It was the greatest mistake of the Reagan presidency. Yet, President Bush seems about to repeat it.
In 1982, Reagan was persuaded to place U.S. Marines between Israelis and Palestinian fighters holed up in Beirut. The Marines went ashore to ensure peaceful passage of the PLO out of Lebanon. It was a mission limited in scope and widely welcomed. After landing, the Marines kept the enemies apart as Arafat and his Palestinians embarked for Tunis. In three weeks, the Marines were back aboard ship, mission accomplished.
But then the hard-line Lebanese Christian leader, Bashir Gemayal, was assassinated. His brother, Amin, took power, and the call went out to bring the Marines back to train Lebanon's army. The Marines returned, and America began taking sides in a civil war where Christians had sided with Israelis against Palestinians, Hezbollah, Amal militia and Syrians. Welcomed by one side, Americans were seen by the other as enemies in a power struggle that was none of their business.
To drive the Americans out, Islamic militants resorted to the weapon of the weak and desperate: terrorism. Result: the bombing of the Beirut barracks where 241 Marines lost their lives.
Is President Bush repeating Reagan's great mistake?
Before the Afghan war began, Mr. Bush and Secretary Powell had carried off a diplomatic coup. They had converted Pakistan to the anti-Taliban coalition, negotiated basing rights in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, won the cooperation of Russia, the quiet collusion of Iran, and enlisted both the anti-Taliban Pashtuns in the south and the warlords of the Northern Alliance. With the entire region supportive or neutral, the U.S. won the war in weeks.
An impressive victory. And, wisely, following that victory, the president refused any occupation role in a country where thousands of Afghans are thirsty for vengeance on Americans who humiliated them.
The president was saying to the world: We won the war and will support the peace, but others must do the nation-building. We seek no imperial bases, only an end to the use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary for people who massacre Americans.
Yet, The Washington Post now reports that the United States has reversed course and will establish bases in four former Soviet republics; and Secretary Powell has told Congress, "America will have a continuing interest and presence in Central Asia of a kind we could not have dreamed of before."
Understandably, the Russians have vehemently objected. U.S. bases in Moscow's backyard would be like Russian bases in Mexico, Cuba and Panama. Beijing is also wondering why America is building bases over its western border, complementing the bases we have on its eastern frontiers -- in Okinawa, Japan and South Korea.
Now, the administration has begun to warn Iran not to meddle in Afghanistan, though Iran has as vital an interest in a non-hostile neighbor as we have in a non-hostile Canada. And there are reports that U.S. warplanes are doing bombing runs in support of the Afghan regime, against rebels who are neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda. Is Mr. Bush getting America involved in a civil war? Is Mr. Bush courting another Beirut?
What is happening in Afghanistan seems a classic case of "mission creep." Having won the war, we appear to have now decided that a large U.S. military presence in Central Asia and our continued intervention in Afghanistan -- even if resented by rebels, Islamic radicals, Russians and Chinese -- are worth the risk.
But fixed bases are sitting ducks for guerrillas and terrorists. And many of those who welcomed us into the region, to topple the Taliban, now want us out. As America has never had a vital interest in Central Asia, why, then, are we building bases of a permanent character?
Prediction: If we plant permanent bases in Central Asia, we will wake up one day to another Beirut or another Khobar Towers.
As 1898 began, the furthest thing from the mind of Americans was annexation of the Philippine Islands, 10,000 miles away. But after our cakewalk victory over Spain, in a spasm of imperialism, we took the islands and fought a three-year war to deny Philippine rebels the right to rule themselves. From that decision came half a century of Pacific wars -- World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Can any realistic American believe the United States has any large and valid role in deciding the destiny of Central Asia? If we try to dictate that destiny, we will one day be ordered out, or thrown out. Let us hope not too many Americans have to die before that day comes.