The time Ronald Reagan kept the US out of war in the Middle East

American warplanes are bombing Yemen. The United States supplies Israel with most of the weaponry it uses to pummel Gaza. Thousands of American troops are deployed at bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan that come under periodic attack — including this week, when three Americans were killed in Jordan. Rather than lightening our footprint in the Middle East, we are plunging ever more deeply into its wars.

By forcefully taking sides in Middle East disputes, President Biden is acting like all his recent predecessors. Whenever conflict erupts in that region, Washington jumps to take a side. We cannot bear to sit back and let local actors play out their own drama — but we did once!

This month marks the 40th anniversary of a potentially catastrophic American intervention that didn’t happen. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan decided not to take the United States into war in Lebanon despite horrific provocation. Biden could learn a lesson from Reagan’s prudent restraint.

For decades after the end of World War II, the United States sought to dominate the Middle East partly for two reasons: to secure our oil supply and to keep the Soviets out. Today we import less than 10 percent of our oil from the region and there is no Soviet Union. We face a complex challenge from China. War is raging in Ukraine. Climate change threatens the planet. Yet despite all this competition for our attention and resources, we can’t seem to break away from the Middle East.

After Biden pulled American troops out of Afghanistan in 2021, he might have gone on to withdraw others deployed in nearby countries. Instead he has taken the opposite course, toward military engagement. Aides say that events have forced his hand and give him no choice. They project the frustration that Michael Corleone expressed about his failed efforts to go straight in “The Godfather: Part III” — ”Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

National leaders, however, usually have a choice about how to respond to defiance from real or perceived enemies. Often their first impulse is to fight. After those three American soldiers were killed on Sunday by militias reportedly backed by Iran, for example, Senator John Cornyn urged Biden to “target Tehran.” Senator Lindsey Graham had similar counsel: “Hit Iran now. Hit them hard.”

That is the default response that many kids learn on the playground: You throw sand at me, I throw it back. It was Reagan’s initial reaction after a commando squad blew up the US Marine barracks in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, killing 241 Americans. We can be grateful that he changed his mind.

America’s crisis in Lebanon began innocently enough. Reagan sent Marines to restore calm after an Israeli invasion. He said they were “working hard to help bring peace to that war-torn country.” Not everyone saw them that way. After several Marines were killed in separate incidents, Reagan authorized the battleship USS New Jersey to begin firing missiles into Beirut neighborhoods where enemy units were thought to be based.

“American support removed any lingering doubts of our neutrality,” the Marine commander later asserted, “and I stated to my staff at the time that we were going to pay in blood for this decision.”

A New York Times reporter on the scene, Thomas Friedman, saw that US troops were being sucked into a civil war. “Without anyone really noticing it at first,” he wrote, “the Marines here have been transformed during the last month of fighting from a largely symbolic peacekeeping force — welcomed by all — to just one more faction in the internal Lebanese conflict.” The reckoning came the same day that article was published. A truck bomb carrying six tons of explosives smashed into the Marine barracks. It was the deadliest day in the Marine Corps since the World War II battle at Iwo Jima.

Reagan reacted with the angry resolve that Americans expect at such moments. “We have vital interests in Lebanon,” he solemnly declared, “and our actions in Lebanon are in the cause of world peace.” Later he reached for the ultimate cliché, warning that if the United States did not hunt down and punish the bombers, “we’ll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people.”

Soon, however, Reagan began having second thoughts. Pursuing the bombers would have meant plunging into Lebanon’s burgeoning civil war. There would be no clear goal for the US force, no way to define victory, and no exit strategy. On Feb. 7, 1984, Reagan announced that instead of sending the Marines to charge into war, he was ordering them to charge out. Critics called it “cut and run,” but Reagan said only that he had decided to “redeploy” the Marines offshore. Within three weeks they were gone.

Reagan coolly assessed America’s self-interest rather than reacting with violent anger. An American intervention that could have turned into a long and bloody occupation never happened.

Today passionate calls for military escalation are echoing through Washington. That makes this an ideal moment to remember the time Reagan saw a Middle East war coming and decided to avoid it.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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