Commentary Magazine


The Unintended Consequences of a Retreat

In his appearance on “This Week,” while arguing that it is “folly” to prolong our mistake in Libya, George Will used a historical comparison. “When Ronald Reagan, the much-quoted saint of the Republican Party, made a mistake, as he did in Lebanon, he quickly liquidated it,” according to Will.

It’s actually a bit more complicated than Will suggests, something Will himself understood at the time. (In his December 31, 1984 column, in a paragraph critical of Reagan’s weakness on national security, Will wrote, “Under Carter one embassy was seized. Under Reagan embassies are blown to smithereens and Americans are methodically beaten and shot in televised terrorism…. Reagan said the United States is back and standing tall. The United States was driven out of Lebanon by the Druse and Shiites.”)

The American withdrawal from Lebanon, in the aftermath of the October 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks by Iranian-trained Hezbollah terrorists, was cited by Osama bin Laden in his 1996 fatwa against the United States as a sign of weakness. “Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place on 1983 AD (1403 A.H),” bin Laden wrote. “You were turned into scattered bits and pieces at that time; 241 mainly Marine soldiers were killed… It was a pleasure for the ‘heart’ of every Muslim and a remedy to the ‘chests’ of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut , Aden and Mogadishu.”

As for what happened: Islamic Jihad phoned in new threats against the Multinational Force (MNF) pledging “the earth would tremble” unless the MNF withdrew by New Year’s Day 1984. In response, Marines were moved offshore. On February 7, 1984, Reagan ordered the Marines to begin withdrawing. Their withdrawal was completed later that month, four months after the barracks bombing and several months before the rest of the multinational force was withdrawn.

Robert McFarlane, who served as Reagan’s National Security Advisor, later wrote, “One could draw several conclusions from this episode. To me the most telling was the one reached by Middle Eastern terrorists, that the United States had neither the will nor the means to respond effectively to a terrorist attack.” It was, Reagan’s national security adviser admitted, “one of the most tragic and costly policy defeats in the brief modern history of American counterterrorism operations.”

This doesn’t mean, by the way, Reagan was wrong to leave Lebanon in the aftermath of the bombing. It may be that to maintain our presence there would have compounded our initial mistake, and Reagan chose the lesser of two evils, which is what statesmen are sometimes forced to do. But it’s too simple to say our pull back in 1984 “liquidated” the mistake. It created unintended consequences, including sending a message of irresolution to the world, including Islamists. And quite a high cost was eventually paid. That is often the result of retreat.