The Lesson of Lebanon
Less than two years ago the PLO’s military base in Lebanon was smashed by the Israeli armed forces, and dozens of terrorist organizations that had used the country as their training and operational center were dispersed around the globe. The Syrian army was also defeated, throwing into question the efficacy of Soviet weaponry and Arab fighting capacities. The Soviet Union’s influence in the Middle East—based as it was upon support for radical Arab regimes and movements in the region—was substantially weakened. Lebanon itself, after seven years of internal bloodshed and terror, looked forward to a more peaceful future under Bashir Gemayel, unanimously elected by the leaders of the various factions in the country’s parliament, and vigorously supported by the government of the United States.
Today the situation is almost totally reversed. The terrorists are returning; Syria, thanks in large part to Soviet support, is now the dominant power in Lebanon; Bashir Gemayel is dead and his brother Amin will now obey his Arab neighbors, trying to carve out some margin of independence between Syrian military might and Saudi money; the Soviet Union has acquired new influence in the region; the internecine slaughter has begun anew; it is now America, and to a lesser degree France, Britain, and Italy, that have had hundreds of fighting men killed, and suffered a loss of face and power.
It may be said that Lebanon is not a vital strategic interest of the United States, that the Israeli invasion was a mistake, that we tried our best to be evenhanded and to shore up a Lebanese government that simply did not have sufficient popular support and military wherewithal to prevail against its various enemies, and that we are well rid of our involvement there. But even if all these claims were true, they would still be beside the point; although the United States did not want the Israelis to invade Lebanon, once the deed was done we had a clear interest in the outcome. Yet after the first week or ten days, we had no serious, durable policy to match the stakes in the region. Wandering from one worthy objective to another, trying to behave honorably, alternately catering to pressures from the moderate Arabs, from Israel, from the hapless Lebanese, and from the American Congress, the Reagan administration changed its policy constantly, baffling our friends and encouraging our enemies. In the end, as so often happens, the one country in the area that knew what it wanted—Syria—prevailed.
The invasion of Lebanon had been opposed by the United States, but as on so many other occasions, American advice was rejected. Not only was the invasion launched, but it was a most ambitious one, aiming at the total destruction of the PLO presence in Lebanon, the expulsion of Syrian armed forces from the country (or, at a minimum, the elimination of Syrian military control over significant areas of Lebanon), and the creation of a stable Lebanon under a government headed by the Christian groups around Bashir Gemayel. What interest did the United States, having failed to prevent the invasion, have in its progress and outcome?
First of all, it was necessary to recognize that most of the world considered this our war. I was in Amsterdam a week after the invasion, and witnessed thousands of Dutch marching through the center of town to condemn the American invasion of Lebanon. This was symptomatic of much of world reaction: most people, and most governments, could not believe that the Israelis would undertake such an ambitious campaign without our approval, and most probably believed that the invasion plan had been drafted in Washington (even some Israeli journalists and analysts, who should know better, have claimed that the United States gave Ariel Sharon a “green light”). Thus, the results would be credited or debited to our international account.
Yet even though the U.S. had opposed the invasion, the perception of the war as at least in part an American affair was not so far off the mark. Our ally was fighting with our weapons against our enemies, and the ease with which the Israelis removed the Soviet SAM’s from the Bekaa Valley, along with the astonishing Israeli victory in the air war with Syria (100 Soviet-made aircraft destroyed to none on the Israeli side), were widely viewed as demonstrating American superiority over the Soviets. Second, the rout of the PLO quite clearly advanced our interests in the entire region, for it struck at the heart of international terrorism, removed a deadly threat to the “moderate” Arab countries with which we preferred to deal, and dealt a blow to the various Libyans, Iranians, South Yemenis, and Syrians who constituted the radical Arab bloc that had opposed American goals in the Middle East for years. Third, the Soviets were not only embarrassed at having two of their principal clients soundly defeated, they found themselves unable to react effectively, even when the Israelis overran their embassy compound in Beirut.
