Two decades ago, Ronald Reagan committed his greatest foreign-policy blunder: intervening in Lebanon’s civil war.  After Muslim opponents of the bedraggled Lebanese government targeted U.S. diplomats and Marines to deadly effect, however, he “redeployed” U.S. forces to ships offshore and sailed away.  Now, the Bush administration risks sliding back into the Lebanese imbroglio.

The bloody murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri has led to calls for the United States to force Syria, which retains paramount influence over her smaller neighbor, to withdraw her 14,000 occupying troops.  Some Syrian exiles are even calling for regime change, which, in practice, would require a U.S. invasion.

The President’s rhetoric has been measured, but the administration has withdrawn the U.S. ambassador, Margaret  Scobey, and is threatening to expand sanctions beyond those embodied in last year’s Syrian Accountability Act.  Limiting the movement of Syrian diplomats, freezing Syrian assets, and banning investment and trade are possibilities.

Lebanon turned from a tolerant commercial oasis of stability into a fulcrum of hellish conflict when she descended into civil war in 1975 after the carefully crafted Christian-Muslim power-sharing arrangement collapsed.  The conflict was complicated by Syrian intervention with as many as 42,000 soldiers over the years, the Israeli invasion in response to Palestinian terrorism, and the slaughter of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese falangists allied with Israel.

The United States entered Lebanon in 1982, along with France and Italy, nominally as a peacekeeper.  In fact, Washington acted as an ally of the minority Christian government that ruled little more than Beirut.  Then, Washington sharply stepped up military operations.  On February 18, 1984, the Washington Post headlined an article “Pentagon Keeps Details on Shelling Secret.”  It reported on “the heaviest U.S. naval bombardment since the Vietnam war” and widespread concern about civilian deaths.  A Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that “there may have been some [civilian casualties] and that would be unfortunate.”  America’s professed good intentions did not matter at that stage.  Violent antagonism towards the United States was inevitable.

There was no compelling reason for Washington to have intervened in this civil war.  The United States had no serious security interests in Lebanon; America’s political concerns were mostly indirect, through Israel.

Yet the United States became an active combatant in the bitter fight.  Thus, the barracks bombing, which killed 241 Marines, was not an act of terrorism, in contrast to the World Trade Center attack, but an assault on the military forces of a perceived enemy power that had wreaked devastation on local Druze and Muslim communities.  The bombings demonstrated that America cannot go to war and then claim immunity from retaliation on the battlefield.

In one of his finest moments, President Reagan retreated.  He never admitted how badly he had blundered, but he obviously recognized his mistake.  Although he talked tough, he brought the U.S. forces home.

The Lebanese civil war eventually burned out in 1990.  Since then, the country has enjoyed a substantial renaissance, much of it under former premier Hariri.  Once friendly to Syria, he broke with Damascus last year and was expected to do well in upcoming parliamentary elections.  His murder has stoked fears of renewed conflict.

Reagan’s retreat from Lebanon was widely applauded at home but derided by some as immoral abandonment of a suffering people and appeasement of Islamic terrorists.  And it has become part of the litany of supposed examples of weakness that encouraged Osama bin Laden to attack the United States.

For instance, Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, denounced Reagan for having “abandoned the Lebanese to a long night of Syrian hegemony, to an extended period of militia rule, and to six more years of civil war.”  Former CIA Director James Woolsey complained that Washington “ran” after the barracks bombing, which, along with such incidents as the United States refusing to aid the Kurds and Shiites against Saddam Hussein and leaving Somalia after the killing of 18 Army Rangers in Mogadishu, created a perception of cowardice that encouraged anti-American terrorists.

Apparently both Young and Woolsey believe the United States should have escalated her military involvement, crushed opposing Muslim and Druze forces, occupied the entire country, sorted out the complicated interests of competing factions, reordered the political system, and engaged in good old-fashioned nation-building.  The mind boggles.

At least in Iraq, most of the population is pleased to have been freed from Saddam Hussein’s rule.  The majority of Lebanese would not have welcomed a U.S. invasion, and many would have violently opposed an American occupation.  Many Lebanese Druze and Muslims who had suffered attacks by Palestinian guerrillas quickly turned against Israeli forces after initially welcoming them.

The Lebanese would not have been spared six more years of war.  Rather, the conflict simply would have taken a different turn with America involved.  U.S. soldiers and Marines would have died for nothing that any of their grieving family members would have recognized as an important, let alone vital, American interest.

Ultimately, Washington would have been faced with the same issue as in 1984: how to get out without losing face.  Given the lack of any reasonable hope that an American invasion and occupation could have fixed Lebanon, let alone done so at an acceptable cost, the “abandonment” and “appeasement” would only have been postponed.

Twenty years later, Washington’s options look little better.  Diplomatic and economic pressure might moderate Syria’s behavior, but, today, the United States should be most concerned with choking off any support for Iraqi insurgents operating from Syrian territory.  Moreover, Damascus obviously has long viewed Lebanon as a key security interest.  It won’t abandon its dominant position lightly.

Nor is regime change going to come through any combination of carrots and sticks, short of military action.  The dubious experience of the Iraqi National Congress demonstrates how difficult it is for Washington to create an effective opposition movement, no matter how lavish the subsidies it provides.

War would be a bad option at any time, but especially now, as U.S. forces are badly stretched by the brutal and apparently still growing insurgency in Iraq.  Americans are patriotic, but there likely is a limit on how many wars they will volunteer to fight.  Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that, even now, the United States would have trouble quickly responding to an emergency in Iran or North Korea.

At least Baghdad looked like it might pose a threat to the United States.  Syria does not.  Asks Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution: “Are we ready to have people die for the sake of Lebanon’s freedom from Syria?”

Serious analysts warned the Bush administration that military action against Iraq would inflame antagonism toward America.  Now CIA Director Porter J. Goss tells the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that “Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists.”  War with Syria would bring more of the same.

The current government in Damascus is an ugly regime, though it probably does not quite meet “Axis of Evil” standards.  Although Syria may have worried about the possibility of Hariri returning to power, there is no proof of Syrian involvement in his death.  Indeed, Damascus surely would have realized that suspicion would immediately fall on it, creating a public-relations disaster.

The Baathist rulers in Damascus may be thugs, but they are not threats to America.  Washington should confront Syria over the activities of Iraqi insurgents, not over the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon.  The Lebanese tragedy never seems to end, but the United States already has enough wars to fight.