Ignoring Bloody Mideast Lessons

The Obama administration appears blind to the history that when U.S. officials have lashed out in anger at Middle East adversaries, the consequences have usually been bad and bloody. The Iraq War is an obvious cautionary tale but so too is Ronald Reagan’s shelling of Lebanon in 1983, as Ann Wright recalls.

By Ann Wright

It’s 4 a.m. and I can’t sleep, just like 10 years ago when President George W. Bush was telling the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the United States must invade and occupy Iraq to rid humanity of these weapons. I didn’t believe President Bush ten years ago and I resigned as a U.S. diplomat.

Now a decade later, President Barack Obama is telling the world that the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad government must be answered by other weapons, even though the results of the UN inspection team have not been compiled, just as the Bush administration refused to wait for the UN report by the inspectors who had been looking for WMD in Iraq.

USS New Jersey shelling targets in Lebanon. (U.S. government photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced that the UN inspectors “can’t tell us anything that we don’t already know.” President Obama says that any U.S. attack on the Assad government will be as punishment, not regime change. The strike will be “limited”, but tell that to the civilians who inevitably die when military attacks take place.

President Bush and his advisers either didn’t know or didn’t care about the probable consequences of their decision to invade and occupy Iraq: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and over 4,000 Americans dead; Millions of Iraqis and Americans wounded physically and psychologically; Legions of young men of the region now experienced in warfare and for hire moving from Iraq to Libya to Syria; And the Iraqi “democratic” government unable to control the whirlwind of sectarian violence that now is killing hundreds each week.

(Although the U.S. invaded and occupied Afghanistan under a different rationale, I also want to acknowledge the Afghan citizens who have been killed or wounded in the U.S. war in Afghanistan.)

President Obama has not spelled out the possible consequences of a military attack on Syria, but U.S. military leaders are warning about the risks. In a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey wrote last month, “As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that use of force will move us toward the intended outcome.

“Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

General James Mattis, who retired recently as head of the U.S. Central Command, said last month at a security conference that the United States has “no moral obligation to do the impossible” in Syria. “If Americans take ownership of this, this is going to be a full-throated, very, very serious war.”

Possible Consequences of an Attack

As U.S. warships gather off the shores of Lebanon to launch Tomahawk Cruise missiles at targets in Syria, we can make some educated guesses of what the “unintended consequences” could be:

Syrian anti-aircraft batteries will fire their rockets at incoming U.S. missiles; Many Syrians on the ground will die and both the U.S. and Syrian governments will say the deaths are the fault of the other; The U.S. Embassy in Damascus will be attacked and burned, as may other U.S. Embassies and businesses in the Middle East.

Syria might also launch rockets toward the U.S. ally in the region, Israel. Israel would launch bombing missions on Syria as it has three times in the past two years and perhaps take the opportunity to launch an attack on Syria’s strongest ally in the region Iran. Iran, a country with a population of 80 million and the largest military in the region untouched by war in the past 25 years, might retaliate with missiles aimed toward Israel and toward nearby U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, Turkey, Bahrain and Qatar. Iran could block the Straits of Hormuz and impede the transport of oil out of the Persian Gulf.

30 Years Ago When U.S. Warships Bombed Lebanon

At this time of crisis, it is worth remembering another time, 30 years ago in October 1983 when U.S. warships bombarded Lebanon, the country located next to Syria. Within weeks, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up by a massive truck bomb that killed 241 American servicemen: 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers.

The truck driver/suicide bomber was an Iranian national named Ismail Ascari whose truck contained explosives that were the equivalent of 21,000 pounds of TNT. Two minutes later a second suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives into the French military compound in Beirut killing 58 French paratroopers. France is the only country standing with the Obama administration on a military strike on Syria.

Earlier that year, on April 18, 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had been blown up by another suicide driver with 900 pounds of explosives that killed 63 people, 17 Americans, mostly embassy and CIA staff members, several soldiers and one Marine, 34 Lebanese employees of the US Embassy and 12 Embassy visitors. It was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission up to that time, and marked the beginning of anti-U.S. attacks by Islamist groups.

The U.S. and French military were in Lebanon as a part of a Multi-National force — after the PLO left Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon — ostensibly to create a 40 km buffer zone between the PLO and Syrian forces in Lebanon and Israel. The Israeli invasion was tacitly approved by the U.S., and the U.S. provided overt military support to Israel in the form of arms and material.

Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, the commander of the U.S. 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) deployed as peacekeepers in Beirut, said that the American and the French headquarters were targeted primarily because of “who we were and what we represented. It is noteworthy that the United States provided direct naval gunfire support [which fired a total of 360 5-inch rounds between 10:04 A.M. and 3:00 PM.] — which I strongly opposed for a week — to the Lebanese Army at a mountain village called Suq-al-Garb on September 19 and that the French conducted an air strike on September 23 in the Bekaa Valley. American support removed any lingering doubts of our neutrality, and I stated to my staff at the time that we were going to pay in blood for this decision.”

Some of the circumstances around the incidents in Lebanon in 1983 and now 30 years later in Syria are familiar. U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of potential trouble but did not report the problems in sufficient time for actions to be taken. President Obama said the U.S. had intercepted signals indicating the Syrian government was moving equipment into place for an attack, but the U.S. did not warn the Syrian government that the U.S. knew what was happening and did not warn civilians that a chemical attack was imminent.

