The United States in Lebanon: A Case for Disengagement

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With the recent failure of Lebanon's feuding leadersto agree to a national reconciliation, or to achieve even adurable cease-fire, it should not be forgotten that Americanships float offshore carrying large guns and over 1000 Marines.That continued presence is especially noteworthy in light ofthe 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 Marinesfrom Beirut International Airport to the safety of the ships,and the hiatus in active diplomatic efforts, it would bepremature to say the United States is out of the picture.

Paradoxically, the redeployment was both an implicitadmission by Reagan that his Lebanese policy was misguidedfrom the beginning and a wrong-headed attempt to stick tothe general policy aims. While the president has decided toremove the Marines from the proximity of the fighting thatthreatens to reduce Lebanon to a smoldering battlefield,bringing down what is left of the government of PresidentAmin Gemayel, Reagan's decision to loosen the restrictionson the gunboats and bombers could mean that deeper Americanmilitary involvement lies ahead. Indeed, with the Marinesout of the way, at least temporarily,[1] the 16-inch guns ofthe battleship New Jersey and the American bombers may evenrain further destruction on Lebanese Moslems and Druze.Civilians are sure to be among the victims of the Americanstrikes on the hills outside Beirut.

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

President Reagan sought to put the best light on hisdecision to move the Marines offshore, but this was a formidable task, indeed. The decision was combined with measuresthat "will strengthen our ability to do the job we set out todo and sustain our efforts over the long term." The measuresinclude naval and air bombardment of Moslem and Druze areasfrom which fire on Beirut originates and stepped-up trainingand equipping of the fading Gemayel government. In otherwords, the removal of the Marines indicates little change inthe basic Reagan policy of backing President Gemayel. Butsince Gemayel has done little or nothing to solve the problemshis presidency created for Lebanon, Reagan continues to committhe United States to a dangerously unwise policy.

The sudden decision to move the Marines (Reagan only daysbefore had characterized Democratic calls for such action as"surrender") vindicated the Pentagon's Long Commission, whichinvestigated 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 overthe past 15 months have been to a large degree characterized byan emphasis on military options and the expansion of the U.S.military role, notwithstanding the fact that the conditionsupon which the security of the [Marines was] based continues todeteriorate 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 ofcriticism that had been pent up for some time. CongressionalDemocrats and Republicans, many of whom held their criticismwhen Congress and the president struck a War Powers agreementgiving the Marines 18 months in Lebanon, again began questioning the mission. Seventy representatives, Democrats and Republicans, demanded a review of the War Powers agreement, whileSenator Charles Mathias (R-Md.) offered an amendment to cut thelength 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 byPresident Reagan or special envoy Rumsfeld, especially thosefollowing the Syrian release of Navy Lt. Robert Goodman, indicated that some modus vivendi would be struck with Syria thatcould lead to an agreement among the contending parties and thewithdrawal of the Marines. But in each case, the conciliatorytones were followed by tough American language about the intentions of Syrian president Hafez Assad, his Soviet backers, andhis Moslem and Druze allies. Hope of progress toward a U.S.disengagement soon faded.

And each time this happened, President Reagan respondedthat American credibility was at stake and that a withdrawalwould not only leave Lebanon in a bad way, but would underminethe U.S. claim to being a reliable ally. President Reagancontinued to espouse this line even after the decision toremove the Marines was made. On February 2 he told the WallStreet Journal, "If we get out, it also means the end of anyability on our part to bring about an overall peace in theMiddle East and I would have to say it means a pretty disastrous result for us worldwide."

But the resignation of Prime Minister Wazzan, a SunniMoslem, and the rest of President Gemayel's cabinet, theoutbreak of fierce fighting in Beirut, and major defectionsfrom the Lebanese army underscored the hopelessness of American policy in Lebanon.

President Reagan appears to have put the United States inan impossible and trying situation. Lebanon is beset by oldand complex internal and external problems that virtually preclude social cohesiveness and tranquility, yet such cohesiveness and tranquility are made the pre-conditions of an Americandisengagement. 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 adeadly 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 raisingquestions 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 disengagementwould be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy.

The argument from credibility, rather than being persuasive, actually-calls into question the prudence of the UnitedStates' postwar foreign policy. By adopting a policy whichholds that events anywhere in the world necessarily affect itsinterests, the United States has made virtually any developmenta test of its credibility. This is no exaggeration of the administration's position. The president said in October, "Thestruggle for peace is indivisible. We cannot pick and choosewhere we will support freedom. We can only determine how. Ifit's lost in one place, all of us lose."[3] Secretary of StateGeorge Shultz amplified Reagan's point when he speculated onwhether there might be other "Lebanons" in America's future.Shultz said, "I think we are going to be presented around theworld with a lot of situations that fall...between...massivedeterrence on the one hand, and the neat, doable, Grenada-typeoperation on the other. Maybe...there aren't any circumstancesbetween the extremes to which U.S. forces should be committed.If so, there are going to be a lot of U.S. interests that willbe forgone around the world."[4]

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

Critics of Reagan's policy may say that the credibilityargument is a good reason not to get involved in situationssuch as Lebanon's. But this is not fundamental criticism.Reagan could easily have argued, before the Marines enteredLebanon, that to refrain from intervening would itself undermine U.S. credibility. It is part of Henry Kissinger's worldview, for example, that avoiding opportunities to exert U.S.influence emboldens America's adversaries. So the credibilityargument must be uprooted, not just pruned. The roots lie inAmerica's bipartisan foreign policy. By forswearing the roleof global policeman defending farflung "interests," and adopting instead a noninterventionist foreign policy, we woulddefine most changes in the world out of the category of testsof our credibility.

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

Sheldon L. Richman

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