It was in our interest for the Israeli victory to be as complete as possible, both because a clear-cut win would lessen the chances of a comeback by the Syrians, the PLO, or both, and because a thorough defeat of the Syrians, along with the departure of the PLO and its allies from Lebanon, might make possible a strategic realignment in the region. The Israeli victory, after all, clearly discredited the military strategy of the Soviet-backed radicals, from the PLO to the Syrians. The United States had thrown its economic, military, and diplomatic weight behind the peace process as embodied in the Camp David accords, and the leading rejectionists had just been swept away on the battlefield. Under the circumstances, we were entitled to drive home the basic point that those who made peace with Israel gained territory and American aid, trade, and technology, while those who sided with the radicals and with the Soviet Union got only battlefield defeats. In particular, the United States had an opportunity to emphasize these facts of recent life in the Middle East to President Hafez al-Assad of Syria with a view toward encouraging him to follow Anwar Sadat’s example.
The idea of an approach to the Syrians was also attractive in the more limited context of Lebanon. For as events would demonstrate, without Assad’s agreement no Lebanese settlement could be considered durable. If, however, the bitterness of Syria’s defeat could be sweetened with magnanimity from the victors, not only Lebanon but the entire region might take a step toward peace. The kind of indirect accommodation, if not de-facto cooperation, that might develop between Israel and Syria under such circumstances could lay the basis for more ambitious initiatives later on, after each nation had seen that the other was willing to behave reasonably, and after the Syrians had the opportunity to taste the advantages of closer cooperation with the West.
Finally, the notion of weaning Syria away from the Soviets and the Arab radicals made sense with regard to the issue that had heretofore been taken as the central problem of the Middle East: the Palestinian question. The events of early June had shown this claim of centrality to be without foundation: not a single Arab country had rallied to the side of the PLO, and Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi—the self-proclaimed leader of the rejectionists and vigorous supporter of international terrorism—had invited Arafat and his men to commit mass suicide. There was no talk of oil embargoes, there was no threat of reprisals against the West, there were no volunteers from the Arab world. (Indeed, the only men who arrived in Lebanon to assist the PLO were from a non-Arab country, Khomeini’s Iran.) When the PLO came face to face with its mortal enemy, the Arab world did not lift a finger in its behalf.
In any case, Syria was no advocate of a Palestinian state. Believing themselves historically entitled to be the dominant force in the Middle East, the Syrians left no room on their maps of the region for Lebanon, let alone for yet another tiny Arab country. Thus, if the United States could engage the Syrians in the peace process, it might be possible to address the truly central conflicts in the region rather than endlessly debating the Byzantine intricacies of the Palestinian issue.
To be sure, such an imaginative diplomatic approach is easier to describe than to conduct, and each of the issues is more complicated in diplomatic practice than in theoretical analysis. Nonetheless, for a brief period a window of opportunity had opened, providing the United States, Israel, and the rest of the Western world with a chance to explore the possibilities of real progress toward peace. These possibilities were never tested. Instead, the United States acted as if the Israeli invasion were contrary to American interests, as if the real obstacle to peace in the area were Israel, and as if the Lebanese situation could be satisfactorily resolved and chances for broader progress in the region enhanced if the Israeli forces would only return to their country.
This American approach to the conflict in Lebanon was of course not new; often in the past the United States had prevented Israel from pressing a military advantage to the point of decisive victory. But the most recent example of that pattern—the saving of the Egyptian army from destruction in the waning days of the Yom Kippur War—had permitted Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to separate Anwar Sadat from the Soviet Union. In the Lebanese war, there was no such American objective. So far as one can tell, the Reagan administration acted on bad information and misguided principle. With a view of the war that was fundamentally shaped by the highly misleading reports in the news media, under pressure from every Arab capital and from numerous West European allies to end the fighting, and tempted by illusions of quick diplomatic fixes, Washington acted to halt the Israeli advance just when a decisive military victory was within days or even hours of achievement. This limited the damage to Syria. The Americans then put out the story, first in private to Saudi diplomats, then in a public statement from the White House, that the Israelis would not invade Beirut. This proved to be another grave mistake, perhaps even more serious than demanding that the Israeli armed forces stop their advance. For the White House announcement came at a time when Arafat was desperately searching for a haven, convinced that only the departure of the PLO from Lebanon would prevent its total destruction. But the promise that the Israelis would not invade Beirut, coming as it did from Washington and reinforced as it was by the Saudis, encouraged Arafat to stay on and await developments.
