The Crisis Areas: The Middle East: War Dangers and Receding Peace Prospects

American peacekeeping turned into American bloodletting in 1983. More than any event since the war and oil embargo almost exactly ten years earlier, the October 23 suicide bombing of Marine headquarters in Beirut brought the Middle East conflict home directly to vast numbers of Americans stunned by the carnage that eventually claimed 241 lives-more casualties than in any other single incident since the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.

The terrorist attack that Sunday morning was a pivotal event of 1983 for American policy. It symbolized the year's shift in Washington's agenda, away from the overall Arab-Israeli peace process and toward the acute dangers of the deepened Lebanese morass left in the wake of Israel's invasion of that country in 1982. It signaled, as later developments would confirm, that the United States was edging toward military confrontation with Soviet-backed Syria, which Washington charged with complicity in the bombing attack and which had become Washington's principal adversary in a struggle over the future of Lebanon. It severely strained the uneasy consensus in the United States behind policy in Lebanon, particularly the decision to keep the Marines there, and by year-end the consensus cracked wide open.

America's longstanding policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict had been fashioned by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the tense, waning days of the 1973 Middle East War. Underlying this policy were three premises deceptively simple to state but monumentally difficult to convert into practice: America's supreme national interest is to avoid an Arab-Israeli war that embroils the superpowers; an American-brokered negotiating process promising the Israelis peace and security and the Arabs the return of territories lost in 1967 must be the engine of Middle East peacemaking; this peace process must eventually embrace, or appear to hold out the prospect of embracing, Israel's relationships with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and-somehow-the Palestinians.

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