Chapter 6: Lebanon: 1982-1984

by John H. Kelly *

Prologue

In Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, there is a Cedar of Lebanon. It stands over a small memorial. The Cedar marks the graves of some of the more than 300 American military, embassy, and civilian personnel who were killed in Beirut in the 1980s. On October 23 each year there is a remembrance service on the anniversary of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks. I have had the sad honor of speaking at two of these remembrance services. Just as we remember our dead, it is worth remembering why we sent the Marines to Beirut and what we did wrong so that we can try to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Introduction

American military intervention in Lebanon in the 1980s was influenced by the historical precedent of 1958, when the United States landed Marines in Beirut. In 1958, using the leverage provided by 14,000 troops put ashore, U.S. policymakers calmed civil disturbances, selected the next president of Lebanon, and extracted the force without significant incident or casualties. The U.S. deployment concluded after three months with only one American fatality, killed by a sniper.[1]

This use of force by President Dwight D. Eisenhower was widely viewed as a successful example of furthering American objectives by power projection. To some U.S. decisionmakers in 1982, the earlier precedent meant that the United States might be able to repeat the feat at reasonable cost--in money, lives, and prestige. To many Lebanese and regional players, it meant that the United States could be counted on to restore order and solve problems. This latter perception offered a convenient excuse for shifting responsibility onto American shoulders and avoiding the necessity of making difficult decisions.

The Lebanon of 1982 was, however, far different from that of 1958. With an active Israeli invasion of Lebanon underway, a besieged set of Palestinian fighters, a Syrian expeditionary force on the ground, and dozens of separate armed Lebanese factions already embroiled in lethal contests and active warfare for the previous seven years, Lebanon was a perilous land for well-meaning strangers.

As events unfolded, American decisions were reactive to actions in Lebanon. In many respects there was no clear policy--nothing but immediate tactical objectives and a mission never clearly enunciated for the troops who went ashore. Most dangerous of all was the presence of a variety of terrorist groups which were armed and capable of shaking American resolve.

Decisionmaking in Washington was further hampered by friction between Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and National Security Advisor Robert C. MacFarlane. Emotionalism and hope rather than clear purpose and cold analysis colored the decision-making process. Ultimately there was tragedy for the U.S. Marines and the French troops of the multinational force in Beirut, ignominious withdrawal, and broken promises by the West. After the departure there was a continued morass of war and bloodshed for the Lebanese.

It can also be argued that the Western failure in Lebanon fueled the forces of political Islam and terrorism that continue to threaten stability today and that will threaten well into the next century. It is reasonable to conclude that Saddam Hussein of Iraq also reached some views on American resolve from the Lebanon debacle, which may have fueled his appetite for Kuwait.

The Cold War dimension of the 1982-1984 intervention was far different from Eisenhower's 1958 deployment of the Marines to Lebanon. The 1958 justifications were placed very much in the context of an East-West contest: militant Arab nationalist movements assisted by the Soviets versus pro-Western forces for stability backed by the United States.

In 1982-1984 the justifications were very much linked to regional acts and actors: the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, and the Lebanese factions. Certainly Washington and Moscow had their surrogates and the local actors had their patrons. Indeed, one crude indicator for identifying the loyalties of local fighters was to note whether they carried AK-47 or M-16 rifles. All parties intermittently cloaked their actions in Cold War rhetoric. Yet on several key votes on Lebanon in the United Nations Security Council during the period, the United States and Moscow voted together. The essential factors driving events on the ground, however, were regional and local rather than East versus West.

In 1969, in Cairo the prime minister of Lebanon reached an agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that effectively endorsed Palestinian freedom of action in Lebanon to recruit, arm, train, and employ fighters against Israel. Fatah and other Palestinian factions had long been active among the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanese camps. Through the 1960s the center for armed Palestinian activities had been in Jordan. Then, in 1970, King Hussein of Jordan decided to evict the bulk of armed Palestinians in three weeks of bloody fighting in what the Palestinians call "Black September." One of the major results was the forced migration of a large number of Palestinian fighters from Jordan to Lebanon. There they based their military and economic activities in the fertile environment of the refugee camps. Soon the Palestinians were well on their way to creating what the Lebanese called "a State within the State."

Under the guise of preparing armed resistance to Israel, Palestinians insisted on political, police, and economic control of the refugee camps, as well as access to large areas of South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley that were used for training. This generated increasing friction with the Lebanese population. Clashes over who was in charge between the Palestinians and Lebanese security and military led to armed incidents flaring up all over Lebanon, as the Palestinians were operating from refugee camps in the South, in and around Beirut, and in the North.

Palestinian fighters mounted intermittent cross-border attacks against civilian and military targets in Israel. There were also international terrorist spectaculars, e.g., the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, perpetrated by groups based in Lebanon. In turn, the Israelis struck back at targets and groups across the border in Lebanon.

By 1975, relations between assorted Lebanese groups and the Palestinians had degenerated into open warfare. Lebanese militia groups armed themselves, ostensibly for self-protection from the Palestinians. Soon various Lebanese groups were fighting one another as old feuds revived and new atrocities demanded revenge. This fighting would continue in one form or another until 1990.

