Reagan's Response to Terrorism Was Uneven

Roundup: Talking About History

Scott Shane, in the Baltimore Sun (June 8, 2004):

The presidency of Ronald Reagan is widely credited with a muscular, assertive foreign policy that contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

But his response to a wave of terrorism in the early and mid-1980s - when there were far more terrorist attacks worldwide than in recent years - was far less consistent, historians and terrorism experts say.

Reagan's reaction to the bloodiest anti-American attacks of the era - bombings in Lebanon in 1983 - was to withdraw American forces, an act that Osama bin Laden later pointed to as an example of American cowardice.

But Reagan acted with decisive military force against Libya in 1986 when that country was linked to the bombing of a German discotheque frequented by American soldiers.

On the whole, Reagan's legacy in taking on terrorism "is a mixed bag," said Steven R. David, professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University: "He certainly talked tough, and occasionally he acted."

But pulling troops out of Beirut "probably gave encouragement to terrorists to believe that if you hurt America badly enough, we will withdraw," David said.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on American soil were so cataclysmic as to obscure the earlier terrorism.

But the Reagan years saw a surge of bombings around the world that were more numerous and more diverse in motivation and targets than those in recent years, said Robert B. Oakley, who served as the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator from 1984 to 1986.

In addition to Mideast-related terrorism, much of it sponsored by the governments of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Libya, there were European groups such as Italy's Red Brigades and violent separatist movements in Northern Ireland and the Basque country of Spain, Oakley noted.

Between 1982 and 1988, according to the State Department, international terrorist attacks numbered from 487 to 665 per year. By comparison, between 1997 and 2003, attacks worldwide ranged between a high of 426 in 2000 and a low of 190 last year.

"A lot of Americans were killed, but it was overseas," Oakley said. "So it didn't get the same attention."

The other critical difference, David said, was that in the earlier era the Cold War fight against communism was the overriding priority.

A case in point: the Iran-contra affair of 1985-1986, in which the United States secretly sold arms to Iran and diverted the proceeds to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. Iran was known to be a sponsor of terrorist bombings and kidnappings, but the two-fold goal of the scheme was to appease the Iranians and support the Nicaraguan contras.

By Oakley's account, the Reagan administration only gradually came to understand the threat posed by Hezbollah terrorists seeking to drive U.S. troops out of Lebanon, just as later the Clinton and Bush administrations only slowly appreciated the scale of the danger from al-Qaida.

The first major anti-American attack in Beirut came on April 18, 1983, when a pickup truck loaded with explosives rammed the U.S. Embassy and killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, eight of whom worked for the CIA.

Then, on Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber crashed a 5-ton Mercedes truck loaded with 5,000 pounds of explosives into the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport. The blast killed 241 Marines and injured more than 100 others.

The victims were among 1,800 Marines deployed to Lebanon to help separate warring factions.

At first, Reagan vowed to find and punish those responsible and rebuffed calls to pull out.

"Those who directed this atrocity must be dealt justice, and they will be," he said four days after the attack, adding: "Let me ask those who say we should get out of Lebanon: If we were to leave Lebanon now, what message would that send to those who foment instability and terrorism?"

Four months later, Reagan ordered what was called the "redeployment" of U.S. troops to ships offshore. "We're not bugging out; we're just going to a little more defensible position," he said at the time.

The Marine mission had become extremely unpopular with Congress and the public after the attack, said Loch K. Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist.

"It seemed to me it was the right thing to do. I don't think it was a symbol of cowardice," Johnson said. "But bin Laden saw it otherwise."

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