Obama's Defeatist ISIS War Calculus

The U.S. president thinks the costs to America of an all-out war on ISIS aren't justified. How would Reagan have acted if he'd been in office now?

British soldiers give a hand in rescue operations at the site of the bomb-wrecked U.S. Marine command center near the Beirut airport, Oct. 23, 1983.

Could President Obama’s strategy in respect of Syria be likened to Reagan’s? I confess the thought occurred to me as I read the reports of Obama’s off-the-record meeting with what the New York Times described as a group of “news columnists.” Obama confided that he was worried that a more robust intervention against the Islamic State (ISIS) by America could result in the deaths of 100 GIs a month.

The Times parked this news on its homepage after it was scooped by David Ignatius of the Washington Post. He reported after the meeting that there’s an “obvious if unspoken answer” to GOP attacks on Obama’s “not fighting harder against the Islamic State” — namely that “Obama doesn’t think this is an existential battle that’s worth the cost to the United States of an all-out war.”

That certainly takes me back — to 1983. That was when Iranian-backed terrorists bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, as well as a barracks for French paratroopers. The attacks took 305 lives, excluding those of the suicide bombers. The dead included 241 American military personnel, 220 of them Marines who were in Lebanon in the role of peacekeepers.

At the time, I was foreign editor of the Wall Street Journal and Ignatius was our star war correspondent. In the debate that emerged after the attack, he and I differed. I favored an escalation of the American presence — and calling the bluff of Syria, which was also implicated in the attacks and was vowing to make Damascus the “Hanoi of the Middle East.” Ignatius, as I recall, thought such a course imprudent.

In the event, Reagan made one of the most astonishing turnabouts of his presidency. His initial instinct — and vow — was to stick with it. He called the Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, a Democrat, and the Republican majority leader in the senate, Howard Baker. “Phoned Tip & Howard Baker to express hope they’d stay firm on keeping the Marines in Lebanon,” Reagan wrote in his diary, adding: “Both said yes.” 

Certainly America had enormous firepower in place. It included, just off the Lebanese coast, United States Ship New Jersey, a gargantuan weapon that is often called the most decorated battleship in the Navy. Not one but two aircraft carriers — the John F. Kennedy and Independence — were also in the region. Yet no sooner had Reagan hung up the phone, than the Congress started waffling.

Less than a week after the barracks were bombed, the Republican-controlled Senate voted to invoke the War Powers Act against Reagan for sending troops into Grenada to liberate the Caribbean Island from a Marxist coup. “Tip” O’Neill, albeit a Reagan favorite, described the president’s foreign policy as “frightening.” Suddenly, in February 1984, Reagan ordered the Marines to quit Lebanon.

What caused Reagan to change course so abruptly? Was it the kind of cost-benefit calculation of which David Ignatius gave us a glimpse in Obama’s thinking? Or was it that there were bigger fish to fry, given that we were in the depths of the Cold War with the Soviet Union? Reagan was a leader to whose judgment on strategic priorities the hawks were prepared to bow.
Yet to me the differences loom larger than the similarities. The Gipper’s strategy in the global struggle was the opposite of Obama’s. Behind Reagan’s foreign policy was a military buildup, an expansion of the Pentagon budget. Obama, by contrast, is downsizing the American military even as a war is in progress. They both negotiated. There were moments when Reagan, like Obama, was criticized from the right.
But Reagan, at a key moment in his dealings with the Soviet camarilla, stood up and, literally, walked out. That happened at Reykjavik, when Reagan sensed that he was being asked by the Soviet party boss, Mikhail Gorbachev, to give up the Star Wars strategic defense initiative. So Reagan legged it. Obama has looked away from, say, Iranian violations, rather than give up an agreement in respect of its nuclear ambitions.
It wasn’t until Reagan’s memoirs that the 40th president really explained himself on Lebanon. He wrote that, given the fact that Lebanon itself was unable to end its civil war, America’s own policy wasn’t working. Within the administration he then raised the bar on conditions that would have to be met before America intervened again. He didn’t get into it when, half a year after the Beirut bombing, he addressed a convention of Baptist fundamentalists.

Instead Reagan devoted almost his entire speech to an account of the horror by the chaplain of the 6th United States fleet, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, who’d gone into the rubble with a Catholic chaplain. Reagan also quoted what he called a Scottish ballad: “For those defeats that we’ve had so far, we are hurt; we are not slain. We’ll lie us down and rest a bit, and then we’ll fight again.”

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of the Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.