Remembering Grenada

History is instructive, or depressing, because it all sounds so familiar. Ronald Reagan was president and this happened:

Early on a Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, two truck bombs struck buildings in Beirut, Lebanon, housing American and French service members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MN), a military peacekeeping operation during the Lebanese Civil War. The attack killed 307 people: 241 U.S. and 58 French military personnel, six civilians, and two attackers.

Ronald Reagan was a strong leader who believed in a strong America and might have bombed the hell out of every terrorist camp in the region and then nuked Iran, which had been supporting these terrorist bombers, but no, without explanation, he got our people out of there:

The attacks eventually led to the withdrawal of the international peacekeeping force from Lebanon, where they had been stationed following the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) withdrawal in the aftermath of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Iran was a tricky issue back then. There were secret deals. Those two hundred and forty-one dead Marines had to be forgotten. These things happen, but Regan was strong and he had to do something, so he did this:

The United States invasion of Grenada began at dawn on 25 October 1983. The U.S. and a coalition of six Caribbean nations invaded the island nation of Grenada, 100 miles (160 km) north of Venezuela. Codenamed Operation Urgent Fury by the U.S. military, it resulted in military occupation within a few days…

This was a small nowhere place but the local government was getting a bit socialist and saying nice things about Fidel Castro and his communist Cuba, not that far to the north. And there was a small medical school on that island with a few American students. It all fell into place. Stop communism! Rescue those students! And stop America’s shame:

The invasion began on the morning of 25 October 1983, just two days after the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The invading force consisted of the US Army’s 1st and 2nd battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 82nd Airborne and the Army’s rapid deployment force, Marines, Army Delta Force, Navy SEALs, and ancillary forces totaling 7,600 troops, together with Jamaican forces and troops of the Regional Security System (RSS). The force defeated Grenadian resistance after a low-altitude airborne assault by Rangers and the 82nd Airborne on Point Salines Airport at the south end of the island, and a Marine helicopter and amphibious landing on the north end at Pearls Airport.

This was over in a few hours. America won! Those two hundred and forty-one Marines were still dead, but two days later, America had won one for them, maybe. This was a bit of a farce:

The invasion was criticized by many countries, including Canada. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher privately disapproved of the mission and the lack of notice that she received, but she publicly supported it. The United Nations General Assembly condemned it as “a flagrant violation of international law” on 2 November 1983 with a vote of 108 to 9.

And those two hundred and forty-one Marines were still dead. Kevin Drum once summed up the situation this way:

Reagan basically talked tough and spent a lot of money, but shied away from foreign interventions. The invasion of Grenada and his support for the Contras were small things that never risked any US troops. He pulled out of Beirut when things got tough there, never committed any troops to Afghanistan, negotiated with the Iranians, and to the horror of neocons everywhere, nearly concluded an arms-deal with Gorbachev in Reykjavík that would have banned all ballistic missiles.

Reagan basically talked tough but that was just talk. He ordered the invasion of hapless and obscure and quite tiny Grenada to prove he really was tough, and he proved the opposite. History is like that. Any embarrassing defeat is followed by then wining big somewhere else, as soon as possible, even if that somewhere else is tiny.

That means that war is always necessary, and James Downie sees this:

The United States’ long-overdue departure from Afghanistan was always going to be messy, thanks to two decades of mismanaged and misguided occupation.

But even by that standard, the current withdrawal has been poorly executed, leaving the Biden administration with both short- and long-term problems. In the near term, the United States needs to evacuate thousands of Americans still in the country and welcome as many Afghan refugees as possible. In the longer term, the White House needs to resist those who would use the withdrawal to argue for a more confrontational foreign policy elsewhere.

That would be most Republicans now. The Afghanistan withdrawal undermines America’s strength elsewhere and everywhere:

“You have Iran, I think, with a very, very radical brand-new president saying, we think – we like – we get to be more aggressive with Israel, more aggressive with Saudi Arabia,” argued former House speaker Newt Gingrich on Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures.

“You already see countries like China threatening Taiwan and saying that America won’t come to their aid,” added Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on the same Fox News show.

“It’s not just damage in Afghanistan, it’s damage globally for the United States,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Perhaps we should invade Grenada again, if anyone remembers where it is. It’s the Reagan thing to do:

On the Sunday talk shows, these comments were mostly asides, but they signal how Republicans – and other interventionist voices – will approach foreign policy debates after Afghanistan: President Biden was weak. Therefore, the United States needs to show it can’t be pushed around elsewhere.

That’s the whole message, and it is dangerously seductive:

There will, no doubt, be some openness, in some quarters of the White House, to a future show of strength, just as some Democrats turned hawkish in the weeks and months after Sept. 11. That course should be rejected. First off, although Americans are understandably concerned about how the troops were drawn down, a new CBS News Poll shows, even with hindsight, 63 percent still support the withdrawal. There’s no reason to think that the same public would have any appetite for more intervention elsewhere just because of a bungled evacuation.

But more broadly, “restoring” America’s image through confrontation is never as clear-cut as its supporters claim.

In fact, Downie seems to think that what was bullshit in 1983 is still bullshit now:

Just look at what Biden’s critics say was working in Afghanistan: “We needed to maintain a presence on the ground, 3,500 forces, counterterrorism operations, counterintelligence operations,” said Cheney. At a similar troop level, said former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley on CBS News’s Face the Nation, “under four years of Trump, Afghanistan was safe.”

And that’s nonsense:

The only way that the status quo was “safe” was if Afghan lives don’t count; thousands of Afghan civilians died during that period – and 1,659 perished in the first half of this year alone.

The truth is that Americans only support intervention if prolonged troop deployments are not involved. We saw this in the run-up to the Iraq War, when Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed for postwar Iraq. Knowing the public would never support such a commitment, the Bush administration quickly rejected that figure; then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz labeled it “wildly off the mark.”

Events would prove Shinseki right. The complex view that the public holds about intervention without long deployments is worth remembering when Cotton and others suggest shows of strength from the Middle East to the Taiwan Strait.

And there isn’t even another convenient Grenada out there now, so Downie suggests this:

The United States should do what it can to welcome refugees, stand up for democracy and support human rights around the world. But American leaders need to recognize the limits of aggressive, interventionist foreign policy – not just because the American people don’t support it, but because decades of poorly conceived and executed overseas adventures show us that these quests rarely succeed.

Maybe not, but Bush’s Poodle suggests this:

Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, on Saturday criticized the withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling it a hasty move made “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars.’”

As prime minister, Mr. Blair sent British troops into both Afghanistan and Iraq, backing President George W. Bush’s decision to invade both countries after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those conflicts have helped to comprise Mr. Blair’s legacy, particularly the war in Iraq, which a British investigation later found was promoted with intelligence that falsely overstated the threats posed by Saddam Hussein’s government.

That’s how he came to be called Bush’s Poodle, but he doesn’t care now:

In his statement on Saturday, Mr. Blair acknowledged unspecified mistakes in the 20-year military involvement in Afghanistan, some of them serious. But he said that the chaotic retreat would undermine faith in the West and sacrifice fragile improvements in the lives of Afghans.

Perhaps he is still Bush’s Poodle:

Mr. Blair did not mention President Biden by name in his statement. But he argued that leaving Afghanistan raised questions about whether the West had lost its strategic will and that it had resulted in a humiliation that would be cheered on by jihadist groups and exploited by China, Iran and Russia.

The Taliban should be seen as part of a broader ideology of what he called “Radical Islam” that should continue to concern the West, Mr. Blair argued, even if some believe that Afghanistan itself is of little geopolitical importance.

“If we did define it as a strategic challenge, and saw it in whole and not as parts, we would never have taken the decision to pull out of Afghanistan,” he wrote.

So another year, or ten, or twenty, might show we’re serious about the world, or, perhaps, that we’re total fools:

“This is urgent,” he wrote. “The disarray of the past weeks needs to be replaced by something resembling coherence, and with a plan that is credible and realistic. But then we must answer that overarching question. What are our strategic interests and are we prepared any longer to commit to upholding them?”

But why there? And for how long? No one should give up on this, your own pet project with the second Bush? Yes, he’s angry. He was NOT wrong twenty years ago, damn it! But even George W. Bush is silent. All he will say is that he is overwhelmingly sad.

That might be the only thing to say, as E. J. Dionne notes here:

The United States is highly competent at fighting wars when the objective is clear, victory is the only option, and a large share of the public supports the engagement.

Our country has rarely been good at sustained commitments in murky conflicts where the goal is a vague “political settlement” that is neither victory nor defeat.

We ought to have learned that lesson long ago. Afghanistan has taught it again. It’s why President Biden finally said: Enough.

Yes, history need not repeat itself:

Biden’s decision to withdraw is a cold, realpolitik judgment, as he underscored in remarks on Sunday. His prism, he said, rested on the questions: “Where are our national interests? Where do they lie?” However brutal the Taliban is, however reactionary and oppressive it might be toward women in particular and dissenters from its purist religious doctrines generally, U.S. interests would not be served by extending our military commitment any longer.

The U.S. engagement in 2001 was prompted by the Taliban’s harboring of al-Qaeda, an immediate, proportionate response to the attacks of 9/11.

With al-Qaeda routed and Osama bin Laden killed, Biden reiterated Friday, the original mission was accomplished long ago. Now, he said, there is a greater terrorist threat “in other countries than there is in Afghanistan,” and that’s where our nation’s attention should turn.

In short, you do not shown strength by ignoring that everything has changed and that the far bigger threats are now elsewhere, so you do what you can:

The ugliness of the aftermath should not distract from the fact that Biden made the right call, the best among the bad choices available.

This does not lessen his obligation to respond forcefully to the humanitarian crisis created by the administration’s costly miscalculations about the astonishing speed with which the Taliban would seize control of the country.

The United States must be aggressive in pulling out not only Americans but also Afghans who risked their lives to support our troops, without imposing an artificial deadline. We can do better than this. And we must make things right with restive NATO allies.

But that may be beside the point:

On the withdrawal itself, you can distill all the recriminations around Biden’s decision to one essential argument: You either believe that a small U.S. force in Afghanistan could have maintained the status quo and held the Taliban at bay, or you don’t.

While thoughtful people think we could have pulled it off, Biden has the better of the argument.

The president was operating, after all, in the wake of Donald Trump’s “peace” deal with the Taliban and his drawdown of American troops from about 13,000 in 2019 to 2,500, a number that drifted upward to perhaps 3,500. Even those who think a small force could have been successful acknowledge that more troops would have been needed…

Biden would have had to re-escalate. And if 4,500 had not been enough, or if our forces had come under attack, would the United States have had to send yet more troops? The answer is almost certainly yes.

But this was a mess before Biden:

The morale of the Afghan armed forces and the country’s increasingly isolated government had already been fatally weakened by Trump’s deal with the Taliban in February 2020 and his lauding the group’s leaders – “they’re very tough, they’re very smart, they’re very sharp.” H. R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser, called it a “surrender agreement with the Taliban.”

The signals Trump sent made clear which way the winds were blowing and enabled the Taliban to strike deals of its own all over Afghanistan for quick surrenders by pro-government troops.

That assured this would be a mess:

In going through what I had written over the years about Afghanistan, I found this from a 2011 column: “The United States has done what it could to improve the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. We have to decide whether this commitment will end or whether there will be an endless series of ‘fighting seasons’ in which we need to give it one more try.”

Ten fighting seasons later, Biden decided that giving it one more try was futile.

And yes, this is on him:

Now he must take responsibility for correcting errors of execution. Declaring he was doing so was the point of his detailed comments about the evacuation effort on Sunday. “We’re working hard and as fast as we can, to get people out,” Biden said.

He also carries the burden of showing in the coming months through his policy choices that his decision will – as he insists – make our country stronger, not weaker, and the world safer. It will not be easy. But it would not have been easier five, ten or twenty years from now.

Kevin Drum sees that too, and he’s angry about all this:

I have had it with coverage of the Kabul evacuation. The plain fact is that, under the circumstances, it’s going fairly well. Both Americans and Afghan allies are being flown out safely and bloodshed on the ground is surprisingly limited. Sure, the whole operation is going to take a few weeks, but what did everyone expect?

But you’d never know this thanks to an immense firehose of crap coming from the very people we should least believe.

That would be this:

The hawks who kept the war in Afghanistan going for years with lies and happy talk, and who are now desperate to defend themselves.

Republicans who figure this is a great opportunity to sling partisan bullshit. Their favorite is that Biden has destroyed America’s standing in the world, an old chestnut for which there’s no evidence whatsoever.

Trumpies trying to avoid blame for the execution of their own plan. It is gobsmacking to hear them complain about slow processing of Afghan allies when they were the ones who deliberately hobbled the visa process in the first place.

Democrats who, as usual, are too damn cowardly to defend the withdrawal for fear of – something. It’s not always clear what.

Reporters who are sympathetic to all this because they genuinely care about the danger that the withdrawal poses for people they knew in Afghanistan.

But this isn’t our screw-up:

The only real mistake the military made in this operation was in not realizing just what a terrible job they had been doing all along. Everything else flows from that. If the Afghan government had been able to hold off the Taliban for even a few weeks, everything would have been fine. But they didn’t even try. Ghani just grabbed a few suitcases of cash and took off.

All by itself, this should tell you how hopeless the situation in Afghanistan has been all along. After 20 years, the Afghan military, even with plenty of warning about when we planned to leave, was unable, and in many cases unwilling, to fight. It’s laughable to think that another few months would have made any difference. It’s equally laughable to hear from the “light footprint” gang, who think that we could have kept a few thousand troops in Afghanistan forever and avoided any kind of fighting even after the Taliban cease-fire was over.

As for all the Americans being airlifted out, I suppose it’s bad form to point out that they were told to leave months ago? If they had a lick of common sense most of them wouldn’t be stuck in Kabul and elsewhere waiting to be rescued.

So everyone should calm down:

The sophisticated attitude these days is to say that, of course, we needed to leave Afghanistan, but surely, we could have executed the withdrawal more competently, Maybe, but I’d like to hear the plan. The problems we’ve run into were baked into the cake long ago, and the actual evacuation itself has been run with courage and guts…

This is by far the biggest military evacuation in US history, and it’s being handled surprisingly well. Maybe that will change tomorrow. Anything could happen. But so far, the US media has been suckered into a narrative that’s almost precisely the opposite of the truth.

It needs to stop.

It won’t stop. Remember our heroic triumph at Grenada. That’s why history is instructive, and so depressing.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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