Thirty years before, on Sept. 26, 1983, “the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted an Iranian diplomatic communications message from the Iranian intelligence agency, the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS),” to its ambassador, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, in Damascus. The message directed the ambassador to “take spectacular action against the American Marines.” The intercepted message, dated Sept. 26, was not passed to the Marines until a month later on Oct. 26: three days after the bombing.

Geraghty wrote 20 years later, “The coordinated dual suicide attacks, supported, planned, organized, and financed by Iran and Syria using Shiite proxies, achieved their strategic goal: the withdrawal of the multinational force from Lebanon and a dramatic change in U.S. national policy. The synchronized attacks that morning killed 299 U.S. and French peacekeepers and wounded scores more. The cost to the Iranian/Syrian-supported operation was two suicide bombers dead.”

There are similar questions now regarding costs and benefits of a U.S. attack on Syria.

“What is the political end state we’re trying to achieve?” said a retired senior officer involved in Middle East operational planning who said his concerns are widely shared by active-duty military leaders. “I don’t know what it is. We say it’s not regime change. If it’s punishment, there are other ways to punish.”

The former senior officer said those who are expressing alarm at the risks inherent in the plan “are not being heard other than in a pro-forma manner.”

Letter to Joint Chief Chairman Dempsey

As Obama administration lawyers in the Justice and State Departments frantically write classified legal opinions to provide legal protection for whatever action the President decides, others are calling for military officers to look to their constitutional responsibilities.

On Aug. 30, 2013, 13 former officials of the U.S. government, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Dan Ellsberg, retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern and retired U.S. Army Colonel Larry Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, wrote an open letter to General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, asking him to resign rather than follow an illegal order to attack Syria.

“We refer to your acknowledgment, in your letter of July 19 to Sen. Carl Levin on Syria, that a ‘decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war.’ It appears that the President may order such an act of war without proper Congressional authorization.

“As seasoned intelligence and military professionals solemnly sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, we have long been aware that from private to general it is one’s duty not to obey an illegal order. If such were given, the honorable thing would be to resign, rather than be complicit.”

Ann Wright is a 29-year U.S. Army/Army Reserve Colonel and a 16-year U.S. diplomat who served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned in 2003 in opposition to the Iraq war. She returned to Afghanistan in 2007 and 2010 on fact-finding missions. [This article previously appeared at WarIsaCrime.org.]

7 comments for “Ignoring Bloody Mideast Lessons

  1. Nikolay Zubov
    September 9, 2013 at 09:01

    You can’t ask much from a specialist on Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia, can you?

  2. JayHobeSound
    September 9, 2013 at 02:14

    The players change, but the USA’s game remains the same.

  3. Gordon Clack
    September 8, 2013 at 11:58

    Excellent article and one which Obama and his supporters would do well to heed unless, of course, their minds are made up to start World War Three. What is really needed is a HUMANITARIAN intervention and a DIPLOMATIC offensive to stop the conflict. It amazes me to see the enthusiasm with which the US starts wars despite leaving a trail of chaos and wreckage wherever they go: Viet Nam (where it is reported that deformed babies are still being born as a result of Agent Orange), Laos and Cambodia where more bombs were dropped by US aircraft than BOTH sides in BOTH world wars,Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. And yet the current president who seems so keen to start another war was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Pardon me while I puke!

  4. Robert Noval
    September 7, 2013 at 00:54

    It is important to note President Reagan’s response to the Beirut bombing—withdrawal—followed by an extended period where no American forces were attacked by any Islamist factions—a fact that Reagan seems to have noted…

  5. charles sereno
    September 1, 2013 at 14:25

    The author correctly remains agnostic about the perpetrators in this instance. It is not totally absurd that both sides may be guilty. There are enough other reasons, as she has indicated, to oppose American intervention.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    August 31, 2013 at 16:01

    Why the rush to a military response, if the only objective is to “punish” the use of banned weapons? Why resort to twisted arguments to discourage a UN investigation? Why risk international credibility and jeopardize the very office of The Presidency? The tortured juridical interpretations which can validate such actions have their origins in the legal gymnastics of Carl Schmitt and his “State of Exception” rationale. Hitler borrowed those same concepts to implement his “Gleichshaltung”. The concept of “Humanitarian Intervention” first found its way to the world stage when it was used to justify the “liberation” of Sudeten Germans who were supposedly being persecuted.

    The “State of Exception” defines itself. It amounts to those circumstances under which the Sovereign exercises his ability to act without legal constraint. Or in other words, he imposes martial law. The vaunted “red line”, like it or not, was most likely the impetus behind any chemical weapon use. The temptation to test it could conceivably benefit either side. History has demonstrated time and again that the best place to hide an atrocity is directly on the battlefield. Intervention as a response to this can only be seen as an effort to deflect the responsibility away from its principal author. And that, my fellow Americans, means our government will be operating, de facto, in The State of Exception. There will no doubt be other consequences. There is no legal avenue other than Congressional approval. In its absence, we no longer have a functioning democracy.

    An interesting aside: Through some almost inconceivably strange oversights, Schmitt was never charged at Nuremberg. I always wondered if that was intentional forethought.

  7. Hillary
    August 31, 2013 at 15:30

    “those who are expressing alarm at the risks inherent in the plan “are not being heard other than in a pro-forma manner.”
    This seems to be the norm also in the American MSM.
    The consequences are horrendous but only for the citizens of these poor Muslim Countries as the US War Machine can avoid the “boots on the ground” scenario with with its drones and missiles.
    The G.W. Bush mantra “you are with us or you are with the terrorists” still works and contrary opinions are not seen or heard in the MSM once again.


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