Firas Maksad and Anthony Elghossain
27 October 09
The bombing of the Marine barracks at Beirut Airport some 26 years ago by a suicide truck bomber killed 241 US servicemen and led to an American withdrawal from Lebanon, where it had sent soldiers to establish some sort of peace, eight years into the country’s complicated civil war. While the bombing forced an eventual American withdrawal and once again changed the course of the conflict, it can be argued that it was also the opening salvo in Iran’s fight for hegemony in the Middle East, a battle that is very much raging today.
In ushering in a new era of war against the United States, the bombing, for which the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has long been blamed, helped cultivate the notion that state-supported militant groups could harass the United States into retreating from a robust tradition of foreign policy adventures in the region. Over the past quarter-century, the Islamic Republic has built a forward operating base in Lebanon (through its local proxy, Hezbollah), an alliance with Syria, and considerable influence in Iraq to complement its domineering presence in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s current nuclear program must be understood as part of this broader challenge to the United States and the existing order in the Middle East. From the ashes of the Marine barracks, Iran and Syria have nurtured Hezbollah from a rag-tag militia into a formidable army-cum-pseudo-state. It is Hezbollah’s entrenchment that has altered the region’s strategic calculus and which best reflects how Iran perceives the conflict.
A new regional reality
First, Hezbollah will ultimately serve as Iran's advance guard in a regional confrontation. The Party of God already demonstrated its military capacity in 2006 by fighting Israel to a standstill and retains a network of operatives in Latin America, West Africa, and the United States itself.
Second, at a deeper level, Hezbollah is a manifestation of Iranian ideology and a franchise of the Iranian Revolution. The concept of Hezbollah as a disciplined, determined and zealous organization has electrified the region and has helped Iran create an arc of influence from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Iranian largesse and Syrian facilitation have allowed Hezbollah to build schools, hospitals and utilities as well as rebuild neighborhoods destroyed by Israel. In the same vein, Iranian military support and ideological guidance have helped Hezbollah defy Israel and irritate Sunni or moderate (read pro-western) regimes in the region.
Thus, while the authoritarian regimes in Tehran and Damascus have failed to provide their people with the level of prosperity and freedom they would have liked, Hezbollah has, by and large, made a decent stab at providing for its constituents both through its social services and its largesse. Thus the Party of God is far more than a tactical nuisance - it strives to be an existential alternative for the people of the Middle East.
What to do
And so today, it can be argued that Iran is winning right where the battle began 26 years ago on the Beirut airport road. The United States must respond at every level, doing for the Lebanese state and its other allies what Iran has done for Hezbollah and Hamas.
For starters, the United States must maintain its post-Cedar Revolution economic and diplomatic support for Lebanon, such as the $67.5 million allocated by USAID's 2009 budget for Lebanon. Similarly, the US should support Lebanon's pending accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and provide assistance to related reform efforts as well as military aid to bolster Lebanon’s woefully feeble army. The latter will go a long way in convincing those Lebanese who support Hezbollah’s armed presence as long as the national army is weak that statehood can only come with genuine state institutions.
Yet, while America should continue its support for Lebanon, it cannot end there. To protect progress, Washington must adopt a firm stance against rejectionists in Tehran and Damascus. The problem is the regimes themselves; engagement, sanctions, or war will not change their world-view overnight.
The U.S. must pursue a policy of active containment to exhaust such regimes in the long term and prevent them from violating clear and enforceable "red lines" in the short term. When engagement stalls, targeted financial and economic sanctions should follow. Congress must legislate, and presidents must implement, sanctions to discourage Syria and Iran from milking new administrations for concessions while the clock ticks out every four years.
At the same time the U.S. should make clear that it will intensify sanctions and diplomatically isolate the Assad regime if Syria continues to support insurgents in Iraq and militias in Lebanon. Washington should also, subject to reliable intelligence and the advice of the military command, establish a time horizon beyond which it would adopt a more robust policy, including a military option, if Iran refuses to cease its nuclear program and submit to IAEA inspections.
There is no need to stir the pot now. Engagement may bear fruit. Nevertheless, the Marine barracks bombing on October 23, 1983 should serve as a lesson in vigilance. All too often, to paraphrase a Marine who survived the attack, the United States is "caught with its pants down." Best it not happen again.
Related: Medal of Honor, White House on Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing--Can't Remember Who Murdered 241 Americans
Firas Maksad is a Middle East analyst. Anthony Elghossain is a former journalist for Lebanon's The Daily Star and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School.