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1983 Beirut bomb began era of terror

Published: Monday, Oct. 20 2003 11:43 a.m. MDT

"We didn't have any objective," Weinberger told The Charlotte Observer. "The argument was that to simply have Americans on the ground would maintain the peace."

The Marines were handicapped, former National Security Adviser Robert "Bud" McFarlane said, by infighting in the Reagan Cabinet. McFarlane and Secretary of State George Shultz wanted a more aggressive mission in Lebanon to root out foreign support of the warring factions. Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were opposed.

"Behind the scenes was a very, very pitched battle," McFarlane said. "Reagan didn't want to take sides between his Cabinet officers, and the Marines were hostage to this paralysis." -->

To signal they were neutral in the civil war, the Marines were stationed between warring factions. They made their base at Beirut International Airport — the tactically unwise low ground.

They carried weapons, but the rules of engagement mostly forbade them from keeping a round in the chamber. They had orders not to shoot unless they were direct targets and knew for sure who had fired first.

But by trying to keep order in Beirut, the Marines and U.S. diplomats were seen as allies of Lebanon's unpopular government and became targets of snipers, shellings and car bombings.

In April 1983, terrorists smashed a stolen GMC pickup loaded with explosives into the U.S. Embassy, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans.

Six months later, the truck bomb at the Marine barracks killed 241 U.S. troops.

After the barracks bombing, Reagan had a choice: Commit more forces to Lebanon only nine years after Vietnam, when public support for a long military conflict was low, or retreat.

"It's a hard thing to say, it's a hard thing to accept, but we had lost," said Ryan Crocker, the political officer in the Beirut embassy, who later became Deputy Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. "The situation would not have gotten any better. We would have had more dead Marines."

To political and military leaders in the United States, the pullout made sense. With a crippled Marine battalion and no clear military target, some thought withdrawal was the only option.

"You can't police the world," said P.X. Kelley, the then-Marine commandant. "Sometimes the best option is to do nothing."

But to terrorists and their backers, it was a sign of weakness, confirming their belief that the Americans had no staying power. The Syrian prime minister had told Morris Draper, a special presidential emissary, just months before: "You Americans can't hold your breath."

The U.S. response to the barracks bombing was limited. Despite indications that it was carried out by the radical Islamic group Hezbollah and backed by Iran, a planned U.S. military mission to bomb terrorist training camps was never carried out.

Top Reagan officials disagree on why. Weinberger says a conclusive link to Iran and Hezbollah was never proven. McFarlane said Weinberger was too concerned about the political risks of failure and losing support from U.S. allies in the Arab states.

Either way, critics say the lack of retaliation cemented America's weak image in the Arab world.

"If we had struck back and pulled out," said Bill Cowan, part of a top secret intelligence team sent to investigate the bombings, "we wouldn't have been leaving with our tail between our legs."

Two decades of Arab-backed terrorism have followed the bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

American soldiers are "paper tigers," Osama bin Laden told ABC News in 1998. "The Marines fled after two explosions."

Using the Beirut bombings as a guide, terrorists:

—attacked American embassies in Kuwait two months later, and Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 307 Americans and others.

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