On Benghazi, Congress Could Take a Lesson From Beirut

After the 1983 attack in Lebanon, the opposition party worked with the president to solve a difficult national security problem, instead of pointing partisan fingers.

Bill Foley/AP

A horrible attack by a radical terrorist group on an American outpost in the Middle East resulted in the death of Americans serving their country. As the president geared up for reelection, and with the economy in bad shape, he initially depicted the tragedy as inevitable. A fact finding commission headed by a high ranking retired government official was appointed. Its report blamed serious command and intelligence failures and said that the mission was not prepared to deal with the terrorist threat at the time due to a lack of training, staff, organization, and support.

This attack occurred in October of 1983 in Lebanon, when the Islamic Jihad, later known as Hezbollah, used truck bombs to kill 241 American servicemen (220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers) and 58 French paratroopers, wounding another 60 Americans and 15 Frenchmen. The Commission, headed by retired Admiral Robert L. J. Long, released its report in late December 1983, less than a year before the next election.

As the Republican-controlled House of Representatives continues to play politics with the Benghazi attack eight months after the event, it is useful to recall how another Congress, in which the House was controlled by the opposition party, dealt with a tragedy that occurred under similar circumstances.

After the report was made public, President Reagan took full responsibility for the tragedy. At that time, the House of Representatives was controlled by the opposition party.  And not surprisingly, a subcommittee launched an investigation into the attack.

The Democratically controlled House, rather than getting involved in playing gotcha or the blame game, urged the President to withdraw from Lebanon, which he did by February 1984, and began to work with the Republican controlled-Senate on a bill to make sure such a tragedy would not occur ever again.

Had the House wanted to come after the president, they had ample means to do so. As the Commission and the house made clear, not only was President Reagan's initial response misleading, but the mission was fundamentally flawed. As Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger told the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia Miller Center, he told President Reagan, "Marines there were on an impossible mission. They were very lightly armed. They were not permitted to take the high ground in front of them or the flanks on either side. They had no mission except to sit at the airport, which is just like sitting in a bull's eye."

But instead of simply pointing fingers, in 1986, Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Department of Defense Reorganization Act, a bill that transferred power in the Department of Defense from the individual services to the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Combat Commander. Not surprisingly the bill, known as Goldwater-Nichols after its cosponsors, was vigorously opposed by the military chiefs of the individual services. Yet over the past three decades, it has made the military much more effective in conducing combat operations. Secretary of Defense Weinberger also opposed it because he was it as a repudiation of his management of the Pentagon.

While everyone knows who Senator Goldwater was, few are aware of his co-author, the late Congressman William Flynt Nichols (D-Alabama), who was a member of the subcommittee that investigated the bombing. He was a wounded World War II soldier who represented a district that housed the Anniston Army depot. All throughout his career, he had been a strong supporter of the Army and would rarely oppose the views of his top brass.

When I asked him why he not only signed on to but became a co-sponsor of the bill, he said that what persuaded him was when the Beirut bombing occurred was there was no clear chain of command from the Pentagon to the field.

Compare the response of that Congress, with a House controlled by the opposition party, to the 1983 deaths of 241 Americans to the way in which the current House is responding to Benghazi. Rather than trying to blame the Reagan administration, the Democrats in both houses worked with their Republican colleagues to fix the problem.