In the buzz leading up to Election Day, an important anniversary was missed by many in the news media. Oct. 23 was the 25th anniversary of a pivotal event in United States foreign policy — the killing of 241 American troops in Beirut, Lebanon. On that day in 1983, a suicide bomb attack killed the men as they slept. The Islamic Jihad group took credit for the attack. The group is believed to have been a front for Hezbollah, which was likely funded by Iran.
After the attack, Congress forced President Ronald Reagan to withdraw U.S. troops from Lebanon, who were there as peacekeepers during the country’s civil war.
In the Middle East, everything must be understood by what came before it.
The Beirut barracks attack was tragic and unprecedented. It was the most deadly state-sponsored terrorist attack on U.S. citizens before Sept. 11, 2001, and the death toll was the highest for U.S. troops since the end of the Vietnam War. But according to Bahman Baktiari, director of the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine, a more significant anniversary will come on Nov. 4, 2009. That will be the 30th anniversary of Iranian militants taking 52 Americans hostage.
Decades later, Iran still figures largely in the volatile U.S.-Middle East interface. And, according to professor Baktiari, the U.S. is still struggling with the peacekeeper role.
The taking of American hostages in Iran in 1979 is a watershed act because it marked a switch in the target of Islamic and Arab violence. Instead of Israel and Israelis, it was now the U.S. that was the primary target, for its support of Israel, its propping up of corrupt dictators in Middle Eastern countries, and its 1991 invasion of Iraq.
A timeline on the Web site of the PBS series “Frontline” lists terrorist attacks against Americans since then. The first American casualties came in April 1983, when the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed and 63 people were killed, including 17 Americans. In December 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait was bombed. Similar acts continued through the decade, escalating to attacks in the U.S. — the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the hijackings and attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Professor Baktiari sees more problems for the U.S. in Pakistan, as the war against the Taliban spills over from Afghanistan and Pakistani leaders begin negotiating with Talibani leaders. A better way to navigate this minefield, he says, is for U.S. policy to use political tactics first and foremost and fall back on military intervention as a last resort.
While that is far easier said than done, the bloody toll of the last 30 years should guide the new administration and Congress toward another approach.