This Time, Avoid the Lebanese Quagmire

Few countries are as tragic as Lebanon. Once viewed as the Switzerland of the Middle East, some three decades ago the country collapsed into a bitter civil war. The finely tuned sectarian political system fractured amidst numerous Christian and Muslim factions. Multiple Israeli invasions and incursions followed; the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Syria dominated at different times. Lebanon’s recent renaissance has been threatened by Hezbollah’s growing power, Iran’s support for Hezbollah, Israel’s 2006 invasion, ongoing political paralysis, and the latest flare-up of sectarian violence.

Washington should stay out.

For the Bush administration, foreign conflict is like a light to moths. The U.S. cannot keep away. Convinced that the so-called Cedar Revolution was going to deliver a democratic Mideast ally for the U.S., administration policymakers are now desperate to salvage what has become yet another policy failure.

It isn’t possible. And it isn’t worth trying.

Washington’s first intervention in Lebanon was in 1958. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in 14,000 Marines to stabilize Beirut, which was wracked by civil disturbances. Three months later the mission ended. The effort was a success in the sense that nothing much happened: that was well before the Lebanese government had collapsed, the PLO had become a significant military force, radical mullahs had seized control of Iran, and the U.S. government had become a pariah in the Muslim world. The region was not teeming with people determined to kill Americans. U.S. forces quickly returned home.

President Ronald Reagan’s worst policy mistake was to join the multi-faceted Lebanese civil war in 1983 in an attempt to bolster the official government in Beirut – which controlled little more than Beirut – and ease the security concerns of Israel, which had invaded in an attempt to destroy the PLO. The experience was far different than in 1958. By 1969 Palestinian military operations against Israel had shifted from Jordan to Lebanon. In 1975 Lebanon dissolved into civil war. Israel invaded in 1978 and again, and much more massively, in 1982.

At that point U.S. intervention was, frankly, a nutty idea.

Formally introduced in 1982 as part of a "peace-keeping" mission – which, President Reagan said, was "not to act as a police force, but to make it possible for the lawful authorities of Lebanon to do so themselves" – the U.S. contingent became just another combatant in the bitter sectarian strife. Explained analysts Tom Cooper and Eric Palmer at the time: "The Israelis saw the Western intervention as support for their efforts and interests; the Muslims – and especially the Lebanese Shia – believed the Americans and other troops were there to support and reinforce the Christians and protect the Israelis; and the Christians believed that the [Multi-National Force] troops would help them increase their influence in the country." Lebanese President Amine Gemayel visited Washington, the U.S. armed the Christian Phalanga militia and Lebanese army, U.S. special forces trained the latter, and American troops mounted joint patrols with the Lebanese. No surprise, wrote John H. Kelly of Rand, "In Lebanon it looked very much as if the United States had taken up arms in behalf of the Christians." All of this made targets of the Americans, along with the French (the Italians managed to stay out of the crossfire).

Muslim and Druze forces began attacking U.S. troops in March and a car bomb destroyed the U.S. embassy in April. The U.S. government retaliated, and fighting continued into the fall. Consider some of the headlines in the New York Times in September 1983: "U.S. Ships Enter Lebanon Fighting Shelling Hill Site," "Reagan Upgrading Lebanon Presence," "U.S. Warships Fire in Direct Support of Lebanese Army," "A Major Turn in U.S. Role," "2 U.S. Warships Again Bombard Artillery Batteries Outside Beirut," and "In the Druze Hills, a Burst of Anger is Directed at U.S."

President Reagan seemed to have a growing appreciation for the mess into which he’d tossed the Marines. In his September 6, 1983 diary entry he confided: "We lost 2 more Marines last night in Beirut. The Civil War is running wild & could result in collapse of the Gemayal govt. & and stuff would hit the fan. One father asked if they were in Lebanon for anything that was worth his son’s life."

Four days later Reagan declared: "The situation is worsening. We may have a choice of getting out or enlarging our mission." On the 11th he wrote: "Our problem is do we expand our mission to aid the army with artillery & air support. This could be seen as putting us in the war." Reagan went on to authorize use of naval gunfire, which he suggested on the 19th "still comes under the head of defense."