In 1976, the Lebanese Christian leadership invited the Syrian Army in for assistance in fighting the Palestinians. An Arab peace-keeping force (usually called the "Arab Deterrent Forces") was subsequently deployed by the Arab League, incorporating into its ranks the Syrian forces. Intermittent cease-fires were followed by new rounds of fighting. The civilian population of all faiths suffered greatly.

In March of 1978, Israel launched a major military incursion into South Lebanon. This prompted a formal statement of "United States Concern With the Territorial Integrity of Lebanon,"[2] calling for Israeli withdrawal and discussing a U.N. role in Lebanon. On March 19, 1978, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 425[3] calling for Israeli withdrawal and establishing an international peace-keeping force for South Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), still deployed at this writing 17 years later. Israel withdrew in 1978, but the cross-border cycle of attack and retaliation continued sporadically.

Intermittent fighting continued in Lebanon, to the dismay of U.S. policymakers. The violence in Lebanon was discussed in the margins of the 1978 Camp David conference, as President Carter stated publicly on September 28, following the Camp David Agreement. Carter referred to the suffering in Lebanon, the involvement of foreign forces and governments, and added: "My commitment has been to strengthen the [President Elias] Sarkis government, politically, economically, and militarily."[4] Carter said that he had discussed Lebanon with President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel. Carter went on to suggest a conference of the Lebanese factions and a "new charter for Lebanon."[5]

Let us dissect Carter's comments for a moment, as they contain the seeds of what would continue in another administration under President Ronald Reagan: an imprecise description of American interests and intentions in Lebanon. Was the American interest:

  1. To relieve the suffering in Lebanon?
  2. To strengthen the "government" against rebellious factions?
  3. To support the Lebanese president against other political/military leaders?
  4. To broker a deal among the foreign powers active in Lebanon?
  5. To convene a conference of the Lebanese factions?
  6. To foster a "new charter" for Lebanon (this refers to a reapportionment of political power to reflect demographic changes in the religious balance)?
At various times over the next decade the United States Government attempted to do all of the above, sometimes all at the same time, sometimes one task at a time. In the range of instruments that could be useful in achieving these goals was U.S. military involvement--as a tool to buttress diplomacy rather than to achieve a military victory. But American military involvement was to come about only as a result of a number of extraordinary events.

Most of the Lebanese factions and leaders already believed that the United States was deeply involved in Lebanon and that the United States was actively backing certain players. As the United States is the primary supplier of arms to Israel, many Lebanese and Palestinians in Lebanon counted the United States as an active player in Lebanon on the side of Israel. Intermittently the U.S. administration reported to the American Congress on "Israel's Possible Violation of the Mutual Defense Agreement of 1952"[6] between the United States and Israel. Such violations were identified as the use of aircraft, armor, artillery, and other equipment for offensive missions across the border in Lebanon, rather than self-defense. Successive Israeli governments maintained that all such raids and incursions were self-defense.

The belief that America was the tacit accomplice of Israel in Lebanon engendered hatred in Lebanese and Palestinian extremist circles. This enmity had fostered the kidnapping and assassination of American Ambassador Francis Melloy and his economic counselor, Robert Waring, in 1976, as they tried to cross the Green Line which separated primarily Muslim West Beirut from primarily Christian East Beirut.

The United States was also widely believed to be supporting the Lebanese Christian militia[7] which received assistance and equipment from Israel. In addition, the United States was known to have a close relationship with the intelligence arm of the Lebanese Armed Forces. The United States was also seen as backing Lebanese President Elias Sarkis (viz. Carter statement above).

Thus, despite the best of intentions or assertions in Washington, the United States was not viewed in Lebanon as a neutral actor in the Lebanese equation. The United States was also widely seen as a power broker in selecting Lebanese presidents, as during the American military intervention of 1958 when the United States foreclosed a second term of office for President Camille Chamoun and arranged the election of Army Commander General Fuad Shehab as president.[8]

Early in the first term of President Ronald Reagan, the United States went to extraordinary lengths to publicly support Lebanese President Elias Sarkis and his government. In a public letter only months after taking office, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig offered "respect and admiration for the courageous efforts . . . " of President Sarkis in the face of renewed crises in Lebanon.[9] On May 5, 1981, President Reagan appointed Ambassador Philip C. Habib as the president's special emissary to the Middle East, "in order to defuse the tensions and to create an atmosphere . . . for resolving the crisis by peaceful means and forestalling a confrontation."[10] By that point the recurrent violence had included the Israeli Air Force shooting down Syrian helicopters, controversy over Syrian Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems deployed in Lebanon, and a high level of intra-factional fighting within Lebanon. In Washington, Syria was labeled as a Soviet surrogate in the Lebanese equation.

President Reagan chose as his emissary one of America's premier career diplomats and a notable Lebanese-American in the person of Philip Habib, who had recently retired after a distinguished record, primarily in East Asia. By naming an emissary, Reagan had increased the level of American involvement in Lebanon. Habib, widely admired for his activism and dynamism, was unlikely to diminish the American role.

