Republican attacks on Benghazi are totally overblown, Hillary Clinton says. The Democrats didn’t act this way when something similar happened under President Ronald Reagan.
At a CNN town hall for Democratic presidential candidates, an audience member asked how the former secretary of state will work with Congress in responding to the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in the Libyan city. Clinton said the Republican-led inquiries continue to exist only for a partisan purpose.
"When Ronald Reagan was president in 1983, our Marine barracks, our embassy were attacked in Beirut," she said at the Jan. 25 event in Iowa. "More than 250 Americans were killed. The Democrats didn’t make that a partisan issue. So, the Democratic Congress worked with the Republican president to say what can we do? How do we fix this?"
The April and October 1983 attacks happened when Democrats held the House, and Reagan’s reelection was around the corner. We wondered if the Lebanon bombings really did rise above partisan politics.
We consulted experts and read numerous media accounts from the time and found that Clinton has a point that Congress’ reaction to Beirut was more muted than its reaction to Benghazi. Still, criticizing Reagan over Beirut was a big talking point for some Democrats.
Muffled congressional reaction
Reagan sent 800 Marines to Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission in 1982, partly in the interest in stymying Soviet Union influence. They found themselves in the middle of a civil war.
In April 1983, Hezbollah terrorists killed 17 Americans in a suicide bombing at the embassy in Beirut. Six months later, a truck carrying another Hezbollah suicide bomber drove onto Marine barracks in the same city, detonating thousands of pounds of explosives and killing 241 American service personnel. Reagan pulled the Marines out in February 1984.
Like the 2012 Benghazi attack, which killed four Americans, questions quickly arose about inadequate security at the Beirut Marine compound. The truck carrying the suicide bomber broke through several barriers before crashing into the building where the Marines slept.
Also like Benghazi, the two Beirut attacks happened when opposing parties held the White House and the House of Representatives. In 1983, Republicans held the White House, and Democrats held the House, vice versa in 2012.
Here’s where the similarities in congressional reaction unravel. Unlike Benghazi, the 1983 Democratic House only launched one investigation into the Beirut attack, lasting a few months. Compare that to at least six Republican House Benghazi inquiries, one of which is still going on more than three years since the attack. Further, representatives from both parties largely agreed on the Beirut report’s findings, while Democrats for the most part oppose the Benghazi investigations.
Democrats’ response to Beirut was more about preventing a future attack and less about playing politics, said Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress and assistant secretary of defense under Reagan from 1981-85.
He added that the Beirut attacks (and other significant foreign policy events under Reagan) pushed Democrats and Republicans to work together to pass a significant bill that rearranged how different branches of the military worked together.
"It wasn’t partisan, people just wanted to know what happened," Korb said. "No one was saying ‘fire general so-and-so’ or anything like that."
Within 48 hours of the Beirut bombings, the United States invaded the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, which might have played a role in muffling Congress’ reaction to the Beirut bombings, said Stephen Knott, national security professor at the U.S. Naval War College and former director of the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project at the University of Virginia.
Knott said the reaction to Grenada was partisan, noting that several House Democrats moved to impeach Reagan. And many Democrats still think the invasion was an attempt to redirect attention away from Beirut, an allegation Knott said is incorrect.
"The reaction to (Grenada) allowed critics to pounce on Reagan's policies without seeming to appear to capitalize on the deaths of American Marines," Knott said. "The Reagan years were hardly an idyllic era of foreign policy bipartisanship."
Even if formal congressional reaction to the Beirut bombings was limited, the attacks played a big role in political rhetoric over the next year.
The day after the 1983 bombings, the New York Times ran a story about how Democrats were preparing to campaign on the Lebanon attacks during the upcoming presidential primary. Eventual 1984 Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who served as Jimmy Carter’s vice president, called out Reagan personally for slacking on Lebanon.
''During all this time, the president is on vacation in California,"' Mondale said in February 1984. ''If the nation is in trouble, the president of the United States should be at the helm. I recommend today Mr. Reagan get on that plane to come back to Washington and answer our questions.''
Mondale also said, following another attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1984, that through lax security, Reagan had allowed Lebanese terrorists to ''humiliate us and push us around and kill our people.''
On the congressional side, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., called the the Reagan administration’s foreign policy "frightening" — despite generally supporting Reagan’s efforts abroad previously.
The following April, Reagan said Congressional criticism of his administration’s efforts in Lebanon and calls for troop removal had opened the gates to terrorists, according to the New York Times.
''The deaths of the U.S. Marines are the responsibility of the President of the United States,'' O’Neill responded. ''He acted against the wishes of our top military in this country, and now he is looking for a scapegoat.''
To sum it up: Beirut wasn’t immune to politics.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether rhetoric signifies partisan attacks or simply true policy opinion differences, Matthew Beckmann, a political science professor at the University of California Irvine who has studied Reagan’s relationship with Congress. He noted, though, that research shows partisan disagreement has become more reflexive and entrenched since the 1980s.
"So officials' reactions and reporters' coverage of Beirut vis-a-vis Benghazi are surely different, quantitatively and qualitatively, but that says more about systemic changes in Washington politics than changes in leaders' personal virtue," he said.
Clinton said that when terrorists killed more than 250 Americans in Lebanon under Ronald Reagan, "the Democrats didn’t make that a partisan issue."
Clinton has a strong point that the Democrat-held House did not react as forcefully to the 1983 Beirut bombings as the Republican-held House reacted to the 2012 Benghazi attack, which killed four. The House conducted a single investigation into the Beirut bombings, which killed more than 250 Americans, while it has conducted six inquiries into Benghazi, which killed four.
But it’s not totally accurate to say the Democrats didn’t make it a partisan issue. Mondale, running against Reagan in 1984, and some congressional Democrats repeatedly said Reagan had failed personally regarding Lebanon.
We rate Clinton’s partially accurate claim Half True.