Christopher Dickey reflects on the anniversary of the 30th anniversary of the Beirut barracks bombing. He talks to former Ambassador Ryan Crocker:

“Beirut for me was always about those hard lessons of the Middle East,” says Crocker. “Be careful what you get into and beware the laws of unintended consequences. We thought an Israeli campaign to get rid of the PLO would be a good thing. What we got instead was a Syria-Iran strategic partnership that still endures, and a far more lethal enemy: Hezbollah. We got the PLO out of Beirut, but we got Bashir [Gemayel, a Christian warlord and Israeli ally] elected [president], not understanding we had crossed a Syrian red line. He is assassinated, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] invades West Beirut, the LF [Lebanese Forces] carries out the Shatila massacre and we are guilty. So we send the Marines back on a mission of presence. No strategy, no goal. Just be there [bold mine-DL]. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Dickey concludes that many Americans have learned nothing about intervening in the region’s conflicts since then, but he’s only partly right. Unfortunately, quite a few Americans remain convinced that Reagan’s error was not the decision to put Americans in the middle of a war in Lebanon, but in withdrawing them in the wake of the bombing. If the U.S. role was to “just be there,” as Crocker says, many hawks maintain to this day that the U.S. ought to have “just stayed there” for no discernible reason except to demonstrate resolve.

In the years immediately after 9/11, the lesson that many neoconservatives insisted on drawing from Beirut and Somalia was that the U.S. invited attacks by leaving foreign war zones it should never have entered. This conclusion was as wrong as could be, but it fit into a reassuring explanation that the U.S. is only attacked when it signals “weakness,” and many hawks view withdrawing from pointless missions as a sign of “weakness” rather than an example of belated wisdom. According to this view, the U.S. is never attacked because it intervenes in other countries where it has no business being, but only because it failed in previous instances to “finish” missions it should never have started. We see some version of this argument today concerning Iraq. For many hawks even now, the great blunder wasn’t the invasion or the bungled occupation, but the decision to withdraw. Thirty years since the bombing in Beirut, many Americans still haven’t learned that the U.S. shouldn’t meddle in foreign conflicts it doesn’t understand and can’t “shape” to its liking, and some have learned all the wrong lessons.