Cross-border conflict between Israel and the various forces in Southern Lebanon had continued at differing levels of intensity since 1978 when U.N. Resolution 425 was adopted. Civilians on both sides and U.N. peacekeepers were killed as the fighting ebbed and flowed in the South. The Israeli-supported local Lebanese militia in the south under Saad Haddad regularly fought armed Palestinians with little regard for non-combatants. The U.S. government during the Carter administration had several times joined in U.N. condemnations of Israeli raids and reprisals in South Lebanon, always condemning simultaneously terrorist cross-border activities.

On July 20, 1981, Secretary Haig announced that the United States would "defer" delivery of ten F-16 fighter aircraft to Israel, partially in reaction to the June Israeli air attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor, but also to pressure Israel to reduce the level of violence in Lebanon (Israel had struck downtown Beirut with bombing raids against PLO targets).[11] Habib was in Israel negotiating a cease-fire for the border area, and on July 24 he announced that all hostile military action between Lebanese and Israeli territory in either direction would cease.[12] That cease-fire across the border in South Lebanon held for the next eleven months in spite of minor violations (Habib's description).

In early June of 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with massive force, driving all the way to Beirut and putting the Palestinian fighters and residents, as well as the Lebanese civilian population of that city, under siege. Amidst a great international furor the scene was set for a Western military intervention.[13] Israel justified its breech of the previous cross-border cease-fire by citing the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London and a build-up of Palestinian armaments in South Lebanon.

On June 6, President Reagan, in France to meet with the G-7 Heads of Government at the Versailles Economic Summit, dispatched Habib to Israel to try to restore the cease-fire. That same day the United States joined a unanimous U.N. Security Council Resolution demanding that Israel withdraw from Lebanon and that the border cease-fire be observed by all parties.[14]

As the fighting continued, the first public suggestion that U.S. military forces might be deployed to Lebanon occurred midway through a June 9, 1982 press conference by Secretary Haig in Bonn, Germany, where President Reagan was making a State visit. Haig was asked whether in view of the role of U.S. forces in the Sinai, might the United States contribute troops to UNIFIL? Haig responded:

"I think it's too early to say. . . . It would depend fundamentally upon the mission, the composition of the force, the political mandate under which such an American contribution might evolve. It isn't something that I think we're leaning heavily in the direction of at all."[15]
Four days later, Haig was asked on a Sunday talk show: "To facilitate an Israeli withdrawal . . . would you be willing to see American troops put into a peace-keeping force?" Haig responded:
"We have not given serious thought to U.S. participation in the peacekeeping in Lebanon . . . we're going to have to look very, very carefully at what will be necessary to provide a stable situation in Southern Lebanon."[16]
This was Haig's last public comment as secretary of state on the possible role of U.S. troops in Lebanon. In late June he resigned the office, to be replaced on July 16 by George P. Shultz.

Ambassador Philip Habib had been conducting intensive negotiations with the parties in the Lebanese conflict as Beirut continued under Israeli siege. One of the concepts for a negotiated end to the siege would be the deployment of a multinational force to oversee a cease-fire. On July 6, President Reagan announced that he had "agreed in principle to contribute a small contingent of U.S. personnel subject to certain [unspecified] conditions." Reagan placed that decision in the context of bringing "peace and stability to the Middle East. . . . "[17] Habib continued his negotiations throughout July and into August, as the siege of Beirut intensified. The United States joined with other U.N. Security Council members in demanding a cease-fire, voting to censure Israel on August 4. Finally Habib succeeded in negotiating the departure of Yassar Arafat and his PLO fighters.

An essential part of the deal would be the deployment of a Multinational Force (MNF) to facilitate the process. The MNF was to include 800 U.S., 800 French, and 400 Italian troops (the United Kingdom joined the force some months later). The mission of the MNF was described in the August 18 and August 20 Exchange of Diplomatic Notes[18] which constituted an agreement between the governments of Lebanon and the United States for the deployment of 800 military personnel to join the MNF in Beirut. The deployment was to be for 30 days or less.

The agreement (the language of which had been negotiated by Habib and approved in Washington) defined the mandate of the MNF as "to provide appropriate assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces as they carry out" responsibilities for the safe evacuation of the departing PLO, the safety "of the persons in the area" (generally interpreted to mean the Palestinian non-combatants remaining in Beirut), and to "further the restoration of the sovereignty and authority of the Government of Lebanon over the Beirut area." With regard to the safety of Palestinian non-combatants, the agreement stated that "The Governments of Lebanon and the United States will provide appropriate guarantees of safety. . . . "(emphasis added). In reality, the agreement was a vague and open-ended mandate for committing American military personnel.

The Note went on to say that "the American force will not engage in combat. It may, however, exercise the right of self-defense" (emphasis added). In explaining the MNF plan at an August 20 press conference, Secretary Shultz was asked if "a single shot [would] result in an American call-back?" Shultz responded that " . . . We will stay there as long . . . as the basic conditions envisaged for our forces remain in effect."[19] Hours later, Defense Department Spokesman Henry Catto was asked repeatedly about the mission of the United States Marine Corps in Beirut and about hypothetical combat scenarios. Catto was careful to avoid specific responses, but did state: "Suffice it to say that the rules of engagement are adequate to protect our forces if they are fired upon."[20]

On August 25, the Marines went ashore in Beirut, four days after the French troops arrived. The PLO evacuation was completed without significant incident. The Marines redeployed to their ships on September 10. The MNF had succeeded--or had it?

