Scott Horton recently posted an interesting interview with Mark Perry discussing Perry’s recent article at The American Conservative, “1984: The Year America Didn’t Go to War”, and the near-wars with Iran that were narrowly averted. The U.S. and Iran have been tangling for at least 40 years, or rather, 60-plus years if you go all the way back to the CIA-engineered coup against Iranian President Mohammed Mossadegh to have him replaced by the restored Shah, as Horton reminds us. The interview should be listened to and the article should be read.
Perry’s article specifically focuses on the internal debate within the Reagan administration as to how to respond to the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in October of 1983, which killed 241 Marines. They were deployed as part of a multi-national peacekeeping mission in the midst of Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war. The U.S. concluded that Hezbollah (“the Party of God”)–which was then, as now, an Iranian proxy force–was behind the attack. Then Secretary of State George Schultz demanded retaliation but Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger–who was a veteran of the horrific Battle of Buna during World War II–opposed any U.S. military escalation in the region. Weinberger even went so far as to ignore a direct order from Reagan to launch military strikes on what were believed to be Iranian-connected assets, though he later claimed that he never received any such order. Weinberger, apparently, had been completely opposed to the Marine deployment to Lebanon in the first place, as was his senior military advisor at that time, Colin Powell, a veteran of Vietnam. Weinberger eventually got his way after months of apparently deliberate bureaucratic foot-dragging, with the Marines ultimately restricted to U.S. ships in the Mediterranean.
It’s a surprising and enlightening story that I wasn’t aware of. As Horton and Perry point out, the military leadership in the Pentagon is often far more cautious than the civilian leadership in the State Department when it comes to getting the U.S. into new wars. That has frequently been the case throughout this country’s history.
And that was apparently the case recently when it came time for Trump to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on Iran. The conventional wisdom has it that Trump caught a broadcast by conservative commentator Tucker Carlson denigrating the idea of attacking that country and possibly instigating a whole new war, which supposedly dissuaded Trump from launching any strikes. But Perry reports that it’s far more likely that it was Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff–and who was a commanding officer in the 2003 invasion of Iraq–who convinced Trump not to do it.
In a meeting Gen. Dunford and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had with Trump when he was mulling over possible strikes on Iran, Dunford did what is called “flooding the zone”–“providing volumes of facts and figures that are as likely to delay as inform.” Dunford apparently does that whenever a policy option that he disagrees with has been put on the table, reminiscent of Weinberger’s delay tactics to resist launching attacks in retaliation for the 1983 Marines barracks bombing. And the facts and figures Dunford cited at Trump and Pompeo were apparently not very pretty. Just as Reagan had eventually pulled back the Marines from Beirut, Trump ultimately called off the attack on Iran.
Perry quotes Weinberger as having said, “It is easy to kill people, and that might make some people feel good, but military force must have a purpose, to achieve some end…We never had the fidelity on who perpetrated that horrendous act.”
In one interview some years ago, Perry argued to Weinberger that Reagan’s increasing military budgets would make it far more likely that the U.S. would find itself in the midst of a foreign conflict once again. “You don’t get it,” answered Weinberger. “We’re not buying more guns because we intend to use them, we’re buying more guns so we don’t have to.”
Weinberger should be commended for resisting the pressure to drag America into what would surely have been yet another quagmire of a war, this time in the Middle East, barely a decade after the last Marines and U.S. embassy staff were evacuated from Saigon. His overall attitude toward U.S. military intervention abroad appeared to be that it should be kept to a minimum. If only his successors shared that view, then this country would have been spared a lot of conflict, bloodshed, and expense over the past few decades.
But if Weinberger honestly thought that subsequent U.S. presidents would use the massively built-up military forces that Reagan had bequeathed to them on only very limited small-scale operations, and only when the U.S. was eminently and directly threatened, he was very much in error, as history taught him by the time he passed away in 2006. Reagan’s successors would, in fact, use America’s military might quite liberally and recklessly. Two of them were of Weinberger’s and Reagan’s own party: the George Bushes, Sr. and Jr. George, Sr. would march into Panama based on highly questionable premises within his first year in office, and he would then proceed to contract out the U.S. armed forces on behalf of the sheikhs and emirs of Kuwait and wage war on Iraq.
Bush, Jr., of course, would use the 9/11/01 attacks as not only a pretext to invade and occupy Afghanistan, which continues to drag on eighteen years later, but to continue his father’s war on Iraq as well, overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was followed by a long and bloody occupation. And since then, there have been the interventions in Libya, Syria, and now Yemen, in aid of Saudi Arabia’s chosen side in that poor and beleaguered country’s civil war.
“What’s the the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once famously asked Gen. Colin Powell during the 1990s, as the Clinton administration pondered intervening in the Balkans.