Unsurprisingly, the opposing factions in the civil war did not see it that way. The U.S. unabashedly became an active participant in the conflict. On September 20 the New York Times reported: "American involvement in the Lebanese crisis took a significant new turn today when the United States Navy began firing its guns not to defend American soldiers under attack but to support the operations of a Lebanese Army unit. [This action] marked the first time American forces had acted under the new rules of engagement given them by President Reagan last Tuesday." Washington thus turned its service personnel into legitimate targets of war. On October 23 a radical group – Hezbollah is routinely blamed but denies responsibility – hit the Marine Corps barracks, the most visible and vulnerable symbol of U.S. power, killing 241 Americans.

President Reagan responded with the usual rhetoric of resolve, talking about protecting "vital interests" and preserving "peace throughout the Middle East." Secretary of State George Shultz warned: "If we are driven out of Lebanon, radical and rejectionist elements will have scored a major victory."

The U.S. launched additional air and naval strikes. On December 5 Reagan wrote: "We took out 11 anti-aircraft & missiles launching sites, a radar installation & an ammo dump." On the 11th he exulted that "The [battleship] New Jersey finally did it!", firing in retaliation for an attack on U.S. reconnaissance planes.

But eventually President Reagan recognized that, as the Marine father had earlier pointed out, the U.S. was achieving nothing worth the loss of life. In February 1984 the Marines "redeployed" to ships off-shore, which soon sailed for home. One of the least productive and most pointless U.S. military interventions ever – and that is saying something – was over.

Yet Ronald Reagan’s decision to get out has led to a round of criticism from unregenerate hawks. Never mind that Lebanon involved no important strategic interests and could not be "fixed," whatever that would mean, at anything approaching reasonable cost. These critics contended that America should have stayed.

For instance, President George W. Bush argued that "the terrorists saw our response to the hostage crisis in Iran, the bombings in the Marine barracks in Lebanon," and similar incidents, and "concluded that we lacked the courage and character to defend ourselves, and so they attacked us." Vice President Richard Cheney criticized proposals to withdraw from Iraq in "the same way we withdrew from Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1993," which would "validate the al-Qaeda strategy and invite even more terrorist attacks." Two years ago former CIA Director James Woolsey advocated bombing Syria since "I think both Syria and Iran think that we’re cowards. They saw us leave Lebanon after the ’83 Marine Corps bombing."

Author David Pryce-Jones charged that "When the entire force was then withdrawn in panic, a single terrorist appeared to be more powerful than the United States." Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic complained that Reagan telegraphed "the message that America’s sons and daughters are dying for nothing," reducing the public’s willingness to risk U.S. lives. Philip Klein of the American Spectator called the withdrawal "the biggest mistake" of Reagan’s presidency, "because it sent the message to terrorists that they could attack us and we wouldn’t have the appetite to respond." He cited a statement by Osama bin Laden dismissing America’s "false courage" after the bombing.

Klein went on to blame most everything bad that happened in Lebanon over the last 25 years on Reagan’s decision to pull out U.S. forces in 1984. Similarly, Michael Young, a journalist living in Lebanon, complained that "the ‘citadel of freedom’ abandoned the Lebanese to a long night of a Syrian hegemony, to an extended period of militia rule, and to six more years of savage civil war."

The argument that America should have remained in Lebanon barely rises to the bizarre. No doubt, America’s withdrawal enhanced a perception of U.S. government weakness. But those who cite bin Laden’s words should acknowledge that the failed intervention also created a new grievance that inspired future terrorist attacks. On October 2004 bin Laden declared: "The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon. And the American Sixth Fleet helped them do that. And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind – and that we should destroy the towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted, and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children."

The fact that Washington’s Lebanese misadventure both made America a target and created a perception of weakness reinforces the argument that America should not intervene in conflicts where no vital interests are at stake. No such interests were evident in Lebanon. The situation was tragic, but more tragic than Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Zaire, Cambodia, Mozambique, and a host of other conflict-ridden nations? Hardly.

