Policy Analysis No. 35

The United States in Lebanon: A Case for Disengagement

By Sheldon L. Richman
April 3, 1984

Executive Summary

With the recent failure of Lebanon’s feuding leaders to agree to a national reconciliation, or to achieve even a durable cease-fire, it should not be forgotten that American ships float offshore carrying large guns and over 1000 Marines. That continued presence is especially noteworthy in light of the incessant fighting in Beirut and the kidnapping of American diplomat William Buckley in the capital’s Moslem sector. Despite President Reagan’s decision to “redeploy” the Marines from Beirut International Airport to the safety of the ships, and the hiatus in active diplomatic efforts, it would be premature to say the United States is out of the picture.

Paradoxically, the redeployment was both an implicit admission by Reagan that his Lebanese policy was misguided from the beginning and a wrong-headed attempt to stick to the general policy aims. While the president has decided to remove the Marines from the proximity of the fighting that threatens to reduce Lebanon to a smoldering battlefield, bringing down what is left of the government of President Amin Gemayel, Reagan’s decision to loosen the restrictions on the gunboats and bombers could mean that deeper American military involvement lies ahead. Indeed, with the Marines out of the way, at least temporarily,[1] the 16-inch guns of the battleship New Jersey and the American bombers may even rain further destruction on Lebanese Moslems and Druze. Civilians are sure to be among the victims of the American strikes on the hills outside Beirut.

Once again, we must witness the sad spectacle of Americans scurrying from violence in a foreign country. The tragedy is not that they flee, but that the government puts them in such a position in the first place. Those in this country who have called for the withdrawal of the Marines all along had hoped to avoid this spectacle.

President Reagan sought to put the best light on his decision to move the Marines offshore, but this was a formidable task, indeed. The decision was combined with measures that “will strengthen our ability to do the job we set out to do and sustain our efforts over the long term.” The measures include naval and air bombardment of Moslem and Druze areas from which fire on Beirut originates and stepped-up training and equipping of the fading Gemayel government. In other words, the removal of the Marines indicates little change in the basic Reagan policy of backing President Gemayel. But since Gemayel has done little or nothing to solve the problems his presidency created for Lebanon, Reagan continues to commit the United States to a dangerously unwise policy.

The sudden decision to move the Marines (Reagan only days before had characterized Democratic calls for such action as “surrender”) vindicated the Pentagon’s Long Commission, which investigated the October 1983 truck bombing of the Marine compound that killed 241 members of the contingent. The commission, arguably going beyond its charge, looked at the mission itself. It didn’t like what it saw.

It concluded: “U.S. decisions regarding Lebanon taken over the past 15 months have been to a large degree characterized by an emphasis on military options and the expansion of the U.S. military role, notwithstanding the fact that the conditions upon which the security of the [Marines was] based continues to deteriorate as progress toward a diplomatic solution slowed.”

The release of the report, though delayed by the administration in an attempt to blunt its impact, unleased a flood of criticism that had been pent up for some time. Congressional Democrats and Republicans, many of whom held their criticism when Congress and the president struck a War Powers agreement giving the Marines 18 months in Lebanon, again began questioning the mission. Seventy representatives, Democrats and Republicans, demanded a review of the War Powers agreement, while Senator Charles Mathias (R-Md.) offered an amendment to cut the length of the mission to six months.

As the president’s policy came in for renewed critical examination, signals from Beirut, Damascus, and Washington occasionally gave hope that withdrawal was not far off. Statements by President Reagan or special envoy Rumsfeld, especially those following the Syrian release of Navy Lt. Robert Goodman, indicated that some modus vivendi would be struck with Syria that could lead to an agreement among the contending parties and the withdrawal of the Marines. But in each case, the conciliatory tones were followed by tough American language about the intentions of Syrian president Hafez Assad, his Soviet backers, and his Moslem and Druze allies. Hope of progress toward a U.S. disengagement soon faded.

And each time this happened, President Reagan responded that American credibility was at stake and that a withdrawal would not only leave Lebanon in a bad way, but would undermine the U.S. claim to being a reliable ally. President Reagan continued to espouse this line even after the decision to remove the Marines was made. On February 2 he told the Wall Street Journal, “If we get out, it also means the end of any ability on our part to bring about an overall peace in the Middle East and I would have to say it means a pretty disastrous result for us worldwide.”

But the resignation of Prime Minister Wazzan, a Sunni Moslem, and the rest of President Gemayel’s cabinet, the outbreak of fierce fighting in Beirut, and major defections from the Lebanese army underscored the hopelessness of American policy in Lebanon.

President Reagan appears to have put the United States in an impossible and trying situation. Lebanon is beset by old and complex internal and external problems that virtually preclude social cohesiveness and tranquility, yet such cohesiveness and tranquility are made the pre-conditions of an American disengagement. Moreover, the American presence further aggravates the Lebanese problems, making the conditions for disengagement even less likely. The Marines were never peacekeepers; they were partisans. The Reagan policy, then, is caught in a deadly net: by its very nature, success is unlikely.

President Reagan’s defense of his policy goes beyond Lebanon and any direct link it may or may not have to American security. He has made Lebanon a matter of U.S. credibility, saying, “We cannot simply withdraw unilaterally without raising questions about the U.S. commitment to moderation and negotiations in the Middle East.”[2] To leave, he argues, is to diminish America’s standing in the world. He has said disengagement would be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy.

The argument from credibility, rather than being persuasive, actually-calls into question the prudence of the United States’ postwar foreign policy. By adopting a policy which holds that events anywhere in the world necessarily affect its interests, the United States has made virtually any development a test of its credibility. This is no exaggeration of the administration’s position. The president said in October, “The struggle for peace is indivisible. We cannot pick and choose where we will support freedom. We can only determine how. If it’s lost in one place, all of us lose.”[3] Secretary of State George Shultz amplified Reagan’s point when he speculated on whether there might be other “Lebanons” in America’s future. Shultz said, “I think we are going to be presented around the world with a lot of situations that fall…between…massive deterrence on the one hand, and the neat, doable, Grenada-type operation on the other. Maybe…there aren’t any circumstances between the extremes to which U.S. forces should be committed. If so, there are going to be a lot of U.S. interests that will be forgone around the world.”[4]

What the administration ignores is that if one announces that something is a test of one’s credibility, it becomes so. In the name of credibility, errors are prolonged, and anyone is invited to name the time and place of the next credibility test.

Critics of Reagan’s policy may say that the credibility argument is a good reason not to get involved in situations such as Lebanon’s. But this is not fundamental criticism. Reagan could easily have argued, before the Marines entered Lebanon, that to refrain from intervening would itself undermine U.S. credibility. It is part of Henry Kissinger’s world view, for example, that avoiding opportunities to exert U.S. influence emboldens America’s adversaries. So the credibility argument must be uprooted, not just pruned. The roots lie in America’s bipartisan foreign policy. By forswearing the role of global policeman defending farflung “interests,” and adopting instead a noninterventionist foreign policy, we would define most changes in the world out of the category of tests of our credibility.

The specific problems that make America’s mission in Lebanon so poorly chosen are both external and internal, though there is considerable overlap between the two.

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Sheldon L. Richman is an editor of Inquiry magazine and an associate policy analyst of the Cato Institute.