Today's reading assignment comes from Clifford May, writing for National Review. He recalls a seminal event in the Middle East, one that occurred 25 years ago this month. It was the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, and it signaled a new chapter in Iran'swar against America.
As Mr. May reminds us, the order for attacking the Marine compound came straight from Tehran, through the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon. The job of planning (and executing) the strike fell on a senior Hizballah operative, Imad Fayez Mughniyeh. His deadly bombing of the Marine barracks (and a similar, near-simultaneous attack on a building housing French peacekeepers) marked the start of Mughniyeh's own, bloody career as a terror master-mind.
Mughniyeh went on to conduct many other terrorist operations, “including the 1984 kidnapping and murder of the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley. Mugniyah was also directly in charge of the 1988 kidnapping and execution of Marine Corps Colonel Rich Higgins, who was serving with the United Nations peacekeeping mission. And he was indicted in absentia by the U.S. government for his role in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, which led to the savage beating and execution of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stetham.”
In 1996, Mughniyeh (a Shia) met with Osama bin Laden (a Sunni) in Sudan. Among the topics these two terrorists presumably discussed was the efficacy of suicide attacks utilizing vehicles (if a truck rigged with explosives and fuel can kill several hundred infidels, what might various other vehicles do?), the psychological impact of synchronized and simultaneous attacks, and the encouraging fact that the United States had never made a serious attempt to punish the individuals (e.g. Mughniyeh), groups (e.g. Hezbollah) and regimes (Iran and Syria) responsible for the earlier attacks.
On October 23rd, the 25th anniversary of the bombing, there will be two commemorations, Mr. May writes. In North Carolina survivors of the attack and families of the dead Marines will gather at Camp Lejeune for the dedication of a memorial, honoring the fallen peace-keepers.
Half-way around the world, there will be a second ceremony on the 23rd. At Tehran's Behesht-E-Zahra Cemetary, crowds will honor the suicide bombers that launched the devastating attacks. The Iranian government erected a monument to the terrorists in 2004.
With perfect hindsight, we can now see the war against American that began with the embassy seizure in Tehran in 1979, then took a new and deadly turn with the 1983 Beirut attack. But we never learned the larger larger lessons of those episodes until much, much later--and we paid a price for our inaction.
To his credit, Mr. Reagan took on the Iran over other matters, and inflicted a series stinging naval defeats on Tehran in the late 1980s. But the snap decision to remove the Marines from Beirut was not his finest hour. With the exit of western forces, Iran and Hizballah eventually took control of Lebanon, creating the terrorist state that has now emerged on Israel's northern border.
In fairness, Reagan's decision made sense--at least from a military perspective. Sitting inside a compound, with restrictive rules of engagement, the Marines couldn't adequately defend themselves from terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, the withdrawal from Beirut was not followed by new, effective policies that would have slowed--or prevented--the advent of an Iranian proxy state in Lebanon.
Sadly, the mistakes that followed the Beirut bombing were compounded by the administrations that followed. The alarm bell that sounded in that single, terrible moment at the Marine barracks was largely ignored over the decades that followed, allowing the terrorist to continue their work.
ADDENDUM: May's column is based, in large part, on a superb article in this month's issue of Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute. Entitled "We Came in Peace, " it is written by retired Colonel Timothy Geraghty, the commander of the Marine unit in Beirut at the time of the attack. Colonel Geraghty does an excellent job in not only describing the attack, but the events that led to the bombing.