WASHINGTON -- Seventeen years ago this week, in the midst of a major crisis in the Middle East, a truck laden with explosives crashed through a wire barrier and into a building near Beirut International Airport. When the suicide bomber in the truck detonated his lethal load early that Sunday morning, 241 soldiers, sailors and Marines died in the explosion. The Oct. 23, 1983, destruction of the Marines barracks in Beirut remains the single deadliest terrorist attack on Americans since the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba in 1898. Thanks to the courage and perseverance of the Marines and Navy "Seabees" in Beirut, survivors were pulled from the wreckage; the wounded were treated, and a decimated Marine Battalion Landing Team resumed its mission.
Last week, in the midst of yet another crisis in the Middle East, and just hours after a presidential debate, the USS Cole, one of America's newest Guided Missile Destroyers, became the most recent terrorist target. As the warship pulled into Aden, Yemen, for a routine refueling mission, a small boat cleared by local authorities to assist in mooring operations pulled alongside the USS Cole and detonated a massive explosion, tearing a 40 by 40 foot hole in the Destroyer, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others. Thanks to heroic efforts by the ship's damage control parties, the ship was saved; casualties were treated and evacuated, and the USS Cole, we are told, will eventually be returned to service.
The parallels and contrasts in these two terrorist events are striking -- and instructive -- as the nation proceeds to elect a new commander in chief.
In the immediate aftermath of the Marines barracks bombing, President Ronald Reagan dispatched the commandant of the Marine Corps, General P.X. Kelley, to Beirut. His orders: Report directly to the president on what had gone wrong -- and what should be done to prevent another such terrorist attack. President Reagan also ordered that the congressional leadership, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the Intelligence Committees be fully briefed on all the facts as they became known. And just 48 hours after the Beirut bombing, the president who had been derided by the press and his political opponents for his "detachment" and "lack of attention to details" ordered Marines and Rangers to rescue 804 U.S. medical students and restore democracy on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada.
Within days of Beirut and Grenada, a national dialogue began on the proper use of U.S. military force. From the carnage of Beirut and the triumph of Grenada came the "Weinberger Doctrine" -- to commit our armed forces only when our vital interests are at stake, to do so overwhelmingly and with clear, achievable and finite objectives. The Beirut terror attack also prompted the development of a coherent strategy for countering terrorism.
Last week's terrorist attack on the USS Cole bears certain similarities to the Beirut bombing. Both acts of terrorism were meticulously well-planned. The terrorists in Lebanon and Yemen both had to painstakingly collect intelligence on their U.S. targets, obtain the complicity of one or more local government officials, and carefully assemble the materials and equipment for their attacks. And both required zealots willing to commit suicide in order to kill Americans.
But there, the similarities end. In the aftermath of the attack on the USS Cole, there has been no concerted effort to be forthcoming about what went wrong and why. After the 1983 attack, the Reagan administration acknowledged that our Marines should never have been tied down to a "fixed" location in Beirut to satisfy diplomatic niceties or the demands of multi-national "peacekeepers." Intelligence shortcomings were analyzed, operational procedures were reviewed, and repairs were mandated with the cooperation of Congress. But last week's terrorist attack on the USS Cole has prompted nothing like this from the incumbent administration.
The first official response to the carnage on the USS Cole didn't even come from the White House. Instead, it fell to Attorney General Janet "Swat Team" Reno to announce that she was dispatching FBI agents to Yemen to figure out what happened. Then for days afterward, Secretary of State Madeleine "No Rogue States" Albright insisted that we were "unable to state with certainty that this was a terrorist attack." Apparently, the leading ladies of the Clinton administration need to be reminded that U.S. warships do not blow themselves up.
But the most telling difference between the bombing 17 years ago in Beirut and last week's terrorist attack on the USS Cole is the deafening silence of the American people. Back in 1983, the American people wanted answers -- and got them. Yet, during the third and final debate in St. Louis between George W. Bush and Al Gore, with 90 minutes of carefully screened questions from "Average Americans" and follow-up queries from moderator Jim Lehrer, not a single one dealt with the act of war against the USS Cole just six days prior. Do they "Remember the USS Maine"? Will they "Remember the USS Cole" on Election Day?