America’s naive belief in the miracle of the assassination fantasy, especially when applied in the Middle East, reminds me of an Alzheimer’s patient who believes in magic beans but fails to remember that the beans never sprout. We keep on planting the same seed and look anxiously for a beanstalk that never sprouts.
Killing Qassem Soleimani is the latest meaningless chapter in this blood soaked narrative of revenge and retribution against a “bad” guy. Killing a “bad” guy makes us feel proud and provides the emotional equivalent of a sugar rush. But there is no compelling evidence that these killings actually advance the cause of peace or coerce the other bad guys into hiding in a cave and praying that we go away.
Let me take you for a walk down memory lane. Let’s start in Beirut in 1982–that’s 38 years ago. In other words, if you are younger than 45 this is likely to be new to you.
The United States during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan decided to send troops to Lebanon in late 1982 in order to help “calm” a civil war. In June 1982, the Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon with the intention of rooting out the PLO. The next two months witnessed furious battles in West Beirut. Despite the raging civil war, the Lebanese held a Presidential election in August 1982 and Bachir Gemayel emerged the victor. Gemayel was famous in Lebanon for leading the most powerful militia in Lebanon, which ferociously and successfully battled the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Syrian Army. But his victory was short-lived. On 14 September a bomb exploded in his Beirut Phalange headquarters, killing Gemayel along with 26 others.
Two days later, Gemayel’s party took revenge in the in the Sabra neighborhood and the adjacent Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, where several thousand Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites lived. That massacre left between 500 and 3500 dead. The killing took place as Israeli forces stood by and observed. The Israelis did nothing to stop the murder of women and children.
That event created a deep thirst among both Palestinian and Shia leaders for revenge and the war in Lebanon intensified. About a week after the massacre in Sabra and Shatila, the U.S. 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit arrived in Beirut as part of a multinational “peacekeeping” force. But instead of keeping the peace, U.S. troops fought on the side of Gemayel’s Phalange party.
One of the targets for U.S. naval gunfire were Syrian backed forces fighting on behalf of Palestinians and Shias.
Two United States Navy ships off Beirut fired dozens of shells today in support of Lebanese Army units defending the town of Suk al Gharb on a ridge overlooking Beirut. It was the first direct military support of the Lebanese Army by United States forces.
The cruiser Virginia and the destroyer John Rodgers, both guided missile warships, moved to within nearly a mile of shore to fire five-inch shells at Syrian-backed Druse militiamen and Palestinian guerrillas who were attacking army positions.
We were no longer “peacekeepers.” We chose sides and were fighting against Palestinians and Shia and, indirectly, Iran. A hotbed of military activity was the Hezbollah bases in the Syrian-controlled Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. The recently deceased Soleimani, along with the members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), trained and equipped Hezbollah to battle the Christian controlled government in Beirut.
Reagan’s decision to fight against the Iranian supported forces had tragic consequences. In April of 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was virtually destroyed by a truck bomb.
On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber detonated a one-half-ton pickup truck laden with 2,000 pounds of TNT near the front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. It was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission to date, and changed the way the U.S. Department of State secured its resources and executed its missions overseas.
The Iranian backed forces were not finished. The Marines were the next victims:
At 6:22 on Sunday morning Oct. 23, 1983, a 19-ton yellow Mercedes stake-bed truck entered a public parking lot at the heart of Beirut International Airport. The lot was adjacent to the headquarters of the U.S. 8th Marine Regiment’s 1st Battalion, where some 350 American service members lay asleep in a four-story concrete aviation administration building that had been successively occupied by various combatants in the ongoing Lebanese Civil War. . . .
Sergeant of the guard Stephen Russell was alone at his sandbag-and-plywood post at the front of the building but facing inside. Hearing a revving engine, he turned to see the Mercedes truck barreling straight toward him. He instinctively bolted through the lobby toward the building’s rear entrance, repeatedly yelling, “Hit the deck! Hit the deck!” It was futile gesture, given that nearly everyone was still asleep. As Russell dashed out the rear entrance, he looked over his shoulder and saw the truck slam through his post, smash through the entrance and come to a halt in the midst of the lobby. After an ominous pause of a second or two, the truck erupted in a massive explosion — so powerful that it lifted the building in the air, shearing off its steel-reinforced concrete support columns (each 15 feet in circumference) and collapsing the structure. Crushed to death within the resulting mountain of rubble were 241 U.S. military personnel — 220 Marines, 18 Navy sailors and three Army soldiers. More than 100 others were injured. It was worst single-day death toll for the Marines since the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.
