A terrorist attack on a U.S. outpost in the Middle East. Americans killed. Congressional hearings. Evidence that the administration failed to take security as seriously as it should have.
It was over 30 years ago that a terrorist attack on a U.S. Marine compound in Beirut killed 241 American servicemen, which came just six months after militants had bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. Jane Mayer, who covered the attack in Lebanon at the time, reflects today on the domestic political environment – and how much it’s changed.
There were more than enough opportunities to lay blame for the horrific losses at high U.S. officials’ feet. But unlike today’s Congress, congressmen did not talk of impeaching Ronald Reagan, who was then President, nor were any subpoenas sent to cabinet members. This was true even though then, as now, the opposition party controlled the majority in the House. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, was no pushover. He, like today’s opposition leaders in the House, demanded an investigation – but a real one, and only one. Instead of playing it for political points, a House committee undertook a serious investigation into what went wrong at the barracks in Beirut. Two months later, it issued a report finding “very serious errors in judgment” by officers on the ground, as well as responsibility up through the military chain of command, and called for better security measures against terrorism in U.S. government installations throughout the world.In other words, Congress actually undertook a useful investigation and made helpful recommendations. The report’s findings, by the way, were bipartisan. (The Pentagon, too, launched an investigation, issuing a report that was widely accepted by both parties.)
Six months after the terrorist attack, militants struck American officials in Beirut again, killing the CIA’s station chief. This happened during an election year, but I can find no evidence of any federal politician using this in television attack ads.
And six months after that, terrorists bombed a U.S. government outpost in Beirut once more – in the middle of Reagan’s re-election campaign. The then-president conceded at the time that repairs at the U.S. embassy annex were behind schedule, telling the public, “Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.”
Again, no hearings. No attack ads. No select committee. No subpoenas. No organized conspiracy theories pushed by members of Congress or their media allies. No talk about impeaching the president.
I’m trying to imagine what would happen if, in today’s climate, terrorists struck repeatedly at U.S. installations in a Middle Eastern country, killing hundreds of Americans.
Given the zeal with which Republicans are exploiting the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi nearly two years later, it’s an unsettling thought experiment.
Mayer’s conclusion rings true.
If you compare the costs of the Reagan Administration’s serial security lapses in Beirut to the costs of Benghazi, it’s clear what has really deteriorated in the intervening three decades. It’s not the security of American government personnel working abroad. It’s the behavior of American congressmen at home.The story in Beirut wasn’t over. In September of 1984, for the third time in eighteen months, jihadists bombed a U.S. government outpost in Beirut yet again. President Reagan acknowledged that the new security precautions that had been advocated by Congress hadn’t yet been implemented at the U.S. embassy annex that had been hit. The problem, the President admitted, was that the repairs hadn’t quite been completed on time. As he put it, “Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.” Imagine how Congressman Issa and Fox News would react to a similar explanation from President Obama today.
I can appreciate why it’s tiresome and off-putting to hear talk about how much better the political system used to be in some bygone era. In general, much of the talk sees history through rose-colored glasses – the reality is the parties have always fought; there have always been ideologues and hardball tactics; there have always been fringe figures with extremist ideas; there have been prolonged periods of legislative gridlock.
But I continue to believe what we’re seeing now just isn’t normal. Comparing the congressional reactions of the Beirut attacks 30 years ago to the Benghazi attack in 2012 helps reinforce just how severely House Republicans are embarrassing the institution with their ugly schemes.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and in the not-too-distant past, it wasn’t this way.