Starting in 1975, Lebanon descended into civil war. Its various ethnic and religious groups—Shia, Sunni, Druze, and Christian—formed factions that alternately fought or aligned with one another. Outsiders, including Palestinians and Syrians, added to the chaos and the bloodshed. Having faced harassment from Palestinian terrorists operating in Lebanon for many years, Israel invaded in 1982. When the Israeli Defense Forces became bogged down in the suburbs of Beirut, the UN eventually brokered a ceasefire.
American troops, along with French and Italian contingents, arrived to prevent hostilities and to facilitate the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under the terms of the ceasefire. Positioned between the various combatants, and technically acting to support the official Lebanese government, they were often subject to harassment by various factions.
On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber successfully attacked the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 military personnel. While Syrian and Iranian-backed militias were suspected of being behind the attack, no one was entirely sure who was responsible. Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger said later that the United States still lacks “actual knowledge of who did the bombing.”
Even though there was much talk of standing firm and not giving into terrorists, the U.S. response was very limited and consisted of some punitive bombing raids against suspected militia units. By February of 1984, Reagan made the decision to withdraw remaining U.S. forces, amid declining congressional support and increasing public opposition to remaining involved in the multi-sided civil war.
The Lebanese Civil War continued until 1990 without us.
Reagan Focused on the Cold War
Ronald Reagan went on to win re-election in 1984. Before and after the Lebanon campaign, he focused American power upon first containing and then rolling back the Soviet Union. Reagan’s Cold War policy had many dimensions: clear rhetoric, a military build-up, support for dissident groups in Eastern Europe, a proxy war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, tough arms control negotiations, support for allies in Latin America, and the pursuit of the “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative.
These measures combined to bankrupt the Soviet Union, whose command-and-control economy was spending upwards of 20 percent of GDP on defense in its later years. Soon after he left office, the world celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the U.S. enjoyed peace, prosperity, and an unrivaled position atop the world order.
Reagan limited American involvement in the Middle East. There was support of our Cold War allies and the occasional punitive raid, but, for the most part, America remained aloof. Its actions in the region were subordinate to the broader Cold War strategy.
What if, instead of prioritizing a Cold War victory, Reagan had become distracted with the Lebanon campaign. After all, Iran, Syria, and other nation-states bore some direct and indirect responsibility for the attack, and Iran had taken our embassy personnel hostage just a few years earlier. While avenging our fallen servicemen is morally justifiable, it fails the test of good strategy when disconnected from the national interest. Hundreds more American troops, no doubt, would have died. Many trillions would have been spent. But would Lebanon’s civil war have ended earlier? Would our troops have been available to shore up our allies in Latin America or to stand up to Warsaw Pact forces in Germany?
It is doubtful.
America’s Neverending Desert Campaigns
Last week’s fatal missile attack on Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani took place against the backdrop of an expensive, bloody, and inconclusive campaign that began after the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2011. Since that fateful day, the U.S. has prosecuted a war in Afghanistan to little effect, along with the regime-change war in Iraq, which, after some initial success, devolved into a messy counterinsurgency against various factions of Sunni, Shia, and nationalist Iraqis.
America’s Mideast wars have also included our disastrous operations in Libya and Syria under Obama, which created the conditions in which ISIS rose to prominence. These attempts to manage events also led to our return to Iraq in 2014—ostensibly to stop ISIS, but now apparently to fight ISIS’s enemies among Iraq’s Shia militias, who are supported by Iran.
The United States, throughout these campaigns, cleaved closely to its Sunni allies and Israel, both of whom are mortally fearful of and hostile to Iran. Democratic Iraq, with its Shia majority, has walked a fine line—cultivating significant U.S. support, while cooperating with Iran on objects of common concern. Iraq’s response to the assassination of a figure that many Iraqis view as a friend and liberator remains to be seen.
The question, of course, is not whether Soleimani was a good guy or if the United States had some moral basis to take him out. His death came after months of harassment of U.S. forces by Iranian proxies and the receipt of intelligence that he planned further attacks against U.S. personnel in the region. Trump and the United States have remained restrained until now, failing to retaliate for Iran’s destruction of an American drone and suspected attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.
Rather quickly, things escalated. There was an attack on U.S. forces at a Kirkuk airbase on December 27, 2019, which killed an American contractor. The United States retaliated with a bombing strike, which was succeeded by staged protests at the American embassy in Iraq by an Iranian-supported militia. This series of escalations reached a crescendo with the missile attack on Soleimani as he arrived at the Baghdad airport.
