Micah Zenko reviews Reagan’s disastrous decision to intervene in Lebanon and his relatively rare decision to withdraw:
Sending Marines to Lebanon for such an imprecise and unachievable end-state was a tremendous mistake. Reagan’s decision to tacitly admit that it was a U.S. foreign-policy failure, and to then undertake corrective actions, was an admirable trait rarely seen in poilcymakers or presidents.
As I discussed in my article on Reagan last year, the Lebanon intervention is one of the most disputed and most frequently invoked episodes from his presidency on the right:
The original decision to intervene in Lebanon stands as a warning for conservative noninterventionists that there is nothing to be gained for the U.S. by becoming involved in conflicts in countries whose history and internal divisions Americans don’t even begin to understand. Indeed, withdrawing U.S. forces from Lebanon had no significant harmful consequences for U.S. security. It was only much later, following the 9/11 attacks, that hawks put a new, implausible spin on the decision to leave Lebanon as an invitation to future strikes against us.
Even though it seems very clear to many Americans today that the Lebanon intervention was a textbook case of a futile, dangerous, and unnecessary deployment of American soldiers in the middle of a foreign conflict, hard-liners continue to believe that Reagan’s great blunder in Lebanon was in withdrawing rather than in the original intervention. It makes no difference that they can’t identify any negative consequences for the decision until almost twenty years after the fact, and then only by relying on a tendentious reading of jihadist propaganda. We see the same illogical complaint over and over again in the last three debates: the only presidential error hard-liners can recognize is when presidents choose to end a military mission. Hard-liners faulted the elder Bush for not going on to Baghdad, they blamed Clinton for leaving Somalia after the debacle in Mogadishu, they have lambasted Obama for not keeping American forces in Iraq, and they are gearing up to do the same in the event that all U.S. forces leave Afghanistan. The only time that such people are reluctant to trust presidential judgment is when a president is in the process of getting American soldiers out of harm’s way. If this requires distorting the historical record, that is what they will do.