our praise of Reagan’s decision here. It was not a surrender or “cut & run,” but a decisively intelligent move. Who wants their son or daughter to die in Lebanon? It is a hornet’s nest.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 9, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

“While The bombing was a tragedy for the families, the attack was a legitimate act of war. We were actively partisans fighting in a civil war, does anyone think it unacceptable for them to shoot back?”

I want to be careful here. The support for the Christian coalition my have been politically understood at the top, but I am not convinced that was the case on the ground. One of the interesting aspect of this episode is that the barracks personnel were engaged in a myriad of friendly relations amongst the community. So much so, that even if armed “locked and loaded” I am not sure they would have been prepared for that attack.

Despite the small arm fire, in general, the barracks itself if I read the material correctly did not operate a though they were at war. I guess more information from those on the ground at the barracks would be helpful.

#11 Comment By Advocate of Reason On November 9, 2017 @ 7:44 pm

Lawrence Korb’s piece is excellent, of course.

And, the comment by EarlyBird is best of a good lot.

We have become afraid to do anything but strike out at an adversary, imagined or real.

#12 Comment By Iron Felix On November 9, 2017 @ 8:41 pm

So many lies. It has become so easy to spot a lie. Anything that “everyone knows” about foreign affairs is a lie. Guaranteed. Only a few have actually been exposed. There are lot more out there. The Big Kahuna is the Big Lie of the Cold War. The lie that a virtually destroyed Soviet Union with 27 million deaths was going to try to take on the most powerful force the world has ever known in order to overun Western Europe.

#13 Comment By Christian Chuba On November 10, 2017 @ 8:15 am

This is a deeply personal issue for those impacted by the attack. We have fallen into the trap that the use of American military force becomes a reason to use American military force.

#14 Comment By Leon On November 10, 2017 @ 9:52 am

Hey Michael Kenny, you seem to show up everywhere. What happened to pushing your agenda on Antiwar?

#15 Comment By rick On November 10, 2017 @ 11:10 am

First we decertify. Then we start with the allegations. Next up, war.

#16 Comment By Howard On November 10, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

Great commentaries and an interesting article. Grateful to come upon this discussion where it seems intelligent people can share facts and extrapolate opinions that make sense even though not always on the exact same page.

#17 Comment By Luis almeida On November 10, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

Question?why were marines at holiday inn beirut not allowed live ammo to return sniper fire?why were there no concrete barriers in place at checkpoints?how did a”truck bomb”level the building into its own footprint?

#18 Comment By Druid On November 10, 2017 @ 8:57 pm

Good piece. Only think I would add is that Sabra-shatila massacre was done by the phalangists who were guided to it by Ariel Shaon, the Butcher of Beirut. And we supported the brutal phalangists.

#19 Comment By Eileen Kuch On November 10, 2017 @ 9:15 pm

I agree with Advocate of Reason, Lawrence Korb’s piece was, of course excellent.’
We definitely have grown afraid to do anything except lash out at an adversary, imaginary or real.

#20 Comment By Will Adams On November 10, 2017 @ 9:17 pm

Or more correctly, “The Weinberger Doctrine,” as reported by the major media of the day, and I remembered reading in U.S. Need and World Report in particular. It has always bothered me that this common sense “old school” type of “goin’ to war” doctrine was copied and renamed by numerous successive officials after Casper Weinberger retired and left the scene. Historians should give the man his due, and not the parade of later officials that were awarded that doctrine to their own false resume. Powell did great in his own right. Give Weinberger what is his….

#21 Comment By Main Line commuter On November 11, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

I don’t know about the Beirut barracks bombing, but now that Iran has violated both the letter and spirit of the nuclear deal by invading and occupying its neighbors and establishing itself as sole nuclear power in the Middle East, America must respond.

Iran’s march to global domination must be stopped. It’s as simple as that. Just ask Binyamin Netanyahu and Muhammed bin Salman, or any of the American politicians that they bought with campaign contributions.