The military and political momentum of the Israeli advance was thereby broken, the Syrians and the PLO were given time to regroup, and the siege of Beirut was paradoxically rendered inevitable, it having become necessary for the Israelis to convince Arafat all over again that he would not be permitted to remain in Lebanon.
Had the United States done nothing at that crucial moment, two useful things would almost certainly have happened: the Israeli army would have taken control of the Beirut-Damascus highway, thus sealing off the vital East-West corridor from Syria into central and western Lebanon; and the PLO would have been routed and forced to flee the country, without the bloody siege of Beirut.
Why did we intervene to impose a ceasefire at the crucial moment of the Lebanese war? There were many reasons, including the intense internal conflicts between the then Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, and other members of the cabinet. But one principal and enduring cause of the decision was an attentiveness to the Saudis’ pleas, and a belief that anything that was clearly good for Israel had to be bad for the moderate Arabs. It seemed impossible to the Americans—especially once Haig, one of the few American officials who did not take the Saudis literally, had left the scene in late June—that the Saudis and other Arab moderates could be delighted by events in Lebanon even as they condemned those same events from every available pulpit. Yet the Saudis must surely have been pleased with the broken power of the PLO and the severe setback dealt the Syrians, for both of these developments contributed mightily to Saudi security.
On the other hand, no Arab government could afford to make such views public, or perhaps even to express them clearly in private meetings, not even the Egyptians, whose policy of seeking peace with Israel was clearly being vindicated by the war in Lebanon. Any Arab leader who failed to condemn the Israeli invasion would automatically become a target for terrorists and radicals in the region; it was clearly preferable to deplore the invasion while taking private satisfaction in its results. Thus in bowing to Saudi pressure, Washington was misreading the realities which the Saudis probably presumed the Americans were fully aware of (after all, had we not coordinated the invasion with the Israelis?).
A second reason for the American-imposed ceasefire was the widespread belief that there could be no major steps toward a Middle East peace until the “Palestinian problem” was solved, and for most of our experts this meant the creation of some sort of PLO-led entity, whether independent or linked to Jordan. No matter that with the total failure of the PLO’s military strategy in Lebanon, the “Palestinian problem” had now taken on decidedly diminished importance, at least for the moment. No matter that the immediate issue—Lebanon—needed to be resolved between Israel and Syria, two countries that were opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. In spite of these considerations, the administration, instead of trying for a regional realignment, concentrated on pushing the so-called Reagan plan announced in the President’s September 1 speech.
Third was the powerful effect of the media’s shameful misdescriptions of the fighting in Lebanon. Casualty figures of unbelievable dimensions were reported and repeated without challenge; accounts of Israeli violence were presented ad nauseam while the story of years of systematic PLO terror in Lebanon took months to emerge; American television and print commentators portrayed the war in language hitherto reserved for the Nazi assault on Western civilization; and reports of Israeli atrocities, almost all of which turned out to be fabrications, were accepted uncritically. All this weighed heavily on American officials, who were in any event straining to counter widespread portrayals of the Reagan administration as bellicose. The President and his advisers were afraid to be identified with the Israeli “juggernaut,” especially since the PLO had been so often misdescribed as a moderate, peace-seeking organization. The longer the war went on, the greater the pressure on the administration to dissociate the United States from the invasion, and to take steps that would be considered peace-seeking.