On August 23, 1982, Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite Catholic and the leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF) Christian Militia, was elected president of Lebanon, to succeed Elias Sarkis. Before the inauguration could take place, President-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated in a bomb explosion in East Beirut on September 14. On September 15, Israeli forces moved forward into positions throughout much of West Beirut, prompting a White House call for Israeli withdrawal from West Beirut[21] and a similar demand from the U.N. Security Council.[22]

On September 16-18, an estimated 700-800 Palestinian civilians were massacred in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The world reacted with shock and condemnation.

On September 20, a horrified President Reagan announced the formation of a new MNF in consultation with France and Italy. The force would return to Lebanon for a "limited period of time." He defined the mission as "enabling the Lebanese Government to resume full sovereignty over its capital." Reagan continued that for the MNF "to succeed it is essential that Israel withdraw from Beirut." The president said that the purpose of the MNF was "not to act as a police force, but to make it possible for the lawful authorities of Lebanon to do so themselves."[23]

Thus a new decision re-launched American military involvement in Lebanon. The task to be accomplished was vague in the extreme. The decision was primarily a reflex to the massacre. The motivation was in part guilt that Palestinian non-combatants, whose safety the United States had guaranteed in the Habib plan, had been slaughtered by the hundreds. George Shultz said to a colleague: "The brutal fact is, we are partially responsible."[24] There were voices that argued that had not the MNF withdrawn so hastily following the PLO departure, Sabra and Shatila would not have happened. Deputy National Security Advisor Robert C. McFarlane attributed the hasty pullout to Defense Secretary Weinberger: " . . . as soon as the last [Palestinian] fighter had left Beirut, Weinberger, without consultation or notification, ordered the Marines back aboard ship."[25] McFarlane describes this as "criminally irresponsible."[26]

Weinberger, in turn, wrote that MacFarlane wanted to send in "a major force, of several American divisions. . . . I opposed the whole idea." [27]

There was no quick political plan or military objective that would pull Lebanon out of its agony. A military presence was a visible means of expressing our continued concern for Lebanon. There was hope that the MNF would stabilize the situation--but how it was to do so, none could say. Weinberger wrote: " . . . this MNF would not have any mission that could be defined." [28]

George Shultz was asked the next morning in a television interview: "During the deliberations on sending the Marines back, did any of you--you yourself, perhaps--have the feeling that you were getting on a slippery slope? Did any memories of Vietnam come to mind?" Shultz: "No, I don't think this has any analogous aspect of Vietnam at all."[29] The truth was that there had been serious differences between Shultz and Defense Secretary Weinberger over the mission of the Marines.[30]

That same day, Amine Gemayel, the older brother of assassinated President-elect Bashir Gemayel, was elected president of Lebanon. President Amine Gemayel was inaugurated on September 23.

The new MNF deployment required a new agreement between Lebanon and the United States. In the American exchange of diplomatic notes with Lebanon on September 25, the mandate of the MNF was spelled out: "The mandate of the MNF will be to provide an interposition force (emphasis added) at agreed locations and thereby provide the Multinational presence requested by the Lebanese Government to assist it and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the Beirut area."[31] Again, the agreement stated that the American force would not engage in combat but might exercise the right of self-defense.

And so the mission of the Marines was to be an "interposition force"--a presence--in one of the most dangerous places on earth. Between whom? At locations agreed by whom? These questions were unanswered and would remain so.

President Gemayel of Lebanon tells us that there were significant differences from the start over the role and mission of the MNF. He writes in his account of his presidency that each MNF contributor country insisted on a different formulation in the agreement each signed with the Government of Lebanon. Thus, in the U.S. version the MNF was an "interposition" force and President Reagan so described it publicly, to which French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson responded haughtily: "The French President has never uttered the word `interposition'; this is rather a mission of maintaining peace and protecting the civil population." U.S. Secretary of Defense Weinberger rebutted with: "The MNF is not a force to maintain peace, it is a deterrent force."[32] The differences and confusion among the allies in the MNF were widely noted by friends and enemies in Lebanon but evoked little comment in Washington.

The administration's public demeanor was firm. President Reagan told a press conference on September 28: "And the Marines are going in there into a situation with a definite understanding as to what we're supposed to do. I believe that we are going to be successful in seeing the other foreign forces leave Lebanon. And then at such time as Lebanon says that they have the situation well in hand, why, we'll depart."[33] In notifying the Congress of the deployment, President Reagan wrote, "Although isolated acts of violence can never be ruled out, all appropriate precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel during their temporary deployment in Lebanon."[34]

On September 29, the first elements of some 1,200 Marines began to arrive in Beirut. Over the next year the number would creep up to 1,800 or so. A month later the Marines' mission seemed no better defined. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was asked at an October 28 press conference about the size and duration of the mission for the Marines in Beirut. Weinberger answered: "What we need is a multinational force until certain conditions have been achieved. Nobody knows when those conditions can be achieved. It is not an open-ended commitment. . . . "[35]

During the autumn of 1982, the presence of the Marines in Beirut began to take on an additional meaning which was never publicly acknowledged. The Marines became a bargaining chip in the complex international maneuvering that the United States was fostering. There were active negotiations among the United States, Israel, and Lebanon over the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the terms of a possible treaty between Lebanon and Israel. The presence of the Marines provided leverage in putting pressure on the Government of Lebanon to accede to Israeli demands. The presence implied some measure of protection for the Lebanese authorities against those Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Arabs who adamantly opposed any normalization between Lebanon and Israel.

