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Beirut Bombing 1983: America's Weakness Exposed?

Aired October 23, 2003 - 12:21   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It was one of America's first encounters with a suicide bomber. But 20 years later, has much really changed since a truckload of explosives tore through the Marine barracks in Lebanon?
CNN's senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, looks back at the bombings' ripple effect on U.S. policy.


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST (voice-over): It began as a peacekeeping mission in March, 1983. U.S. Marines were sent to Lebanon to try to stop a bloody civil war. Seven months later, 20 years ago today, a massive truck bomb blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. servicemen -- the worst single-day loss of life for the American military since Korea.

Grim as the news was, it was, in part, overshadowed by the U.S. invasion of Grenada two days later, to overthrow a hard-left pro-Cuban government.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know that things don't look bright.

GREENFIELD: And when President Reagan ordered the Marines to leave Lebanon in January, 1984, not many Americans paid attention.

(on camera): But by some accounts, others did pay attention. That terrorist act of 20 years ago may have helped to convince some of America's adversaries that the United States, for all of its might, was vulnerable, that heavy losses could be inflicted upon it at a relatively low price.

(voice-over): After all, the reasoning went, the U.S. had lost a war in Vietnam, not because it was militarily weak, but because it did not have the political will to bear the costs. And over the years, these adversaries seemed to take heart from what they saw as American weakness, from what the U.S. did not do when it left Saddam Hussein in power after the first Gulf War, when it pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993 after 18 Americans were killed -- the Black Hawk down incident -- when it failed to strike hard after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing or the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa that killed 19 Americans, or the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole that left 17 dead.

That history may have been what Osama bin Laden had in mind when he said, three months after 9/11: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Indeed, one of the principle arguments made for American military action in Afghanistan and in Iraq was that the U.S. had to prove by direct action that America was not a weak horse, that al Qaeda and its allies were misreading America's resolve. If that's true, that Beirut bombing of 20 years ago may have been where that miscalculation began.

Jeff Greenfield, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: In contrast, an upbeat progress report by the White House, an internal memo written by the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is raising some questions whether the Pentagon right now is, in fact, winning the war on terror.

Frank Gaffney was part of President Reagan's administration at the time of the Beirut bombing. He's since started the Center for Security Policy in Washington. James Walsh is also joining us. He heads Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

And, Frank, let me begin with you. The criticism 20 years ago today in the aftermath of the Beirut bombing, the U.S. simply picked up, cut its losses and ran out -- in effect, inviting more terror attacks against the U.S. and its friends. It that fair criticism?

FRANK GAFFNEY, CTR. FOR SECURITY POLICY: I think there are two important parallels to the kind of environment we're in today. One is, Wolf, that the people who perpetrated that attack -- murderous attack in Beirut are Islamists, the radical subset of the Muslim faith -- in this case, sponsored by Shiite Iran with help from Syria -- that in other forms are dogging us in this present phase, if you will, of the war on terror, both here at home and abroad.

And the other is the point that you've just made. I think there is no question, and what Jeff was talking about, there is no question that these Islamists, whether it's Osama bin Laden or the mullahs in Iran or the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia, perceive the United States to lack the will to stay the course, to fight back properly and to do so in a sustained way. And that's what they are very much calculating (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if we get bloodied in Iraq.

BLITZER: You were at the Pentagon in those days. You were a deputy assistant secretary of defense. I'll press you on this point: Did the Reagan administration -- did President Reagan at that time and his advisors make a huge blunder in not finding those responsible and bringing them to justice?

GAFFNEY: Well, this doesn't, I hope, sound like an excuse. I was working on another part of the defense operation, the Cold War front at that point. But I do think it was a mistake to have cut and run, not to have held people accountable, and not to have punished them for what was done to our forces, not only in the immediate sense that we did, in fact, wind up surrendering Lebanon and its people to the perditions that continue to this day under Syria, but also that we, I'm afraid, invited this larger expectation, that bloodying the United States would result in its folding up its tent and running away. And that has brought us a world of grief in the years since.

BLITZER: Let me let Jim Walsh weigh in as well. What is your assessment right now? Obviously, all of us are a lot smarter 20 years down the road with this kind of historical perspective with hindsight. But how much of a watershed was this attack 20 years ago today?

JAMES WALSH, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, I think it was an important event. It was the beginning of the rise of Islamic terrorism, as we've seen it play out over the last 20 years. But we really haven't learned a lot of lessons from it. You know, we pulled out of Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war. We let that country fall apart, and it soon became home to bin Laden. Now, it appears that we have not given Afghanistan the support it needs to make it a peaceful and stable society.