Fourth was the by now deeply ingrained assumption among the professional policy-makers that Israel represented the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. After some initial uncertainty, this assumption dominated all American decisions. It first took the form of blind faith in the Syrians’ willingness to leave Lebanon, if only the Israelis would agree to do so. It continued with opposition to all Israeli positions, first to Israel’s desire to remain in Lebanon, later to leave; first to the Israelis’ willingness to engage in joint military operations with the U.S., later to their refusal to do so. Significantly, the only time the American marines directly confronted another armed force in Lebanon was when Captain Johnson stopped the movement of some Israeli tanks in Beirut (an action for which he was highly commended by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger).
The reflexive opposition to Israeli military success dovetailed with another attitude, this one firmly entrenched in the Pentagon and widely shared in other bureaus of the executive branch: the belief that, in the end, American interests in the Middle East are basically linked with the Arab nations. This is probably the underlying reason for Secretary Weinberger’s reported reluctance to put American soldiers in a position where they would have to “fire on Arabs.”
Despite the opposition to Israel’s invasion, however, the U.S. in essence adopted the Israeli political plan for Lebanon: a new government would be formed, led by Bashir Gemayel, and this government would preside over the country. Within a very few weeks, unfortunately, the linchpin of this strategy, Bashir himself, was removed by Syrian-sponsored terrorists. In an emotional response, the Lebanese installed Amin Gemayel in his brother’s position, but Amin and Bashir were two quite different men. Where Bashir’s charisma and courage guaranteed a certain energy and imagination, Amin was more a creature of maneuver, compromise, and uncertainty. Bashir could command the forces of the Christian Phalange; but the Phalangists did not fully trust Amin, and could not be expected to commit themselves entirely to his side. Finally, Bashir’s close working relationship with Israel over the preceding few years would have insured a smooth channel of communication and a minimum of trust. Neither existed with Amin, whose basic foreign contacts ran from Paris to Riyadh.
With Bashir dead, quick action was required to chart Lebanon’s course, but no such action was forthcoming, either from the presidential palace in Baabda or from the presidential oval office in Washington. Instead, the American representatives in Lebanon (Philip Habib and Morris Draper) and a galaxy of officials in Washington (now including the new Secretary of State, George Shultz) strove mightily to arrange for the long-expected PLO exodus from Beirut. After weeks of false promises, Arafat and his men finally began their exit from the capital in August, protected by American marines. By then, the symbolism of the PLO withdrawal had shifted from the initial picture of a shattered organization to that of defiant men and women (no longer called “terrorists,” they were now “fighters”). Having used our prestige and power to protect the PLO from Israel, we departed from Beirut, only to return a short time later to protect Palestinian refugees from their Christian enemies, following the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.
At this juncture there seems to have been a widespread American conviction that Syria, suitably grateful for our moderation and evenhandedness, would be only too pleased to cooperate with our overall objectives by withdrawing from Lebanon once we had arranged for the Israelis to leave. Assad, however, viewed the situation in more traditional terms, and had a far more serious approach to foreign policy. He had been beaten by the Israelis but had not been expelled from Lebanon, and there was no sign of any force willing and able to do that. He had lost battles, even wars, in the past, but he had not altered his fundamental objectives, and the loss of hundreds or thousands of his fighting men was for him hardly a major strategic concern. Just a few years before he had ordered the slaughter of somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 of his own people when the Islamic Brotherhood in the city of Hama dared challenge his rule; nothing approaching that number fell to the Israelis. Once the Soviets replaced his tanks, airplanes, and antiaircraft missiles, he was prepared to take his revenge.
From the beginning, it was necessary to convince the Syrians that the Israeli victory had fundamentally altered the Middle East. If we were determined to restrain the Israelis, we would have to show a willingness to use our own power in Lebanon. Otherwise Assad, who had no compunction about killing his enemies, would inevitably reassert his own interests. This was not properly appreciated in Washington. Habib, supported by others in the State Department, was convinced that the Syrians would withdraw from Lebanon once the Israeli departure had been arranged. At the end of June, the Syrians had, in fact, agreed to withdraw, but that was at a moment when the balance of power had been held by Israel. It was inevitable that as time passed and the situation became more favorable to Assad, this agreement would be reconsidered.