There was a stillborn negotiation that was supposed to take place, at least in the American view, between Lebanon and Syria. This was supposed to arrange the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon. However, the Lebanese government had little leverage with Syria and counted on the United States to pressure Syria to accept an eventual Lebanese-Israeli agreement and a Syrian withdrawal. The presence of the Marines and Sixth Fleet aircraft offshore was interpreted by the Lebanese government as some form of influence over and protection against Syria.

There was also a negotiation between the Palestinians and the Lebanese over the departure of Palestinian fighters from areas outside Beirut. The presence of the Marines gave some implied muscle to the Lebanese Armed Forces in any potential confrontation with the Palestinian fighters and their supporters among the Druze and Muslim militias.

During the autumn President Gemayel asked that the size of the Marine deployment be increased. If the Marines were pulled out, President Gemayel and the Lebanese government would feel more exposed and less protected. To secure their Arab flank, they would become tougher negotiators with the Israelis, less likely to sign a treaty. Similarly, if the Marines went home, the Syrians and the Palestinians would be less likely to take seriously the weight of the Lebanese government's positions. So as 1983 opened the Marines were an important but unacknowledged factor in the negotiations: a bargaining chip. This meant that the duration of the Marines' deployment became in part hostage to the vagaries of Middle Eastern negotiations and politics.

There was also a humanitarian aspect to the Marine presence. In the harsh winter of 1982-1983 the MNF gave help to a lot of average Lebanese who had suffered too long. Marine helicopters rescued Lebanese trapped in the snow in high mountain passes. Isolated villages were re-supplied. Food was distributed in poorer areas. The Marines were the sign that America cared, that somehow America would make things better and end the war. So the Marines were a bargaining chip and a symbol, if also a fighting force without a defined mission.

By February of 1983, the Marines were involved in disturbing incidents as they guarded their perimeter around Beirut International Airport. On February 2, a Marine captain drew his sidearm as he blocked three Israeli tanks from penetrating his position. President Reagan was asked about this and whether the Marines might be in Lebanon for another year. The President said he could not set any time limit: "These incidents are the type of thing that can happen, and the best answer to them is for the Israelis, the Syrians and what remains of the PLO there are, to go back beyond their own borders."[36] This response reinforced the impression that the Marines would stay until the foreign forces departed Lebanon. That impression soon became explicit policy.

In a March 9 statement before a key Congressional Committee, Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and South Asia Nicholas Veliotes testified: "It is our intention to phase out the multinational presence just as soon as the evacuation of Syrian, Israeli, and Palestinian forces is complete and the Lebanese Army is able to do its job countrywide."[37] That statement even tacked on a new goal to be achieved before the departure of the Marines--that of waiting for the Lebanese Army to be able to do its job.

On April 18, a car bomb exploded at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 17 U.S. foreign service and military personnel and over forty Lebanese employees and citizens. The technique employed--driving a vehicle packed with explosives to the front entrance for detonation there by a suicide bomber--had been used in 1981 to blow up the Iraqi embassy in Beirut. Few had focused on the technique, or how to protect against it, then.

On May 17, 1983, Lebanon and Israel signed an agreement ending the State of War between the two countries and providing for a phased Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, contingent on the withdrawal of Syrian and Palestinian forces. The agreement had been the result of intense American diplomatic efforts by Philip Habib and Morris Draper, his deputy. Their efforts were capped by an intensive period of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State George Shultz. The problem was that no one had obtained Syrian assent to withdraw.

A key provision of the May 17 agreement stated that Israel would not withdraw until Syria did. The Syrians adamantly opposed the agreement. Syria was backed publicly by the Soviet Union, which was busily replenishing the Syrian arsenal depleted in the 1982 battles with Israel. In Lebanon there was stalemate on the ground. Writing ten years later, former National Security Advisor McFarlane argued that the "United States ignor[ed] the implausibility of the Gemayel government enforcing such an agreement."[38] Shultz flew out of Lebanon, leaving the implementation of the May 17 agreement to others.

The MNF soldiered on into a hot Beirut summer. On July 22, during a visit to Washington by Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, President Reagan announced the appointment of McFarlane to succeed Philip Habib as special emissary in the Middle East. McFarlane's tour in Lebanon would last less than three months. In October, President Reagan selected McFarlane as national security advisor.

