Mattia Toaldo’s monograph is a meticulous reconstruction of the path toward the War on Terror many years before September 2001 and an examination of U.S. counter-terrorism policy under Ronald Reagan in the early and mid-1980s. Offering two case studies of U.S. counterterrorism strategies—the crisis in Lebanon and the confrontation with Muammar Gaddafi of Libya—Toaldo traces the evolution of a policy that focused on military action in response to terrorist acts. The Origins of the U.S. War on Terror underscores the impact of the Cold War framework on Reagan’s strategy against state-sponsored terrorism and demonstrates the administration’s failure to understand that the events in the Middle East were being influenced by regional dynamics and the rise of political Islam rather than by Moscow-based puppet masters.
In the introduction, Toaldo describes the first War on Terror as a consequence of two crucial events in 1979: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to a resurgence of the Cold War; and the Iran hostage crisis. Toaldo highlights the misperceptions that were prevalent during the Carter and Reagan administrations about the Soviet move into Afghanistan, which U.S. officials construed not so much as an attempt to consolidate power but as a new phase of Soviet expansionism. Likewise, they misinterpreted the events around the Iranian revolution as a larger Soviet plot to take over the Middle East, which held great strategic importance for the United States, not least because of its oil supplies.
In chapter 1, Toaldo shows the Cold War dimension of Reagan’s Middle East policy and his administration’s determination to counter Soviet influence and win back [End Page 186] U.S. prestige. Fighting terror was part and parcel of this endeavor. Toaldo also gives an account of the longer-term relationships between the United States and Middle Eastern countries, especially Lebanon and Libya. Against the backdrop of a special relationship with Israel, the cement that held Reagan’s domestic coalition together, Israeli and U.S. threat perceptions progressively aligned and provided the foundation for U.S. involvement in the Lebanese civil war. Moreover, U.S. adherence to modernization theories in the Middle East yielded paradoxical results. They led to the overthrow of pro-American regimes and the rule of dictators who were hostile to the United States.
Chapter 2 focuses on U.S. involvement in Lebanon and the Beirut bombing of October 1983, which saw 241 U.S. soldiers killed. This situation was presaged by the Reagan administration’s acceptance of Israeli Cold War rhetoric to counter the threat from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin also successfully employed the thesis put forth by Claire Sterling in her controversial book The Terror Network: The Secret War of International Terrorism (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1981) to construct links between Palestinian terrorism and a bigger Soviet ploy to win control over the Middle East. In that sense, “Lebanon [became] a testing ground for the global Cold War” (p. 92). As a consequence of the increasing U.S. involvement in the Lebanese civil war, the United States became a target of the Hezbollah predecessor Islamic Jihad.
As chapter 3 shows, the notion of a war on terrorism was developed under the auspices of Secretary of State George Shultz in response to the 241 body bags returning to the United States. National Security Decision Directive 138, though highly controversial internally and lacking coherence, became official policy and laid the grounds for a military approach to terrorism. In the document, however, “[l]ittle attention was devoted to the nature of the enemy—its goals, its organization, its ideology—while the focus was on the need to retaliate” (p. 97). The policy line remained vague, and even Vice President George W. Bush’s Task Force on Combating Terrorism of July 1985 did not produce a more feasible and useful strategy. One of the major rhetorical challenges was the administration’s differentiation between “terrorists” (Hezbollah for instance...