In any case, tragic though Lebanon was, it was not the duty of patriotic young Americans to end Syrian hegemony, overthrow militia rule, terminate the civil war, and fix a disintegrating country. Indeed, one must wonder what the Reagan critics would have done. There was no panic-stricken withdrawal. To the contrary, Washington did respond militarily.

But previous air and naval strikes led those targeted by the American government to retaliate by bombing the Marines. America had become a combatant and therefore had no complaint about being attacked. Should the U.S. have gone double or nothing, rushing in Army divisions, more air units, a couple of carrier groups, and additional Marines? Should the U.S. have attempted to impose its favored factional head as government leader? Should the U.S. have dismantled the existing government and attempted to remake the entire country? Should the U.S. have attacked Syria to end its interference in Lebanese affairs? The mind boggles at the thought. If dabbling in the Lebanese civil war was foolish, going global social engineer and playing nation-builder in Lebanon would have been insane. Think Iraq-before-Iraq, inflaming the Muslim world, stoking the fires of terrorism, and forcing Americans to fight an irrelevant brutal guerrilla conflict for years.

In 1990 the Lebanese civil war finally, and thankfully, ended – without Washington’s help. The country revived, but faced new challenges in the form of continuing Syrian meddling, the rise of a potent and autonomous Hezbollah military, the "Cedar Revolution" mounted by a disparate band of opposition, pro-Western factions, a bloody Israeli invasion two summers ago, and, most recently, several months of stalemate over choosing a new president. With the brief but bloody gun battles in Beirut and elsewhere between Hezbollah and the Sunni and Druze militias backing the government, the Shia-dominated Hezbollah appears to have cemented its dominant position in Lebanon.

So now the Bush administration, not busy enough dealing with policy failures throughout the Middle East, is seeking to bolster the Lebanese government and military. But since 2006 Washington already has provided the Lebanese government with $1.3 billion in assistance, about $400 million of that for the military. The Lebanese forces remain outgunned by Hezbollah. Moreover, in the latest round of fighting, the army studiously avoided engaging Hezbollah and locals talk of a deal whereby the multi-sectarian force has agreed to maintain neutrality in any conflict.

U.S. officials also are suggesting tightening sanctions against Syria. Iran already is high on Washington’s target list. Yet the failure to deal with or even talk to both states encourages them to play against America in Lebanon. The U.S. government’s assumption that it can browbeat anyone it dislikes into submission was wrong yet again.

Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton blames the current mess on "two years of a lack of U.S. policy in Lebanon," but what should Washington have done? Intervened militarily on the ground in another Middle Eastern country? Battled Hezbollah and dissident Christian factions? Imposed America’s choice for president?

The Druze called for an emergency airlift to their sectarian forces, but little more than two years ago the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, was applauding the killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. A quarter century ago the Druze were battling U.S. forces. One Druze advocate claimed: "If you lose Lebanon, you lose the Middle East. If the U.S. does nothing, this sends a chilling message to the rest of the region."

This is nonsense. Lebanon has been lost for 30 years, assuming it ever was America’s to lose. It has 17 different religious sects and a dozen armed factions. Hezbollah, which arose in response to the Israeli invasion of 1983, today is the dominant power in Lebanon. Analyst Mohammad Bazzi says: "I think Hezbollah showed that it can control all of Beirut very quickly, that it could control other parts of Lebanon very quickly; it really displayed the military and tactical advantages." Precisely how Washington could fix Lebanon absent initiating full-scale war, and precisely how initiating full-scale war could fix Lebanon, are unexplained.

Moreover, the Mideast already is an American disaster. The problem is too much intervention, and especially too much military intervention. It is extraordinary: virtually every American attempt to micro-manage affairs – Iran, Iraq, Israel-Palestinian relations, Lebanon – has ended in disaster. So how can anyone credibly claim that this time will be different?

Lebanon is a tragedy for the Lebanese. But it is a warning for the U.S. No matter how much Washington bloviates, demands, screams, and dictates, it cannot force the rest of the world to do as America says. This policy, if it deserves to be called that, hasn’t worked in the Middle East or anywhere else. How many more Americans must die and how much more American money must be wasted over how many more years before Washington finally learns this elemental lesson? Another civil war in Lebanon would be horrific, but American involvement in another civil war in Lebanon would be even worse.