By late August the Marines of the MNF were caught up in firefights with armed elements outside their perimeter in the predominantly Shia suburbs of South Beirut. The Marines also received occasional fire from nearby mountain slopes, largely held by Druze fighters, supplied by Syria. On August 28, fighting between the LAF and militia forces in South Beirut spilled over to the Marine positions. On August 29, Marine positions came under mortar, rocket, and small-arms fire. Two Marines were killed and fourteen wounded. The Marines returned fire with artillery, small-arms, and a helicopter gunship. President Reagan informed the Congress that the continued presence of U.S. forces in Lebanon was essential to the objective of helping to restore the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and political independence of Lebanon.[39]

In the weeks following the attack on Marines at Beirut International Airport, U.S. ships of the Sixth Fleet responded with naval gunfire. Two more Marines were killed on September 6. Druze and Palestinian militia forces engaged in intense fighting against Christian forces over areas in the Shuf mountains evacuated by withdrawing Israeli forces. Shultz had wanted the Israelis to remain in the Shuf so as not to reward Syrian intransigence in refusing to accept the May 17 agreement.[40]

As the fighting between Lebanese Armed Forces and the militia groups intensified, McFarlane and his team at the American ambassador's residence came under fire from the battle lines five kilometers away. McFarlane sent a flash cable to Washington stating that "there is a serious threat of a decisive military defeat which could involve the fall of the Government of Lebanon within twenty-four hours." McFarlane urged that the rules of engagement for U.S. forces be modified "to allow our forces to fire in support of the Lebanese Army."[41] Despite Weinberger's opposition (he described the message as "McFarlane's `sky is falling' cable")[42] President Reagan approved the recommendation. The Americans began to fire in support of the Lebanese Army.

Some of the naval gunfire was directed at Druze emplacements. This was widely and correctly viewed in Lebanon as U.S. intervention on the side of the Christians and the government. In mid-September the battleship New Jersey was dispatched to Lebanese waters to bring its sixteen-inch guns into play.

With the death of the two Marines on August 29, a furor arose in the American Congress as to whether or not the War Powers Resolution should be invoked to limit the duration of the Marine deployment in Lebanon. Some members sought a six-month limit. When it became clear that some limiting legislation would pass, the administration held out for and won an eighteen-month authorization. Secretary Shultz defended the U.S. contribution to the MNF in hearings before the Foreign Relations Committees of both houses of Congress. He justified the presence as "to help insure the Lebanese Government's sovereignty and authority . . . to assure the safety of the people in the area and to end the violence. . . . " Shultz described U.S. intervention in the Shuf battles as due to concern "that key strategic positions in the vicinity of Beirut, which are vital to the safety of our Marines, of other American military and diplomatic personnel, and to the security of Beirut, have recently come under attack." [43]

The testimony by Shultz did not square with what was discussed in private, as we now know. President Reagan wrote the truth in his diary on September 11:

" N. S. C. (National Security Council) is meeting . . . on Lebanon re a new cable from Bud McFarlane. Troops obviously PLO and Syrian have launched a new attack against the Lebanese Army. Our problem is do we expand our mission to aid the Lebanese Army with artillery and air support? This could be seen as putting us in the war."

" . . . I've ordered the use of naval gunfire. My reasoning is that this can be explained as protection of our Marines hoping it might signal the Syrians to pull back."[44]

Reagan wrote again in his diary on September 19 on how describe the Marines' role:

"N.S.C.: Our Navy guns turned loose in support of the Lebanese Army fighting to hold a position on a hill overlooking our Marines at the Beirut airport. This still comes under the head of defense."[45]
In his congressional testimony Shultz went on to say of the Marines: "They are an important deterrent, a symbol of the international backing behind the legitimate Government of Lebanon, and an important weight in the scales. To remove the Marines would put both the Government, and what we are trying to achieve, in jeopardy." In response to a question at the hearing, Shultz replied: " . . . when America sends its forces to perform a legitimate mission . . . and then the minute some trouble arises we turn tail and beat it, I think that sends a gigantic message around the world . . . "[46]

So the Marines were a "deterrent," a "symbol," and an "important weight." They were now involved in sporadic combat. U.S. Naval forces were shelling targets up to ten kilometers away from the Marines because the targets were "key strategic positions" in the words of Shultz. That was a misleading explanation. No matter how it was described in Washington, U.S. military forces in Lebanon had begun to use their fire in support of Lebanese government forces as the Reagan diary entries show. As Richard Haass wrote in his recent book on military intervention, "The Marines and the MNF as a whole had come to be perceived as a hand-maiden of Lebanon's Christian-dominated government. . . . As a result, the MNF became a de facto participant in Lebanon's internecine struggles."[47]

In Lebanon it looked very much as if the United States had taken up arms in behalf of the Christians. That arguably might have been a legitimate policy option, but it was never identified as a policy to the American public. And as a policy choice, it would have profound repercussions. Instead, U.S. intervention in local battles was portrayed as reactive to local events. In justifying all this, the administration stretched logic. In signing into law the authorization for an additional 18 months for the Marines in Lebanon, President Reagan said on October 12 with reference to the deaths of the two Marines on August 29: " . . . the initiation of isolated or infrequent acts of violence against United States Armed Forces does not necessarily constitute actual or imminent involvement in hostilities, even if casualties to those forces result."[48] In October, McFarlane departed Lebanon after his brief mission which had irrevocably altered the role of the Marines. The deputy commander of the Lebanese Forces, a former advisor to President Sarkis, wrote of McFarlane: "His mission was a disastrous tragicomedy."[49]

