The Lebanese groups that have attacked Americans over the past two years have repeatedly made clear their intention to eliminate the American presence from Lebanon. Yet the American reaction has been to disbelieve them. This is a serious mistake that has cost many lives and, unless repaired, promises to consume many more.
Americans must recognize that the terrorists mean just what they say — and must face up to the stark choice that this poses. Appeasing the terrorists would mean withdrawing every American from Lebanon. Deciding to stay, however would commit the United States to use all means necessary, including ones costly and unpleasant, to protect American citizens and interests in Lebanon.
Consider the following sequence of events. In 1983, the United States Embassy in Beirut and the Marine barracks were bombed. In the first 10 months of 1984, the president of the American University in Beirut was assassinated, the embassy was bombed a second time and three Americans — a missionary, a television correspondent and a diplomat — were kidnapped.
In November 1984, a Shiite group tied to many of these attacks threatened to continue the violence. "We, the Islamic Jihad organization, warn … that we shall blow up all American interests in Beirut and any part of Lebanon…. We address this warning to every American individual residing in Lebanon."
In the next two months, a librarian was abducted and two Americans were tortured and killed by Lebanese Shiites in a hijacked plane. The American Embassy in Rome would have been bombed but for superior police work. Finally, an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence M. Jenco, was kidnapped in Beirut on Jan. 8.
Three days later, Islamic Jihad renewed its threat: "After the pledge that we have made to the world that no Americans would remain on the soil of Lebanon and after the ultimatum we have served on American citizens to leave Beirut, our answer to the indifferent response was the kidnapping of Mr. Jenco….All Americans should leave Lebanon."
In reply, a State Department spokesman declared: "The U.S. is not going to be forced out of Lebanon." Islamic Jihad then answered that all five American hostages would be tried on charges of spying.
Islamic Jihad has repeatedly declared its goal to be the complete extirpation of the American presence in Lebanon — commercial, educational, journalistic and religious as well as governmental.
Although this intention could hardly be stated more emphatically or pursued more directly, American observers hesitate to take Islamic Jihad at its word. The audacity of its goal makes it seem implausible. Americans are accustomed to enmity based on political differences, not to hatred of their culture. The belief persists that the attacks are connected to specific policy goals. That Islamic Jihad aims to root out American influence, not change Washington's policy, remains unrecognized.
Ignoring Islamic Jihad's explicit ambition fits a long tradition of paying inadequate attention to statements of intent that sound too strange to be plausible. Adolf Hitler spelled out his intentions in "Mein Kampf" but they were considered too outlandish to be taken seriously. Likewise, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini detailed his plans for an Islamic government in writing, but very few took him at his word.
Must the Islamic Jihad's vision of eliminating American influence be treated in similar fashion? That its aims do not fit familiar rubrics is no reason to discount them.
Americans must own up to the choice they face—withdrawing or resisting with every means at hand. If they decide to stay, they must be prepared to do combat with a determined enemy, by violent means if necessary, at considerable cost in American lives.
Should the price of staying be deemed too high, America should withdraw now, before more lives are lost. If standing firm be the choice, as the State Department seemed to indicate, then the threat posed by Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organization must be countered.
Daniel Pipes associate professor of strategy at the United States Naval War College in Newport R.I., is author of "In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power."