And the question that was 20 years ago that applies today is: How long should we stay in Iraq? And, here, I think the president has really put us in a difficult policy dilemma. We can't cut and run. If we do, obviously evil forces will be able to come in and create chaos. On the other hand, if we stay in Iraq a long time, as the Rumsfeld memo suggests, we may be feeding bin Laden, we may be helping him recruit new members, and we may be losing American soldiers, men and women, every week.

So, it is a difficult policy dilemma we find ourselves in.

BLITZER: All right, let's take a caller, Mike in Pennsylvania. Mike, you're on the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I don't understand why Americans should be supporting all these countries. We've given our blood for them and they don't want us there. They've been fighting since time began.

BLITZER: All right, Frank, why don't you respond to Mike?

GAFFNEY: Well, I think we do have to be selective about where we fight and why we fight. The reason we're in Iraq today, I believe, is that it was part and parcel of the war on terror in the sense that I think there is abundant evidence that Saddam Hussein is -- or was, I should say, and his regime was instrument in the war being waged against the United States by these terrorists, a means of providing safe haven, training, logistical support, weaponry even perhaps. And particularly the possibility that they might have involved weapons of mass destruction hand-offs to the terrorists I think justified our being there.

Beirut was a different story. I think we went in out of sort of a humanitarian concern in the sense that we might, just by being there, help stabilize the situation. That proved wrong, and particularly, as we have been talking about, when we bailed out I think it only reinforced the sense that we would not be just, by our mere presence, able to help stabilize places, especially places where people wanted to hurt us. BLITZER: We have an e-mail for you, Jim. Bruce from Houston writes this: "At what point will we have won the war on terror? This is beginning to sound like the war on drugs in Central America. Who won that one?"

WALSH: Great question, Bruce. It's also something that was raised in Don Rumsfeld's memo of this past week or last week, where he says how do we measure success? Are we killing more terrorists in Iraq, or are we creating more terrorists in Iraq? My own hunch is that we're creating more terrorists.

And to respond earlier to what Frank had said, it seems to me that we went into Iraq for two reasons: weapons of mass destruction, which we didn't find; and then the second reason was a tie between bin Laden and Saddam, which we didn't find. And so far, there is no evidence to support either of those.

But how do we know we're going to win the war on terrorism? I think the only measures you can use are the number of people arrested, the number of attacks that take place, the number of folks who are injured in terrorist attacks. But it will be a difficult project to measure success for. One of the measures might be capturing bin Laden, but, of course, we haven't done that either.

BLITZER: Why don't you respond to that, Frank?

GAFFNEY: Well, I would say that the jury is still out on what we are going to find and where we will find it in terms of the weapons of mass destruction. David Kay's report indicates there's a lot that was going on there, and much of it is still probably secret. We're going to find it, I think, and we will be reinforced in or sense that this really was a danger that had to be put out of business.

The second part of this is, Roy Murdoch (ph), I believe, has got a terrific piece in the "National Review" online that I would commend anybody who is interested in the ties between Saddam and terror, including al Qaeda, to take a hard look at. There is abundant evidence of connections there, and a lot of it is circumstantial because that's the nature of terrorism and the state sponsorship of it. But nobody should be under any illusion.

We are better off having Saddam Hussein out of business. I believe the Iraqi people are as well. And it is an important message to all those Islamists and other terrorists that we are prepared to defend our interests and stay the course to do so.

BLITZER: And Jim, even as we're speaking, we're getting more information now, more U.S. troops killed and injured in attacks in Iraq. Let me update our viewers on what's coming into CNN right now.

A bomb attack in northern Iraq has killed another U.S. soldier this morning. Military officials are investigating the deaths of yet two more soldiers who have died in Baghdad from cases that are unrelated, we're told, to combat. This from the U.S. military Central Command. It says that the latest fatal attack on U.S. troops, a soldier from the Army's 4th Infantry Division was killed, two others wounded, when their convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device.

That was around 11:30 a.m. local time this morning in Iraq. It happened in the Baquba area. That's about 60 kilometers or so, 40 miles north of Baghdad.

Jim, as we hear these reports, as the American public hears these reports, they see the casualties going up. They don't necessarily see any light at the end of the tunnel. What is the military strategy that can deal effectively with this problem on the ground in Iraq right now?