On October 23, just after dawn 241 Marines died when a truck packed with explosives blew up a Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport. At that same moment a similar explosion blew up a French military barracks a few kilometers away, killing 56 French troops. The October 23 suicide bombers used the identical technique that had been used six months earlier to blow up the American embassy. The same technique would be used again on December 12 in Kuwait against the American and French embassies. It would be used again in September, 1984, in East Beirut at the American embassy, with 13 deaths. We did not learn very fast.

President Reagan addressed a grieving America the day following the tragedy of the 241 dead Marines. He said that the reasons U.S. forces must stay in Lebanon were clear: "We have vital interests in Lebanon . . . world peace . . . withdrawal of foreign forces . . . restore sovereignty . . . peace throughout the Middle East."[50] There were hearings in the Congress. Shultz declared: "If we are driven out of Lebanon, radical and rejectionist elements will have scored a major victory."[51]

President Reagan gave a nationally televised speech to the nation and once again tried to define the mission of the Marines:

"What exactly is the operational mission of the Marines? The answer is, to secure a peace in Beirut, to keep order in their sector, and to prevent the area from becoming a battlefield. Our Marines are not just sitting in the airport. Part of their task is to guard that airport. Because of their presence, the airport has remained operational."[52]
In mid-November France launched an air strike against Iranian Revolutionary Guard positions in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. This was retaliation for the bombing of the French barracks on October 23. On December 4, U.S. Navy aircraft from the Sixth Fleet launched a sizable air strike on Syrian air defense positions in Lebanon which had fired upon U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Two U.S. aircraft were shot down, one pilot was killed, and one was taken prisoner by the Syrians. On the same day, shelling from the Shuf killed eight Marines and wounded two. Sporadic fighting continued through December and January.

In January, 1984, new hearings were held in the Congress. The administration continued to insist that it would not be forced to withdraw the Marines. In a January 22 television interview Secretary Shultz was asked if the Syrians believed they could outwait the United States. Shultz responded that Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam had said to American negotiators: "The United States is short of breath. You can always wait them out."[53]

In early February the Lebanese Army attempted to move into West and South Beirut against Druze and Muslim militia forces supported by Syria. Intense fighting broke out and lasted for weeks. U.S. Naval gunfire continued to support the Lebanese Army, but the situation of the Marines became daily more hazardous. On February 7, President Reagan announced that he had asked for a plan for redeployment of the Marines from Beirut to ships offshore.[54] On February 7 and 8, more than 100 U.S. embassy employees and all embassy dependents were evacuated from Beirut. On Sunday, February 26, redeployment of the last Marines serving with the MNF from their positions in Beirut to ships offshore was completed. On March 5, the Government of Lebanon announced that it had canceled the May 17 (1983) agreement providing for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the end of the state of war with Israel.

What Went Wrong?

George Shultz blamed Syria, Israel, and Caspar Weinberger for the debacle: "Beginning with the first deployment of the MNF--the Pentagon restricted our Marines to a passive, tentative, and dangerously inward-looking role in Beirut. . . . The secretary of defense was reluctant to contemplate or cooperate with even a limited application of military force to bolster our diplomacy."[55] In the last sentence lies a good part of the problem: the Marines were there to bolster diplomacy, as an interposition force, a deterrent, a bargaining chip, to stabilize, to support the Government of Lebanon, even to keep the airport open. No one ever translated this into clear tasks or military missions. No one seems to have thought through what the implications were if the Marines were seen as the "handmaiden" of the Lebanese government.

In his book, McFarlane blamed President Amine Gemayel for not leading Lebanon to reform and peace. He also blamed Weinberger and Habib for not being better negotiators, the State Department's Near East Bureau for not anticipating the mess, Syria, and Israel. The Lebanese blamed the United States for walking away, Syria, and Israel. Weinberger blamed McFarlane and Shultz for not having a clear view or mission.

I find the finger-pointing by the Americans in their memoirs self-demeaning. By my reckoning they should all shoulder a portion of the blame. I find it striking that no one has focused on the quality of the actual decision-making process. From the record it is clear that a lot of the decisions were based on wishful thinking (e.g., the presence of the battleship New Jersey will somehow intimidate the fighters into peace). There was a persistent habit of viewing ourselves as a neutral actor and a concomitant delusion that all of the hostile forces in Lebanon would so view us. There was also a continued tendency to confuse diplomatic goals with military tasks. Few of the senior decisionmakers were complete or truthful in their reports to Congress or the public the way that President Reagan was to his diary.

The particular tragedy of the Marine barracks, like the repeated bombing of our embassies, was the result of negligent and poor security measures. Even without the loss of 241 dead Marines in one day, support for the Marine presence would have evaporated over time as casualties continued, even if it took a few more months. The result, I believe, would have been the same. A token military force with a vague mission was probably a recipe for failure. The responsibility rests finally with the leaders who made the decisions.


[*]John H. Kelly is managing director of International Equity Partners, Washington, D.C. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon from 1986 to 1988, Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and South Asia from 1989 to 1991, and U.S. Ambassador to Finland from 1991 to 1994.

[1] See Quandt, William B., "Lebanon, 1958, and Jordan, 1970," in Force Without War, Blechman, Barry M. and Kaplan, Stephan S., eds., The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.: 1978, pp. 222-288.

[2] Statement issued by the Department of State, March 16, 1978.

[3] Resolution 425 (1978), Adopted by the U.N. Security Council, March 19, 1978; U.N. doc. S/INF/34, p. 5.

[4] Public Papers of the Presidents: Jimmy Carter, 1978, pp. 1658-1659.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Proposed Arms Sales for Countries in the Middle East: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 96th Congress, 1st Session, p. 44.

[7] The Christian militia was called the "Lebanese Forces" (LF), not to be confused with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

[8] See Quandt, op. cit.

[9] Letter from the Secretary of State to Lebanese President Elias Sarkis, April 7, 1981; printed in Department of State Bulletin, May 1981, p. 54.

[10] Statement Read by the Department of State Acting Spokesman (Passage), May 29, 1981.

[11] Press Briefing by the Secretary of State (Haig), Ottawa, July 20, 1981; printed in Department of State Bulletin, August 1981, pp. 81-82.

[12] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, July 27, 1981, pages 806-807.

[13] This study will not argue the rights and wrongs of the different Lebanese, Palestinian, or Israeli actions. It will address the merits and process of the U.S. military intervention.

[14] U.N. Security Council Resolution 509, printed in Department of State Bulletin, September 1982, p. 14.

[15] Press Conference by the Secretary of State (Haig), Bonn, June 9, 1982; Department of State Press Release 196, June 16, 1982.

[16] Department of State Bulletin, July 1982, pp. 55-56.

[17] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, July 12, 1982, p. 876.

[18] For the texts of both Notes, see Department of State Bulletin, September 1982, p. 4.

[19] Department of State Bulletin, September 1982, pp. 8-13.

[20] Department of Defense Press Briefing, August 20, 1982, reproduced in The United States and Lebanon: U.S. Public Statements, and Related Documents, 1977-1986, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, pp. 123-132.

[21] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, September 20, 1982, p. 1160.

[22] Department of State Bulletin, November 1982, p. 55.

[23] Weekly Compilation of White House Documents, September 27, 1982, pp. 1182-1184.

[24] Shultz, George P., Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, New York: Macmillan, 1993, p. 105.

[25] McFarlane, Robert C., Special Trust, New York: Cadell & Davies, 1994, p. 210.

[26] Ibid., p. 211.

[27] Weinberger, Caspar W., Fighting For Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon, New York: Warner Books, 1990, p. 151.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Department of State Bulletin, November 1982, pp. 42-43.

[30] Shultz, op. cit., pp. 107-110.

[31] Department of State Bulletin, November, 1982, pp. 50-51.

[32] Gemayel, Amine. L'Offense et Le Pardon, Paris: Gallimard, 1988, p. 148 (citation translated by the author).

[33] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, October 4, 1982, pp. 1219-1227.

[34] Ibid., p. 1232.

[35] Public Statements of Secretary of Defense Weinberger, 1982, reproduced in The United States and Lebanon: U.S. Public Statements, and Related Documents, 1977-1986, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, pp. 157-158.

[36] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, February 7, 1983, p. 187.

[37] Foreign Assistance Legislation for Fiscal Years 1984-85: Hearings and Markup Before the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-eighth Congress, First Session (Washington, 1983). Part 3, pp. 96-99.

[38] McFarlane, op. cit., p. 212.

[39] Letter from President Reagan to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, September 5, 1983, pp. 1186-1187.

[40] Shultz, op. cit., p. 223.

[41] McFarlane, op. cit., p. 251.

[42] Weinberger, op. cit., p. 361.

[43] Statutory Authorization Under the War Powers Resolution - Lebanon: Hearing and Markup Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-eighth Congress, First Session (Washington, 1983), pp. 2-7.

[44] Reagan, Ronald, An American Life: The Autobiography, New York: Simon & Shuster, 1990, p. 446.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Statutory Authorization Under the War Powers Resolution--Lebanon: Hearing and Markup Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-eighth Congress, First Session, Washington, 1983, pp. 2-7.

[47] Haass, Richard N., Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post-Cold War World, Washington: Carnegie Endowment, 1994, p. 24.

[48] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, October 17, 1983, pp. 1422-1423.

[49] Pakradouni, Karim, Le Piege, Paris: Grasset, 1991, p. 76 (citation translated by the author).

[50] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, October 31, 1983, pp. 1482-1483.

[51] Department of State Bulletin, December, 1983, pp. 44-45.

[52] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, October 31, 1983, pp. 1497-1500.

[53] Department of State Bulletin, April 1984, pp. 29-30.

[54] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, February 13, 1984, pp. 189-190.

[55] Shultz, op. cit., pp. 231-233.


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