By late summer, American diplomacy was firmly committed to the search for a broader Middle East “solution,” as embodied in the new Reagan plan. Assured by the State Department (in the person of the then Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Middle East, Nicholas Veliotes) that Jordan was ready for a deal with the PLO, and by Ambassador Habib that Syria was prepared to leave Lebanon, President Reagan challenged all parties to take risks for peace. The initiative was a worthy one, but in the absence of any good reason to believe that the United States was firmly committed to an active policy, none of the key players in the region could take a major risk. Paradoxically, the American effort to be even-handed made matters worse. The United States had been considered Israel’s main source of strength, yet we had prevented the Israelis from finishing the military job, and were engaged in some heated public exchanges with Israeli leaders. Our rhetoric seemed balanced, yet we were not dealing with the Syrians, who held the key both to a Lebanese settlement and to Jordan’s ability to reach an agreement with Arafat. In short, we had not made the basic choices, and no one in the region knew precisely where we would come down.
Predictably, then, no one in the region accepted Reagan’s challenge. With the abruptness and lack of subtlety that characterized so much of his foreign policy, Begin rejected the plan out of hand; after first acting as if a PLO-Jordanian federation had already been achieved, Hussein and Arafat had to admit that the PLO was unwilling to abandon its opposition to Israel’s existence; the Saudis could not possibly take a clear position, and hedged their bets by financing all the contending Arab parties; and the Syrians were not even in the game. Meanwhile, the Lebanese and the Israelis struggled to reach some sort of agreement. Israel quite naturally wanted normalization along the lines of the Camp David agreement with Egypt. Amin, unsure of his own position and undoubtedly baffled by America’s attitude toward Israel, tried to have the best of all worlds: a promise of Israeli withdrawal along with the stability that only Israeli troops could provide; good working relations between Beirut and Jerusalem, but no formal normalization that would antagonize the Arab world.
Without strong American guidance and guarantees, Amin could not take the risks involved in a formal peace treaty with Israel, and without Syrian participation, no stable Lebanese arrangement could be made at all. The window for strategic breakthrough was closing, and the instrument that had opened it in the first place—Israeli military power—was no longer available. The siege of Beirut and the Sabra and Shatila massacres were too much for Israeli public opinion, coming as they did on top of more than 400 dead soldiers. Minister of Defense Sharon and even generals of the army were held to have lied to the cabinet, the Knesset, and the country, and to have contributed through their negligence to the massacres. With mounting intensity, the Israeli public made plain its insistence that there be no more fighting by the Israeli army in Lebanon, and this insistence was strengthened with each new report of an Israeli death. If further military force were required to impose a settlement in Lebanon, or generally to advance Western interests in the region, it would have to come from other sources, barring a direct threat to Israel itself.
The Americans hoped that the Lebanese would eventually defend themselves, and that while we trained the mixed Christian and Muslim army, the multinational force (composed of the U.S., British, French, and Italian troops which had been sent into Beirut after the Sabra and Shatila massacres) would deter any substantial advance by Syria and its Druse, Shiite, and PLO proxies. Here again, optimism overcame good judgment. Despite warnings that ethnic and religious tension would undermine the cohesiveness of the Lebanese army, American officials believed almost until the very end that it would be possible to create an effective fighting force that could withstand any likely challenge. And there was also an unspoken conviction that once the Syrians, the Druse, the Shiites, and the PLO had experienced the effects of the guns of the New Jersey and the “smart bombs” of our carrier-based planes, they would desist. There were even some who believed that the mere presence of the U.S. Marines would suffice to stabilize the situation. All these predictions proved false, because we soon demonstrated that while we might occasionally respond to attacks against us, we were not prepared to fight seriously to advance our diplomatic interests.
The significance of these developments was not lost on the Syrian leader. His missile defenses rebuilt with newer Soviet SAM’s, his fallen airplanes replaced with newer Soviet MIG’s, Assad slowly tested the Lebanese terrain, and found it agreeable. He took control of the broken military units of the PLO, and turned them against the remnants of the forces loyal to Arafat north of Beirut. A variety of terrorist bands, some sent by the Ayatollah Khomeini, some ordered up by Assad’s brother Rifaat, wreaked vengeance against their Lebanese opponents, thereby bringing Shiite and Druse armed bands into line with Syrian strategy. Druse leader Walid Jumblat was reminded that his father had been murdered by Syrians, and that his own fate—as Jumblat candidly admitted to some of his friends in private conversation—could well be the same if he did not cooperate with Damascus. While all this was going on, the Americans awaited a response to the President’s call for regional peace, and the new Secretary of State, still believing that the Syrians would leave Lebanon once the Israeli withdrawal were arranged, patiently negotiated a treaty between Beirut and Jerusalem that was signed in May.
The events of the spring and early summer of 1983 serve to demonstrate that good deeds do not always produce good results, and that brilliant negotiations are useless when they do not serve a realistic objective. In the first half of 1983 we launched a noble peace initiative, and orchestrated an excellent agreement between Israel and Lebanon. Both collapsed in less than a year, victims of terrorism against Lebanese civilians and of acts of guerrilla war against the United States and its European allies.
The Reagan plan was rendered inoperative when King Hussein announced that he could not obtain PLO approval for his proposed negotiations with Israel regarding the disposition of the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat was in no position to save his broken prestige, since his own military men were either under siege or annexed by the Syrian army, and Assad was bent on expanding Syrian power, not handing Arafat and Hussein the right to deal for Arab territory.
The May treaty was abrogated by Amin Gemayel the following March for the same reasons, for by this time it had become clear that Syria would dictate the Lebanese settlement, all other forces having been murdered, demoralized, and driven from Lebanese soil. The Syrian maps turned out to have been accurate, at least for the moment.
Most telling of all, the Syrian reconquest of Lebanon was achieved in direct conflict with the American-trained Lebanese army and with three of the most powerful countries on earth: the United States, France, and Israel. First came the murder of Bashir Gemayel, and there was no response, even though the Syrian hand in the assassination was announced on Lebanese radio and television. Then came the summer bombing of the American embassy in Beirut, and there was no response, even though it was unthinkable that the attack could have occurred without Syrian assistance, and even though the Iranian involvement was well-enough documented for Secretary Weinberger to speak of it publicly. Having failed to respond to these assaults, we were then predictably subjected to the devastating bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983, an attack that was coordinated with a similar one against the French barracks, and then a few days later yet another one against an Israeli position farther south. This time there was a response, but it consisted only of quite limited actions from the air and sea. A few shells and bombs could not be expected to impress, let alone deter, a country that had experienced far worse the previous summer, and lived to fight again.
Why did we not respond? Once again, there is no simple answer, but we must begin by observing that this was not an isolated case but part of a systematic pattern of reluctance in both the executive and legislative branches to use military power in support of our diplomatic objectives. This reluctance generally goes under the name of the “Vietnam syndrome,” and paradoxically the disease has proven most virulent in the Pentagon. There does not seem to be a single case in the past several years in which the military leaders of our country enthusiastically supported a military action, or recommended it among a choice of options. In those instances where American officials felt military power was needed, it tended to be civilians who urged its use, and they almost always came from other buildings in Washington. More often than not, Pentagon officials have argued that unless there were a strong national consensus for such actions, they preferred not to undertake them. But the fact is that successful policies generate consensus, and failure is never popular. The question to be addressed is whether the national interest can be advanced by the use of force in a particular situation, not how the public reacts to the use of force in the abstract.
Of course there are also important and influential people opposed in principle to the use of American military power, even when it might advance our interests. Cyrus Vance, it will be recalled, resigned as Secretary of State in the Carter administration on precisely this issue, and many members of Congress, many writers and broadcasters, and virtually all the Democratic candidates for the Presidency in 1984 seem to share Vance’s view. Furthermore, there are strong political figures around President Reagan who are also opposed to military action, apparently believing that the main danger to his reelection is public fear that he is trigger-happy. And indeed, as things currently stand, any President—not just Reagan—who ordered a military action would be subjected to terrible denunciations and would be hamstrung by congressional demands to fine-tune the fighting from the halls of the Senate and the House. On the other hand, like the military leaders, these advisers to the President have evidently forgotten that Reagan was elected in no small part because the American people were growing alarmed over the decline of American power that was so dramatically exposed by the hostage crisis in Iran.
As Jimmy Carter learned to his regret, however, the worst of all policies is to use military forces half-heartedly, and fail. And yet, for many years now, successive American governments have opted for this formula, and achieved this result. It began in Vietnam with the cost-efficiency theory of military power, and it continued with the Nixon Doctrine under which others would do the fighting while we did the supplying. It is also the basis for our actions in Central America and in Africa today, where we are training various countries to resist Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya while studiously avoiding the commitment of our own power.
This approach has failed on one battlefield after another, and it is unlikely to succeed now. To take the Lebanese case, the Syrians and their proxies were able to probe our intentions until they discovered that the Western forces would not fight on the ground. At that point their only problem was the Lebanese army (and to some extent the Phalange), with which they were able to deal. As one member of Congress wryly observed, if the Marines were in Lebanon to fight, they were too few; if they were there to die, they were too many.
There is one last point about the use of military power: even our much vaunted ability to strike from the air and the sea seems to have been overstated, in part because of an unwillingness at the Pentagon to turn over decision-making to the officers in the field. The air strikes in the Shuf Mountains, for example, were ordered from Washington, down to the last detail—numbers of planes, the precise hour of the actions, and so forth. Thus bureaucratic habit and jealousy over turf have extended from the corridors of the government to distant battlefields, to the detriment of the national interest.
Nonetheless, until at least late last summer, there were viable military actions that could have been undertaken had we been serious about our support for Amin and our opposition to the Syrian reconquest of Lebanon. This is not the place to discuss such operations in detail, but they could—and should—have been aimed at clearing the Druse and Shiite forces out of the area immediately south and southeast of Beirut, and off the western slopes of the Shuf Mountains. This would have permitted the Lebanese army around Beirut to link up with other mixed and Christian armed forces south of the city, and at least it would have given the new government a substantial zone of the country to manage. Such operations might have been conducted in conjunction with other elements of the multinational force, and/or the Israelis. Indeed, they were proposed, discussed in the White House and in other Western capitals, and rejected. The resulting Western inaction gave the Syrians the opportunity to design and time their actions carefully, picking their targets and judging their effect.
It has been said, by Secretary Shultz among others, that the outcome in Lebanon did not represent so much a failure of American policy as it did an unhappy ending to a fine effort by the United States and its European allies to bring about positive developments. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world must inevitably see the matter in quite different terms. We had thrown our support firmly behind Amin Gemayel and his government. The President said so; our people were sent to Lebanon to train Amin’s army; and the multinational force was supposed to maintain order in Beirut, at least in part to give Amin a chance to mobilize his troops and stabilize the country. The effective collapse of the Lebanese army is therefore an American failure, and so is the Syrian-imposed abrogation of Secretary Shultz’s hard-won Lebanese-Israeli treaty of last May. More serious still, Syrian domination over Lebanon has sent a chill down the spines of other pro-American leaders in the Middle East: once again they have seen a friend of the United States challenged by radical forces, and lose. The comparison that immediately springs to mind is the fall of the Shah of Iran.
Unlike Amin Gemayel, the Shah was a close American friend and ally of long standing, and the Shah’s Iran occupied a crucial position in American geopolitical strategy (along with Saudi money, Iranian military power was one of the two “pillars” of our Middle East security policy). Yet when he was challenged by the radical forces around Khomeini, we did not fight for the Shah, and this frightened our allies around the world, who reasoned that if we were not prepared to defend one of our most important allies, all other American friends were at risk.
Reagan made much of this point when he ran against Carter, as he did of America’s failure to take on the forces of international terrorism, and he promised that we would be more reliable and more vigorous in the future. Lebanon provided the first Middle East test of American resolve, and it has confirmed the fears generated by our behavior at the time of the Shah’s fall. As in Iran, we firmly committed ourselves to a government and then saw that government overthrown by its (and our) enemies without making any effective effort to save it. As in Iran, Americans were directly challenged and ultimately humiliated by radical anti-Western forces. As in Iran, there seemed to be no way we could effectively use our military power to advance our diplomatic objectives.
To be sure, there were major differences. Our commitment in Iran was far deeper, and the challenge to our interests was far greater than in Lebanon. Yet anxious leaders around the world look for patterns in our behavior, and Lebanon recalled Iran and other American defeats in the recent past. In all probability, we shall pay a disproportionate price for our Lebanese failure, precisely because of the background against which it took place.
Our defeat in Lebanon will encourage our enemies, in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is inevitable that those who form the rank and file of international terrorism will conclude that anyone who kills a few Americans can get the United States to do what he wants. Thus we can anticipate a surge in terrorism directed against Americans, both overseas and perhaps even at home. We can also expect the Soviet-supported guerrillas in Central America to take heart from the Lebanese example, and adopt a “Syrian strategy”: keep fighting, and wait for the American will to wane.
The most grateful of all for our failure in Lebanon are the Soviets. Having suffered a most humiliating defeat in the summer of 1982, they then found themselves in the position of a boxer who has been saved by the bell, and whose opponent turns out to be exhausted at the start of the following round. They will not hesitate to push their advantage, both through the terrorist groups that they train and encourage, and through the radical Arab nations with whom they work in the region.
As our enemies will be cheered, our allies and potential friends will be discouraged. It was no accident that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, no pillar of moral strength in any event, publicly warned that an American retreat from Lebanon would be a grave setback for the Middle East. No one should know this better than he. For a brief moment, Sadat’s strategy of making peace with Israel seemed to have been totally vindicated. Now the Egyptians will increasingly distance themselves from the Camp David agreement and, as the current slogan has it, reenter the Arab world.
The Saudis will be similarly discouraged, although they are directly responsible in no small part for the fiasco. Considered by many an important power, Saudi Arabia in reality is a power vacuum, a rich prize for the bands of marauders who inhabit the Middle East. To date, the Saudi government has adopted a traditional policy of paying off its enemies, hoping they will direct their energies against others. But our failure to fight, first for the Shah, and now for Amin Gemayel, makes it more likely that the turn of the Saudi rulers will soon come.
In the darkness of our most recent defeat, there is nonetheless a spark of light. In Lebanon itself, the game will continue to be played. If Israel and others are skillful enough, the Druse and at least some of the Shiites (those who are not enamored of Khomeiniism) will now begin to harass the Syrians as they have harassed the Western forces and Gemayel. And there are still Christians in Lebanon as well, mostly headed for the secure confines of the Israeli zone in the south, but determined to maintain a foothold in their homeland. Syria has won a great victory, but may not be able to enjoy all of the spoils.
But more important than the meager consolations in Lebanon is the fact that there has apparently been an honest recognition in Washington that our Lebanese failure was the result of misunderstanding, above all about the nature of Israel and of the role Israel plays in the Middle East. The revived “strategic partnership” between the United States and Israel seems genuine, all the more so because it emerges after a period of mutual distrust. If, at long last, we have learned that an effective Middle East policy must begin with a solid partnership with Israel, then one can hope for better things in the future. But what a price to have paid.