Skip to main content

Before taking on Syria, U.S. should heed lesson of the past

By Kiron K. Skinner, Special to CNN
July 20, 2012 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
U.S. Marines search for victims in Beirut on October 31, 1983, eight days after an attack that killed 241 American soldiers.
U.S. Marines search for victims in Beirut on October 31, 1983, eight days after an attack that killed 241 American soldiers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syria becomes a greater emergency with each passing day, says Kiron K. Skinner
  • But U.S. must think twice before entering yet another Middle East battlefield, she says
  • Skinner: America's involvement in Lebanon three decades ago tells us what could transpire
  • We should keep in mind Caspar Weinberger's national security doctrine of 1984, she says

Editor's note: Kiron K. Skinner is director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for International Relations and Politics and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Along with Serhiy Kudelia, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and Condoleezza Rice, she wrote "Strategy of Campaigning: Lessons from Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin."

(CNN) -- Syria becomes a greater emergency with each passing day. This week Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha and other members of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle were murdered; opposition groups claimed responsibility.

Last week Nawaf al-Fares, Syria's ambassador to Iraq, resigned from the government and joined the opposition, and the government's militiamen apparently shot villagers in Tremseh at close range.

There is growing consensus across the American political spectrum that al-Assad must go, that opposition forces must be armed in order to contend for political power, and that the situation in Syria is a strategic issue for the United States and its allies.

On the Senate floor earlier this year, Sen. John McCain spoke for many analysts when he discussed the strategic significance of Syria: "The end of the Assad regime would sever Hezbollah's lifeline to Iran, eliminate a long-standing threat to Israel, bolster Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, and inflict a strategic defeat on the Iranian regime. It would be a geopolitical success of the first order." The humanitarian dimension of Syria's crisis is underscored by reports claiming that anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people have been killed there in the past 17 months of violence.

Falling prey to election-year politicking, President Barack Obama, Gov. Mitt Romney, and their campaign surrogates eschew frank discussion of Syria and its implications -- to answer hard questions about sacrificing life and spending treasure abroad in yet another Middle East battlefield is to open up political risks that cannot be calculated. That's why it is worth recalling events of the early 1980s and former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's national security doctrine.

Kiron K. Skinner
Kiron K. Skinner

On June 6, 1982, Israel, seeking to relieve pressure on its northern borders by dismantling the Palestine Liberation Organization's base of operation, invaded Lebanon, a country beset by civil war and Syrian occupation.

Soon thereafter, France, Italy and the United States formed a multinational force to help stabilize the country -- as differing factions of Arabs and Christians as well as the Israelis and Syrians were in a tangled web of conflict -- and allow PLO fighters to leave the country. The PLO withdrawal was completed by August 30, and the MNF departed on September 10, but the story did not end there.

The MNF failed to stabilize Lebanon. President-elect Bashir Gemayel was killed in his Phalange party headquarters on September 14. In the days that followed, Israeli forces stood by as Lebanese Phalangists massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, an act of retribution for the assassination of Gemayel, which may, in fact, have been undertaken by pro-Syrian forces.

A few days later, Bashir's brother Amin was elected president, and the MFN re-entered Beirut. On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck into the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut airport, and France's barracks also were struck by a suicide bomb -- 241 U.S. servicemen and nearly 60 French soldiers were killed. It was the single bloodiest day for the Marines since the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

Between December 1983 and February 1984, U.S. battleships retaliated against combatants who had targeted the MNF. The USS New Jersey undertook a relentless counterattack against Syrian and Druze forces, shooting its 16-inch guns for the first time since the Vietnam War. By April, the entire MNF, which the United Kingdom had joined, had left Lebanon. The civil war continued until 1990.

President Reagan supported Secretary of State George Shultz's arguments in favor of U.S. diplomacy and peacekeeping in Lebanon. But in Weinberger's view, Lebanon was the wrong fight for the United States. In a speech on November 28, 1984, he articulated his six principles for future U.S. military engagements:

(1) There should be no commitment of U.S. forces abroad unless there is a clear and vital interest for the United States or its allies; (2) Combat, if agreed upon, should be undertaken with the intention of military victory, using whatever forces and resources are needed to achieve that goal; (3) Political and military objectives must be clearly defined before entering a conflict; (4) The relationship between military means and diplomatic, military, and political objectives "must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary," not just established at the beginning of the military engagement; (5) No battle is worth fighting or will be successful without "reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people" and Congress; and (6) The commitment of U.S. troops to a conflict should be an act of last resort.

The Reagan administration had approved Israel's invasion of Lebanon, and although initially welcomed by many Muslims in Lebanon the United States came to be seen as too pro-Israel, pro-Christian, and anti-Muslim. U.S. forces' unintentional shelling of civilians did not help matters.

Furthermore, the re-entry of the MFN was not accompanied by a serious understanding of strategy, objectives and the relationship between them. So President Reagan decided to withdraw U.S. forces from what would likely become a major military quagmire for the United States, instead of a multinational peacekeeping operation.

That caution brings us back to Syria, where the crisis is beginning to meet Weinberger's criteria on objectives: get al-Assad to leave. But means and strategies are very much in flux. The call for a U.S.-led international coalition of the willing to help the Syrian opposition is one suggested military and diplomatic strategy, but how realistic is it in the near term, or pre-Election Day?

Weinberger's principles remind us that the situation in Syria is difficult for the United States because calibrating means and ends in the maelstrom is easier said than done. Perhaps the humanitarian crisis that Syria has become will help settle the matter. But, as Weinberger declared, the United States should "not assign a combat mission to a force configured for peacekeeping."

Translation: Lebanon must not happen again.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kiron Skinner.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT