Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Of course, the Pearl Harbor disaster stemmed as much from myopia in Washington as from laxness on the part of local commanders. This was true of Beirut as well. There, with the security environment obviously eroding, the Marine presence qualified as either irrelevant or counterproductive. Geraghty understood that and said so to his immediate superiors.
Yet the parade of generals, admirals, and high-ranking officials, both elected and appointed, who helicoptered in and out of Beirut to visit weren’t listening.
Preoccupied with disorder in Lebanon, U.S. policymakers mistook symptom for disease. The disorder afflicting this one country manifested problems far too large for the entire U.S. Marine Corps to handle, much less Colonel Geraghty’s beleaguered 24th Marine Amphibious Unit. In essence, the crisis of the moment had induced a bout of strategic inanity—senior officials talking themselves into believing that by helping Lebanon’s army prevail over its adversaries, a reinforced battalion could pave the way for Middle East peace. The imperative of the moment, Secretary of State Shultz insisted, was “to stand firm, showing strength that was purposeful and steady.”
How having a few hundred Marines holed up at Beirut International Airport communicated a sense of purposefulness was not at all clear. Inevitably, it is ordinary GIs who pay for such folly—a phenomenon destined to recur from one episode to the next during America’s evolving War for the Greater Middle East.
In late October, this particular episode came to a head. In a
New York Times
dispatch published on October 23, dateline Beirut, Thomas Friedman reported what had now become obvious: “Without anyone really noticing it at first, the Marines here have been transformed during the last month of fighting [into] just one more faction in the internal Lebanese conflict.”
The period of hardly anyone noticing ended abruptly. The very day that Friedman’s article appeared in the
a suicide bomber, driving a yellow Mercedes truck loaded with explosives, crashed through the main gate of the Marine compound and drove into the four-story building the Marines had converted into a makeshift barracks. The resulting detonation killed 241 U.S. military personnel and wounded another hundred. A near-simultaneous attack on the nearby French compound killed fifty-eight French peacekeepers. A group calling itself Islamic Jihad, subsequently better known as Hezbollah, claimed responsibility.
Rudely awakened from their slumber, the American people wondered what the hell was going on. The prompt, efficient evacuation of those wounded and killed stood in stark contrast with the languid, let’s-see-what-tomorrow-brings attitude that had put the Marines in jeopardy in the first place. Why had no one in authority anticipated this catastrophe? By no means would this be the last time during America’s War for the Greater Middle East that a U.S. military expedition gone awry would elicit such a public reaction. Seldom would Americans receive a satisfactory answer.
This devastating assault on U.S. troops obviously required a forceful response, if only to distract attention from the ineptitude that had placed the Marines in such jeopardy. Yet formulating that response produced weeks of dithering and indecision that finally culminated in ignominious retreat.
For public consumption, the president projected a stiffly Reaganesque upper lip. “Let no terrorist question our will,” he declared at a memorial service held for those killed, “or no tyrant doubt our resolve.” Citing the “courage and determination” that formed enduring parts of the American character, Reagan declared that “we must not and will not be intimidated by anyone, anywhere.”
Although on-the-ground realities mocked such platitudes, the president remained weirdly upbeat. Within days of the Beirut bombing, he issued a top-secret policy directive in which he cheerfully affirmed that creating “an independent, sovereign Lebanon, free of all foreign forces is an achievable goal.” The key to fulfilling that goal and much else besides was for the United States to “continue to be seen as a fair arbiter of justice in the Middle East.” With that in mind, notwithstanding the debacle in Beirut, Reagan vowed to “reassert American leadership” and “regain the initiative.” The U.S. presidential election looming in the year ahead offered reason enough to press on: “For if we appear to be hunkering down to a more passive policy as we approach an election year, we will not make progress but will slide into a morass of confusion and doubt which will give rise to strong domestic criticism.”
Yet almost immediately, confusion and doubt all but paralyzed his administration. Reagan’s directive called for retaliating against those who had perpetrated the October 23 Beirut bombing, “subject to reasonable confirmation of the locations of suitable targets.” The caveat provided an opening for opponents of further military escalation—notably Secretary of Defense Weinberger and General John Vessey, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff—to block retaliatory action. Instead, they sought to terminate the Marine presence altogether.
Meanwhile, the conflict in Lebanon ground on, belying Reagan’s expectations of that country regaining its independence and sovereignty. U.S. military involvement in that conflict mirrored the dithering that consumed Washington. Despite the continued material support and firepower provided by the United States, the Lebanese army was failing—not the last time that American efforts to “build” an army in the Islamic world would fall short.
When Syrian air defenses east of Beirut engaged a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft on December 3, the Reagan administration finally roused itself to respond. The result was a poorly planned, half-hearted air strike that ended with two U.S. Navy fighter jets shot down and one American airman, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, who happened to be black, captured. From the sidelines, Israeli generals jeered. A delegation of African-American clergy, led by Democratic presidential hopeful Reverend Jesse Jackson but also including Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan, traveled to Damascus and successfully negotiated Goodman’s release.
