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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT