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HARPER: Is U.S. willing to pay the price in Syria?

- - Wednesday, September 4, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It was Sunday — a day of rest for the American troops at the Marine compound in Beirut. Sgt. Steve Russell stood guard duty early that morning when he heard a yellow flatbed truck rev its engine and head for the entrance. The truck, carrying the equivalent of 21,000 pounds of TNT, exploded. Sgt. Russell survived, but the attack killed 241 America troops, mainly Marines, who had come to Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission. Fifty-eight French soldiers died in another attack across town.

Those behind the terrorist attacks on Oct. 23, 1983, included three players — the same trio the United States faces in Syria today. Iran supplied the money and training. Syria provided the materials. Hezbollah, then known as Islamic Jihad, handled the logistics on the ground. All three have repeatedly denied any involvement.

Simply put, the United States has been fighting this axis of evil for nearly 30 years, without much success. Why do we think we will have any more success, with a limited response, in the present crisis?

The media didn't pay much attention to the lessons of Beirut because the focus turned almost immediately to the U.S. invasion of Grenada, which happened two days later.

As a reporter for ABC News at the time, I saw the results of the Marine compound bombing, which stands as one of the most devastating in the history of the U.S. military. Correspondent Tom Jarriel and I investigated what happened for "20/20," which found a lack of an overall military strategy and the failure of U.S. intelligence services to alert the Beirut command about an imminent attack.

Retired Maj. Robert Jordan, who was the chief spokesman in Beirut, said he believes lessons can be applied from those experiences to today.

"Don't commit your forces unless you have a clear mission, overwhelming resources and the will to win," he told me.

As Congress and the Obama administration craft a declaration of war against Syria, it is important to remember that every military action usually creates a reaction. If the United States bombs Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, a host of countries may take at least some form of political action: China, Russia and others. It is likely Israel and the United States will see a military reaction through an increase in terrorist attacks from Iranian and Syrian agents like Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon.

Maj. Jordan sees the need for an overall plan rather than an isolated attack. "Countering terrorism is a long-term, insidious, heartbreaking and tedious effort that must be addressed proactively, aggressively and with great intensity and resolve or it will grow like untreated cancer cells," he said.

I think the key sentiment here is long term. The United States has become comfortable with easy, but temporary, solutions, such as launching cruise missiles at Syria. I believe the proposed plan is far too little, too late and should not be adopted.

Maj. Jordan and I agree the Obama administration, Congress and the American public need to agree on a plan that attacks our enemies in an aggressive and ongoing way. But he and I also agree that the country lacks the political will after Afghanistan and Iraq to engage in such a strategy. As a result, the government also lacks that will.

The United States is "not willing to pay the price to win," Maj. Jordan said.

The Marines limped out of Beirut a few months after the attack, emboldening groups like Hezbollah and countries like Iran and Syria. It will take much more than 60 days or 90 days — the proposed limits for U.S. action against Syria — and a symbolic bombing to address the continuing battles the United States faces against its enemies.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com or on Twitter at @charper51.