The Marines remaining at Beirut International Airport were still at risk, with several more killed that same day by Syrian artillery fire. With commanders averse to losing any more combat aircraft, surface warships such as the battleship
now became the preferred instrument for registering American unhappiness. Yet if by hurling 1900-pound shells up to twenty miles the
’s 16-inch guns represented military might, they also signified political impotence. No amount of naval bombardment was going to salvage a peacekeeping enterprise that had irredeemably failed.
By the end of January 1984, Reagan himself was ready to throw in the towel, directing the Pentagon to plan for withdrawing the Marines, although allowing for the possibility of a “continuing U.S. military presence offshore.” Although Reagan wanted efforts to prop up the Lebanese army to continue, the United States was opting out of the fight.
“We’re not bugging out,” the president insisted. “We’re just going to a little more defensible position.”
Few found the claim persuasive.
On February 26, 1984, the last Marines departed Beirut International Airport. In a fit of pique, the
and other warships, under the pretense of providing covering fire, blasted away at targets ashore.
This time, the “Mission Accomplished” banner was nowhere to be seen. Summing things up in
The New York Times,
Thomas Friedman wrote that the Marines had “accomplished virtually nothing.”
The judgment remains difficult to dispute.
Policy failures typically produce some sort of inquiry, if only for purposes of damage control, and that was the case here. A commission consisting of several senior military officers and a former Pentagon official investigated the events of October 23, carefully steering clear of the policies that had launched the Marines on their exercise in futility in the first place. The resulting report was nothing if not circumspect. Focusing on operational shortcomings, it studiously avoided any more fundamental questions. So the commission concluded, for example, that the attack on the Marine barracks “was tantamount to an act of war using the medium of terrorism.” Verily. But what exactly was the nature of this “war”? Who were the belligerents? What were the stakes? What would winning entail? Was the war even winnable? On these questions, the report had little to say. Instead it offered anodyne comments such as “State sponsored terrorism poses a serious threat to U.S. policy…and thus merits the attention of military planners.”
The commission’s report described Lebanon as containing “a veritable jungle of threats.” Yet it did not ask why it made sense for U.S. forces to wade into that jungle. To what end? Members of the commission evinced no interest in that question. Instead, they concluded that Colonel Geraghty and his subordinates should have known better and done better, while largely giving a pass to those at higher levels—fairly standard procedure, as these matters go.
What becomes clear in retrospect is this: Among U.S. policymakers, Beirut ought to have set off alarm bells. Failure there might have suggested that dabbling with the use of U.S. forces to “fix” the Greater Middle East was to collide with complexities that even Miles Ignotus could not wish away. Presence, especially by token forces occupying stationary positions, amounted to an incitement. Rather than contributing to stability, it did just the opposite.
The sad fact is that those who sent the Marines into Lebanon had no real idea what they were doing or what they were getting into. For the most part, the resulting failure there served to broadcast American ignorance, ineptitude, and lack of staying power. As for those expectations of dramatizing America’s role as peacemaker, enhancing U.S. credibility in Arab eyes, and demonstrating a capacity to police the region: None of it happened.
Near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a memorial erected to honor the Americans killed in Beirut bears this inscription: “They came in peace.” However inadvertently, the text captures the cardinal error that doomed the enterprise: a fundamental misapprehension of actually existing realities.
To keep peace implies its existence. In Lebanon, peace did not exist before, during, or after the Marine intervention. Nor would it for years to come. Instead, in the wake of the U.S. departure, Lebanon remained a battleground, with the civil war there dragging on for years. Syrian and Israeli forces continued to occupy parts of Lebanese territory. The PLO may have left the scene. Yet as a direct consequence of the Israeli invasion, Hezbollah soon emerged to form another state-within-a-state.
Its leaders could reasonably claim to have inflicted a decisive defeat on the world’s preeminent superpower, a conclusion not lost on other opponents of the United States.
Lebanon was by no means the only instance in which Ronald Reagan committed U.S. forces into the Islamic sphere. Libya also attracted intermittent attention during the preliminary phases of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. Here too, as in Lebanon, Washington experimented with how best to translate military power, always assumed to be superior, into politically purposeful outcomes. Here too, the results fell well short of satisfactory.
Apart from sitting on top of considerable oil deposits, Libya as such possessed little strategic significance to the United States in the 1980s. Libya’s ruler made himself difficult for U.S. policymakers to ignore, however. Colonel Moamar Gaddafi was an erratic, megalomaniacal buffoon, less a serious menace than a perennial pain in the behind. The danger posed by Gaddafi stemmed less from his grandiose ambitions than from his tendency to act on impulse, without regard for consequences. He was a teenager handed a wad of cash along with keys to a sports car.
After seizing power in a 1969 military coup, Gaddafi nationalized Libyan oil, declared himself an ardent pan-Arabist, and began accumulating an arsenal of advanced weapons, mostly purchased from the Soviet Union. Stridently anti-Western and anti-Israeli, he used Libyan oil wealth to finance an omnium-gatherum of foreign revolutionaries variously committed to overthrowing the capitalist order, rooting out the vestiges of colonialism, and, above all, liberating Palestine.
By 1979, these activities had earned Libya a place on the State Department’s roster of state sponsors of terrorism. Soon after becoming president, Reagan concluded that Gaddafi needed to be taught a lesson. Bringing Libya’s blustering “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution” down a peg or two thereby found a spot on the administration’s to-do list.