WALSH: Well, I think one of the mistakes we've made in the war on terrorism is relying primarily on a military strategy, when you really need a variety of different levers to try to attract this problem. I think what was interesting about Secretary Rumsfeld's memo is he said that the military has no long-term strategy, but that's what he's asking his subordinates to work. And he is raising these tough questions.

And let me be clear. I have been a critic of Secretary Rumsfeld in the past, but I commend him for this memo. Because rather than the sort of happy talk, the "don't worry be happy" line that we've heard both out of the Pentagon and recently on this show, he says there are some tough issues here, we have to address them or we're going to continue to face problems. And I think he is to be commended for that. It may be too little, too late, but we've got to start that process of dealing with the tough problems we have.

BLITZER: Well, as Frank Gaffney points out, it is still early in the game. There's still obviously not a whole lot of time that's occurred, that's lapsed since the end of the war.

We're going to take a quick break. I want both of you to stand by. Our viewers are standing by, as well. They've got a lot of phone calls, a lot of email, a lot of questions they're asking.

We'll show our viewers once again live pictures of the memorial service under way right now at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington. They're remembering the 241 Americans killed at that Marine barracks bombing in Beruit 20 years ago today.


BLITZER: Let's get back to our conversation with our two guests, Jim Walsh from Harvard University, Frank Gaffney in Washington, for the Center for Security Policy in Washington.

And Frank, we have an email from Sandra in Arizona. Let me see if you want to handle this one. "I am so tired of hearing that going into Iraq is somehow related to our fight against terrorism. The government has been manipulating the facts and molding the truth to fit their agenda and oil deals."

We are getting a lot of questions along those lines, Frank.

GAFFNEY: Well, I understand there are a lot of questions along those lines. I just don't think they are justified.

I, like Jim -- and I'm delighted we can agree on this -- think that Don Rumsfeld's message or memo, and the calls that he's asked his senior subordinates to make in terms of, are we getting it right, is the strategy working, what can we do to make this better, is exactly what you would like the secretary of defense to do. I think he has been right, right along.

I think he's understood the nature of this threat from Saddam Hussein. I think he has provided very good counsel to this president. And while everything has not gone perfectly, I think that what you want in a secretary of defense, and for that matter, a president, is somebody who's going to say, all right, let's figure out what has gone right, let's figure out where we can do better. And I think that's what they are doing at the moment, but they're doing it because I believe of a correct conviction, that Saddam Hussein represented a real threat to this country, particularly in the terrorist context.

BLITZER: Let's get to another email. Don for you, Jim.

"What really shocks me about this whole mess is the negative publicity the White House receives on the war on terror. They have clearly stated that he does not know everything and that it is going to take a lot of creative thinking to get out of this mess. Clinton's folly, his kinder, gentler approach in dealing with international terrorism, is what got us into this mess to begin with. I would suggest that everyone get off their soapbox and concentrate their efforts to help, not hinder, our appointed officials."

We get a lot of viewer emails along those lines as well, Jim.

WALSH: Well, I think Don makes a fair point, although I think this blame Clinton thing gets a little old. I mean, President Bush is going to be going into his re-election year next year. At some point, you can't continue to blame Clinton.

Clinton didn't order the troops into Iraq. And blaming Clinton doesn't make a U.S. soldier in Iraq any safer. I think we have to take some personal responsibility. That is what the White House likes to talk about, is personal responsibility, and it is time we take some and take responsibility for our own actions.

But I think it's fair to say that, in some areas in the war on terrorism, the president has gotten it right. I think the attack on Afghanistan was correct. Denying bin Laden's stationary bases, where he could have training camps, labs, state support, I think that was a positive and that we're safer as a result of that.

In other areas, it seems to me it's a mixed bag. We haven't made a lot of progress. We still have a lot of nuclear material that remains unsecured that could be gotten by a terrorist or a country that wanted to make nuclear weapons. And in some areas, I think we've actually done worse.

I think, actually, the war in Iraq has helped bin Laden, not hurt him, has undermined the war on terrorism, because it's taken resources away from Afghanistan and it's given bin Laden a recruiting tool. So Don is right. Some things I think the president deserves credit for. Other things, I would score him less positively.

BLITZER: All right. Let's -- unfortunately, we have to end it right there. James Walsh of Harvard University, thanks very much for joining us. Frank Gaffney from the Center of Security Policy in Washington, as usual, thanks very much for your input as well.


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