Looking back at these events with the benefit of 37 years of experience, we can see that assassinations by both sides (U.S. and Iran) did little to create an unambiguous victory or achieve peace.
Hezbollah also employed another tactic that limited the military response of the United States–hostage taking. Between 1982 and 1992, elements of Hezbollah in direct contact with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard kidnapped 104 foreign hostages. The most notable of these were the CIA Chief of Station in Beirut, William Buckley, and Marine Lt Colonel Rich Higgins (Higgins was later promoted to Colonel while in captivity). Buckley was nabbed on 16 March 1984 and Higgins on February 17, 1988, while serving as the Chief, Observer Group Lebanon and Senior Military Observer, United Nations Military Observer Group, United Nations Truce Supervision Organization. Both men were executed by their Hezbollah captors.
None of this stopped the cycle of violence. In February 1992, Israeli forces launched a raid into southern Lebanon and “assassinated” Sayyed Abbas Mussawi, Hezbollah’s secretary general, had led a commemoration marking the eighth anniversary of the assassination of Sheikh Ragheb Harb. (Nicholas Blanford. “Warriors of God.” https://books.apple.com/us/book/warriors-of-god/id422547646)
Then we have Imad Mughniyeh, the founding member of Lebanon’s Islamic Jihad Organization and number two in Hezbollah’s leadership. He was believed to be responsible for bombing the Marine barracks in Beirut, two US embassy bombings, and the kidnapping of dozens of foreigners in Lebanon in the 1982-1992 period. He also was indicted in Argentina for his alleged role in the 1992 Israeli embassy attack in Buenos Aires.
In February 2008, Mughniyeh was killed on the night of the 12th by a car bomb in Damascus, Syria, which was planned in a joint operation by the CIA and Mossad.
It is worth nothing that Hezbollah and Iran dramatically shifted after 1995 from the retaliatory terrorist strikes that were their calling card during the 1980s. As the Shias carried out fewer terrorist attacks, Sunnis, principally Osama Bin Laden, ratcheted up attacks–the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the coordinated bombings of U.S Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000. There is controversy surrounding who to blame for the bombing of the US military based in Dharan, Saudi Arabia in 1995. The FBI concluded it was Hezbollah and blamed Mugniyeh. But other intelligence pointed to Al Qaeda.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the United States has done a lot of killing of terrorists, real and imagined. Yet, the threat of terrorism has not been erased.
Before we get too excited about the effectiveness of assassination, it would be useful to recall the dismal record of this method during the last 38 years. It has not made the world safer or more stable.
The killing of Suleimani is likely to put Iran back in the business of attacking our embassies and military installations. I also believe kidnapping of Americans will be back in vogue. And these actions, as in the past, will be met with further U.S. retaliation and the cycle of violence will continue to spin furiously.
There is another effect now that the United States has openly embraced the “Jamal Khashoggi solution.” The Saudis decreed Khashoggi a “bad” man and a terrorist threat. To their way of thinking that gave them the excuse to chop him up on the sovereign soil of another country. In this case, Turkey. We have now basically done the very thing that we condemned the Saudis for. Yes, I know, Khashoggi was a journalist and Soleimani was a “terrorist.” But the Saudis saw a terrorist. Consider this as a corollary to the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
We justify/excuse our act because Suleimani was really, really bad. Of course, we have trouble precisely defining the line that someone must cross in order to be “really, really bad.” There are many instances in our history where we embraced really, really bad people (Joseph Stalin comes to mind) in order to pursue a goal important to us. Kim Jong Un, who also is responsible for the death of at least one innocent American, is another suspected bad guy who has gotten the pass to sit with President Trump rather than take a Hell Fire up the caboose.
This latest strike is likely to come back to haunt us. We should not be surprised in the future if other countries, such as Russia and China, embrace our new doctrine of assassinating people we say are “imminent” threats. I used to believe that our moral authority counted for something. I no longer believe that to be true. I remain eager to be proven wrong, but if history is any guide, we have not learned the lessons we need to in order to create a better future.