TIME Terrorism

Beirut vs. Benghazi: 4 Lessons

Contrasting the nation’s reactions to a pair of terror attacks over 30 years apart

Tuesday’s congressional probe into the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya—yes, another one, the second so far in this young year—is the latest volley fired at the Obama Administration.

The report contends the Administration’s neglect allowed the attack, which killed four Americans, including U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, to take place. “White House officials failed to comprehend or ignored the dramatically deteriorating security situation in Libya and the growing threat to U.S. interests in the region,” it concludes.

It’s not only the second report issued this year. It’s the second Benghazi report in a year whose lead author is Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

It’s worth looking back 30 years to how another California Republican—Ronald Reagan—and a Congress of the opposing party handled a similar event, the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. troops. There are many similarities, and one key difference.

Shadowy groups carried out both attacks, making retaliation difficult. A little-known group calling itself Islamic Jihad, which would eventually grow into Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for the Beirut blast. It would take 20 years before clear evidence linking Iran to those who carried out the attack surfaced. The insurgents who attacked Benghazi were also a murky group, although they do appear to have some links to al Qaeda.

Lesson #1: The world’s leading military power is routinely subject to attacks by irregular forces. Enough bad guys with peashooters can blind a giant every once in awhile. Defending against all such attacks is impossible; judgment is required to defend against those deemed most likely. Sometimes that judgment is wrong. Not evil or neglectful. Just, unfortunately, wrong.

There had been warnings that something bad was going to happen. In Beirut, the U.S. deployed troops as peacekeepers into the middle of a Lebanese civil war, and then was seen to be taking sides when U.S. warships fired their guns at Muslim targets a month before the bombing. There had been repeated attacks on Westerners in Libya prior to the strikes on the U.S. diplomatic outposts in Benghazi.

Lesson #2: See Lesson #1, above.

Retaliation in both cases was anemic. In 1983, the USS New Jersey only began firing mammoth 16-inch shells at Druze and Syrian positions nearly two months after the bombing. Weakening congressional support for the mission led Reagan to order a U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon less than four months afterward. The less-then-forceful response emboldened Hezbollah and its sponsors. No one has been punished for the Benghazi attack, which the Obama Administration has transformed into a legal case. That has left the military on the sidelines—even if the U.S. could pinpoint the perpetrators—according to Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Lesson #3: Retaliation against non-state actors is tough. Innocents will die and some of the guilty will escape. Better to go after their sponsors, assuming the evidence of their role is airtight.

A Pentagon investigation into the Beirut bombing blamed military officers for the vulnerabilities that led to the attack, although Reagan took responsibility, too. “’If there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this office and with this President,” he said.

Obama said much the same a month after Benghazi. “I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there,” he said, “because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home.”

While that earlier House report, released in April 2013, was labeled an “interim progress report,” Tuesday’s was labeled a “Majority Interim Report: Benghazi Investigation Update.” There is little new in the second report, but these titles suggest you may keep on reading reports like this for some time. In fact, last week House Speaker John Boehner unveiled a new page on the Republican Party’s website that includes reams of Benghazi documents.

“This site brings the facts straight to the American people by way of hundreds of pages of documents and transcripts the White House doesn’t want you to read,” Boehner’s office said in a statement (underlined in the original) unveiling the site. “The investigation is ongoing, and the search for truth continues, so new documents will be added as they are made available.”

Reagan’s White House was split over the deployment of U.S. troops to Lebanon; Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger opposed it. That was a political opening big enough to drive a 19-ton yellow Mercedes truck through, just like the one that destroyed the barracks. Yet the Beirut bombing never became the political cudgel that Benghazi has become for Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have been swinging it ever since the fires in Benghazi burned themselves out.

Lesson #4: That is the key difference between the two events. It speaks volumes about how partisan tragedy has become.

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STR / AFP / Getty Images

The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Sept. 11, 2012.

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