Beirut Rules: The Murder of Chief and Hezbollah’s War Against America
By Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz
Berkley. 2018, 400 Pages
Reading Beirut Rules takes us back to the unhappy 1980s when American diplomats, spies and the military would be assigned to the Middle East—a complex and dangerous region that very few of them understood—and became sitting ducks for increasingly sophisticated terrorists who were financed and directed by Iran.
We cringe at the hour-by-hour details of a suicide bombing that destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon’s capital in April 1983 (killing 63 people), another a half-year later that toppled the nearby Marines base (killing 241 Americans) and the embarrassingly easy kidnapping of the CIA station chief, William F. Buckley, in March 1984. As detailed by interviews with largely anonymous sources and hidden documents, Buckley was tortured and ultimately murdered by his Hezbollah abductors.
The CIA man’s ordeal is the central drama of this account, an understandable focus for co-author Fred Burton, who regrets that when he was a State Department diplomatic security officer, he and his colleagues could not locate and rescue Buckley.
Yet the book has a lot more: much of it familiar to readers who have closely followed Middle East events for four decades or more, but a powerful reminder of how awful this era was. Mass murder by men and women brainwashed into blowing themselves up was a new weapon, stunningly effective against supposed superpowers such as the United States.
The early chapters also highlight the painful casualties suffered by the Israel Defense Forces after its invasion of Lebanon in 1982—“a quagmire, spiraling into an endless cycle of casualties and eventually becoming Israel’s Vietnam.” Indeed, the IDF did not extricate itself for 18 years, and even since 2000 a constant low-level conflict continues against the Iran-backed Lebanese Shi’ites of Hezbollah.
Burton, now a vice president at the security consultancy firm Stratfor, and his co-author Samuel M. Katz, a New Yorker who has become an expert on Israel’s military, have assembled an almost dizzying archive of names and facts. Yet they also tease us with black rectangles that block us from reading a few words—and sometimes entire lines.
Big black deletions can be annoying, but they also add the intrigue of making us wonder what that missing word or line possibly could be? Burton and Katz may simply be showing off, one might think, that they know more than they can possibly tell us. When they describe, in detail, the torture meted out by Iranian and Hezbollah kidnappers to the CIA’s Buckley—and other hostages—it is surprising that some of the particulars cannot be published.
The redactions do give us a realistic sense of what it is like for officials and members of Congress to read reports—reluctantly and partially shared by the intelligence community—that are similarly censored.
To be clear, there is no reason to suspect that anything has been invented. Burton and Katz are highly reputable, and copious footnotes show that they have interviewed many witnesses and participants who have first-hand knowledge.
The authors’ knowledge of the Middle East’s sad realities is also clear. For instance, they mention an American peace envoy’s “noble” efforts, but then add: “Bloodshed was always the end result of such altruistic intentions.”
The worst of the villains in this deep dive into Lebanon of the 1980s is Imad Mughniyeh, and the book tracks him from childhood through his work as a vicious PLO bodyguard and then Hezbollah’s most capable terrorist. Burton and Katz report various versions of Mughniyeh’s violent end—killed by a car bomb in Damascus, Syria, in 2008, that Israeli sources describe as a rare, joint assassination mission by the CIA and the Mossad.
Like almost any non-fiction nowadays, this book could have benefited from a tough editor who would have steered the authors away from overly repeated words—such as describing one particular terrorist’s “ambition” several times within a paragraph or two.
Yet somehow there is an apt irony in noting that Western approaches to the Middle East also suffer from repetition. Well-meaning outsiders got involved in Lebanon, which turned into a horrendous death trap; and then we were trapped in Afghanistan, Iraq, and to some degree in a string of unstable nations—with sometimes naive peace plans torn apart by the perpetually murderous intentions of our enemies.
If you are somehow optimistic about an American peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians in the coming year, Beirut Rules is a sobering reminder that success is highly unlikely. There is, however, the tiny possibility that lessons were learned from one of the worst periods of violence in Lebanon, the beautiful but cursed country just north of Israel.