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Iraqi echoes of Reagan’s campaign in Lebanon

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Congressman John Murtha (D-Pa.) has argued that in deciding what to do about Iraq, President Bush should follow the example set by President Reagan in Lebanon. While many have criticized Murtha for this analogy, close examination reveals that Reagan’s actions some 20 years ago are quite relevant today.

In August 1982, Reagan sent troops to Lebanon to resolve an internal civil war and a wider regional conflict. About 1,800 Marines along with French and Italian troops formed a multinational force (MNF) to support the fledgling Lebanese government by acting as a peacekeeping force. After some initial success, however, the MNF became increasingly entangled in Lebanon’s sectarian conflict and soon was only exacerbating the problems it was supposed to resolve.

When 241 U.S. military personnel died in an attack on the Marine compound at Beirut International Airport in October 1983, the situation reached a crisis point for the United States. Within two weeks after the attack President Reagan had convened a commission, headed by retired admiral Robert Long, to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry that focused not only on the attack but also on the mission of the U.S. forces in Lebanon. Less than two months after the attack, the five-member commission issued a report highly critical of the administration and the Department of Defense. The report not only criticized the lack of preparedness for dealing with terrorism, but also called into question the mission itself, the rules of engagement for the troops, and the effectiveness of the chain of command.

Instead of ignoring the criticism, Reagan acted. By the first week in February 1984, the president ordered the "redeployment of the Marines" from Beirut to ships in the Mediterranean. He also instructed the secretary of defense to implement several of the report’s recommendations, including a rebuke of the on-scene commanders, and their superiors in the chain of command and providing more antiterrorism training. But the United States did not the leave the region. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are still deployed in the Mediterranean today.

At the time many attacked Reagan for "cutting and running," but Reagan’s decision saved the United States from becoming further entangled in a raging civil and regional war. While the Soviet Union was sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire of its own in Afghanistan, Reagan recognized that the United States had overreached in its effort to "solve" a civil-regional war with military force. Much as Reagan redeployed U.S. troops to fight the Cold War better, so must we redeploy today to fight the war on terror better.

The departure of U.S. troops did have some consequences for the United States: the civil war in Lebanon raged on, Syria’s influence grew, and U.S. prestige throughout the world, especially in the Islamic world, was tarnished. But sending thousands and thousands of additional U.S. troops into Lebanon – which was the course advocated by leading neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer – into a conflict without a military solution would have been far worse. It would have drained U.S. resources, further taxed the U.S. military, and immersed the United States in an escalating regional war.

Today in Iraq, after three years of war, more than 2,500 Americans killed, more than 18,000 wounded, and more than $300 billion spent, the situation on the ground is getting worse and is overstretching our ground forces.

In Iraq as in Lebanon, the United States is now caught in the middle of a civil war. While attempting to facilitate an inclusive political process that includes Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, the United States is simultaneously taking sides by fighting against a predominantly Sunni-based insurgency.

Iraq, as in Lebanon, suffers not from a lack of trained government security forces – more than 230,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained – but from a lack of willingness to fight on behalf of the Iraqi government. That willingness is something the United States cannot instill no matter how long it stays.

The longer we wait, the longer we will only continue to serve as a crutch for the Iraqi security forces. A phased redeployment, as advocated by people such as Murtha, should give Iraqi forces the motivation to stand up. And the United States would still maintain forces in the region by keeping ground forces in Kuwait and a carrier battle group and a Marine Expeditionary Force in the Persian Gulf.

Reducing troop levels in Iraq would also enable the U.S. to better fight the war on terror. It would allow United States to send more troops to Afghanistan, deal more effectively with Iran, better protect the homeland, and reduce the strain on our ground forces.

The lesson of Lebanon is that our country must be willing to alter a strategy that is not working. Leadership involves more than simply staying firm; it also involves adapting to mistakes. Reagan was willing to acknowledge the mistake of Lebanon and take what he believed was the necessary action. The redeployment from Lebanon was a necessary step on the way to winning the Cold War.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
MaxBergmann is a research associate at the Center for American Progress.

Reprinted with permission from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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