Various commentaries have described Soleimani as an Iranian “Patton” and national hero, not least for leading the fight of various Shia militias against murderous ISIS. His death will enrage the Iranian people, as well as many Shia Iraqis. Far from deterring future attacks, his death almost certainly guarantees more in the short term.
The logic of retaliation, if uninterrupted, would keep America in the Middle East forever. So long as some faction somewhere has American blood on its hands, one could plausibly argue that failing to sort out the perpetrators will lead to some future attack. There is no natural end point, because killing our adversaries is never complete. Owing to the logic of Islamic fundamentalism, a large cohort of replacements will always be waiting in the wings. Like all blood feuds, each side will nurse its sense of righteous victimhood.
Further, our presence creates new grievances, an inevitable result of our friction with an alien and hostile people, whose worldview is entirely different from our own. While there may be some reputational costs to withdrawal, there are manifest costs to the alternative.
The United States has stuck around Iraq, Afghanistan, and the broader Mideast because it cannot find its way out. These campaigns are supposed to make America and the world safer but, long after the 9/11 attacks, we still had Beslan, Paris, the July 7 attacks in London, and the Pulse and San Bernardino massacres here at home.
Retaliation and deterrence are tactics at best. In dealing with Islamic radicals, they are not connected to any realistic strategy that accounts for the character of the people whom they are meant to deter. Thus, the safety we were promised from our involvement in the Middle East has not materialized.
A Dangerous Distraction from the China Threat
As most have come to realize, China is a rising power and a strategic competitor of the United States. It has a large and growing economy, an enormous population, and significant military power, including nuclear weapons. Soon, it will have the power to dictate terms to the United States, both in its backyard, as well as our own.
Iran, by contrast, has a small economy, a small population, a small military, and its ambitions—and even its use of terrorism—remains almost exclusively confined to its own neighborhood. Iran’s goal is quite obvious: to reduce U.S. influence in the region and to counter the rival influence of the various Sunni Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, as well as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ally of Israel.
Just because Iran wants us gone and is willing to employ limited force towards that end, does not mean that we benefit by staying. If Iran or Saudi Arabia is victorious in its quest for regional dominance, does the American way of life change? We know from the earlier case of American intervention in Lebanon that national power can be dissipated by “sticking around” an unwinnable, chaotic situation. Similarly, national power can be enhanced by a strategic departure.
Strategy requires priorities. The logic of revenge and “staying the course” allows others to set those priorities. This rationale, while it masquerades as the politics of honor, is instead the habit of the unimaginative bureaucrat: “We do things this way, because this is the way we’ve always done them.”
Trump campaigned as a change agent, devoted to stopping endless wars in the Middle East and restoring American greatness. As he recently tweeted, “The United States has spent EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS fighting and policing in the Middle East. Thousands of our Great Soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side. GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE…..” I voted for this guy.
But Trump is of two minds, often manifesting the characteristically American and manly spirit of self-confidence and toughness.
Trump’s penchant for toughness is fortified by the anti-Iran views of much of the Pentagon and the intelligence community, as well as the neoconservative wing of the Republican party. The recent decision to take out Soleimani was justified, in part, from intelligence that he was about to escalate a campaign against the United States. Similar (and possibly false) morsels from the Intelligence Community led to Trump’s bombing of the Assad regime in Syria. Just a few months ago, the fickle intelligence community became apoplectic when Trump ordered U.S. forces to leave Syria.
Every suggestion and piece of information from the intelligence community, Israel, or Saudi Arabia should be viewed skeptically; they each have an incentive to manipulate our country into doing things that benefit someone other than the American people. Trump, in particular, should be mindful of his own recent past with these agencies. This is the same intelligence community that has been out to get him before he was even sworn into office.
Even if the intelligence on Soleimani was correct, would or could Solemani perpetrate such attacks if our armed forces were not in Iraq? Does his death materially reduce the risk of such attacks from Iran, which maintains a goal of subverting U.S. influence and is now further aroused by a sense of amour propre?
Trump should learn from Reagan. Getting distracted by this peripheral, chaotic, and sectarian part of the world has as little to do with our long term interests today as Lebanon did in 1983. Like the U.S. in the 1980s with the Soviet Union, we face a real and much larger threat from China and, for that matter, from violent drug cartels in our own backyard.
As with the Soviet Union, China is more susceptible to diplomatic, military, and economic pressure than the widely dispersed non-state actors we encounter in the Middle East. Trump has wisely used tariffs and economic pressure on China that his predecessors neglected. But resources are limited. Such a contest can easily be lost if our military power and national will are exhausted from continuing unwinnable and ultimately irrelevant struggles in the Middle East.