On September 19, 1983, during Lebanon’s long civil war, the Reagan Administration ordered Marine peacekeepers in Beirut to open fire on Muslim militias in the mountains overlooking the city. The marines had been deployed for more than a year, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, to help hold together one of the world’s most fractured states. Colonel Tim Geraghty, their commander, warned that an attack would cost the United States its neutrality and its mission; nevertheless, U.S. ships fired more than three hundred rounds of seventy-pound shells. Geraghty later wrote, “As the sun set at the end of a tumultuous day, I remarked to members of my staff that my gut instinct tells me the Corps is going to pay in blood for this decision.”
On October 23rd, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with twelve thousand pounds of explosives into the peacekeepers’ barracks. Two hundred and forty-one Americans died. The largest loss for the corps in a single incident since Iwo Jima was carried out by a Lebanese group that became Hezbollah—but it was orchestrated by Iran. Washington ordered U.S. warplanes to destroy an Iranian military post in Lebanon, but called off the strike. The marines moved to underground containers; a few months later, they sailed home, their mission abandoned. “The Iranians’ goal was to remove the marines and Western influence,” Geraghty recalled last week. “And they did.”
The United States proved in 1983 that it had a tactical advantage, but Iran proved that it had a more wide-ranging strategy—as it has demonstrated repeatedly through the years. The next four U.S. Presidents avoided a military showdown with the Islamic Republic, even as its strategic advance across the region deepened. The risks and the potential complications were deemed too great. President Trump has said that he, too, has no desire for war, yet he started the new year with a drone strike that killed General Qassem Suleimani, the mastermind of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, while he was on a trip to Baghdad. Trump tweeted that Suleimani “has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more.” Amid debate in Washington about the intelligence used to justify the strike, Trump said that Suleimani had planned to bomb four U.S. embassies, but the Administration presented little evidence to support the claim.
Trump’s decision has already had sweeping consequences—for the regional military balance, the campaign against isis and Al Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear program, and the unnerving political dysfunction in the Middle East. The Iraqi parliament, infuriated that Washington had violated the country’s sovereignty, voted to expel five thousand U.S. troops. Seventeen years after the U.S. invasion, the presence of American troops is suddenly precarious; so is the fractured government of Iraq, after months of protests demanding its ouster. The U.S.-led campaign against isis—which still has fourteen thousand fighters in Iraq and Syria—was suspended. The Pentagon disavowed a leaked letter that outlined the “repositioning” of U.S. troops. But, on Friday, Baghdad asked Washington for a road map for withdrawal. [Continue reading…]