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The warnings Reagan ignored; Marine barracks bombing.

It was one of Ronald Reagan's longest days. The President had planned to chair only one meeting of the National Security Council on october 18, 1983, but it turned into two separate sessions. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had, for the first time, formally presented the Pentagon's recommendation that U.S. marines in Lebanon be pulled out of their vulnerable base at Beirut International Airport. Gen. John Vessey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had made the same proposal informally a few days earlier to Robert McFarlane, the President's national security adviser. Reagan's defense chief and senior military adviser argued that the U.S. peacekeeping role in Lebanon had been wrecked by the U.S. Navy's bombardments of the city and by the marines' firefights with Moslems who were locked in battle with Christian forces. The Central Intelligence agency, working with what analysts later called "good quality" intelligence, had warned the White House of an upsurge in threats of terrorist attacks against the marines, who were seen by Lebanese as siding with Christian President Amin Gemayel in his civil war against Druse and Shiite factions. The marines' enclave at the airport was vulnerable to shelling by Druse artillery in nearby hills and to small-arms fire from neighboring Shiite suburbs. American casualties had climbed sharply in the past month. Holding the low ground seemed another chapter in military madness to nationwide television audiences fed a nightly diet of network combat footage--and to the marines themselves. "It sucks," Lieut. Mark A. Brilakis of Haworth, New Jersey, told a reporter.

At the White House meeting, Weinberger represented generals determined to avoid an untenable military situation in the name of a fuzzy foreign-policy goal. The top brass wanted the marines returned to the ships crusiing offshore. McFarlane and Secretary of State George Shultz opposed the withdrawal. Of all the men in the room that day, McFarlane was most directly responsible for transforming the marines from neutral peacekeepers to pro-Christian combatants. One month earlier, as Reagan's personal representative in Beirut, he had forced the U.S. military commander in Lebanon to use American firepower against the Moslems. Final responsibility for the decision, of course, rested with the President.

A year later, some of those who attended the October 18 meeting insist Reagan never rejected the Pentagon's request to pull the marines out of Beirut. After Weinberger made the case for withdrawal, there was a break during which the defense chief was persuaded to drop the formal recommendation. So, for the record, Reagan was not required to decide on the plan. But at least one senior White House official is haunted by Reagan's missed opportunity that day. "There were so many reasons why we couldn't do it," Edwin Meese 3d told friends recently. "But I wish we had."

Five days after the N.S.C. meeting, Marine guards with unloaded weapons watched as a yellow truck breezed by them through the entrance of the airport base. The truck was filled with explosives and bottled gas, which were detonated in the driveway beneath the headquarters, in which 350 members of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (M.A.U.) were sleeping. Killed in the blast were 241 marines, most of them teen-agers or in their early 20s. The Federal Bureau of Investigation later estimated the explosion was equal to 12,000 pounds of TNT, one of the largest single nonnuclear explosions in American records. That fact is contained in a report by a Defense Department commission set up to investigate the bombing. The commission, whose members had been handpicked by Weinberger, concluded, that one man should be held accountable for the tragedy: Lieut. Col. Howard L. Gerlach, who was in charge of security at the airport base. But Gerlach's security plan had been approved by Col. Timothy Geraghty, commander of the 24th M.A.U., and the Pentagon commission recommended that both men be disciplined.

However, in an unusual move, President Reagan blocked legal proceedings against Geraghty and Gerlach and accepted responsibility for the massacre, saying, "The local commanders have already suffered quite enough." Gerlach was in a coma for several days after the blast, one of more than fifty marines wounded, and has not regained the use of his legs. The President's action forestalled almost certain courts-martial for the two officers. Traditionally, Presidents permit military justice to run its course before considering commutation appeals. But a trial of Geraghty and Gerlach would have publicized in an election year what the Pentagon commission cryptically called "a series of circumstances beyond the control of these commanders that influenced their judgment and their actions relating to the security of the [marines]."

The evidence suppressed about the massacre leads inside the cocoon spun around the former actor by his handlers. The commission, headed by retired Adm. Robert Long, was aware of what took place at the October 18 meeting--that Reagan ignored C.I.A. warnings of a terrorits attack and the recommendations of his senior civilian and uniformed advisers that the marines be pulled out. Had Reagan given the order that day, the troops could have been evacuated within twenty-four hours, Marine Corps officers estimated at the time.

For a variety of conflicting and dubious reasons, members of the commission concede they omitted from their report any discussion of the roles played by Reagan, McFarlane, Weinberger and General Vessey at the meeting, as well as of the confrontation that preceded it between Reagan's men and the U.S. military and State Department in Lebanon. The commission's charter, which was drawn up by Weinberger, specifically prohibited the panel from commenting on "political decisions" involved in the tragedy. Panel members agreed to the restriction because they hoped to influence Reagan to withdraw the marines from Lebanon. According to one member, the commission worried that revealing all the facts about the internal debate would cause the Administration to reject its call for removal of the still-vulnerable U.S. troops. As it happened, that and other commission recommendations submitted on December 20 were ignored by Reagan.

The Administration's handling of the crisis in Lebanon last year was best summed up by Robert Dillon, a career Foreign Service officer and the U.S. Ambassador in Beirut at the time: "It was amateur night." In July 1983, Dillon was brushed aside by two White House aides arriving on their first visit to Lebanon. McFarlane, who had replaced Philip Habib as the President's special Middle East envoy, and Richard Fairbanks, McFarlane's deputy, were made senior to Dillon on Reagan's orders. One of McFarlane's first moves was to instruct Dillon to break off contacts with Walid Jumblat, leader of the Druse community. Until then, Dillon had been mediating disputes between Jumblat and President Gemayel to prevent a resumption of the Moslem-Christian civil war. The U.S. contacts had kept the marines out of the crossfire of Lebanese politics. When Dillon challenged the cutoff order, McFarlane admitted that he had issued it at Gemayel's request. The Lebanese President had complained that Dillon's meetings with Jumblat had enhanced the Druse leaderhs prestige, McFarlane explained. Despite Dillon's protests, McFarlane refused to back down, so the Ambassador made an appeal to Secretary of State Shultz. Shultz put the matter to Reagan, who eventually rescinded McFarlane's order. By then it was mid-August, and McFarlane was frantically trying to contact the Druse leader. Intense fighting between Christian and Druse forces had broken out in the Shuf Mountains, and the marines had come under fire for the first time in their eleven-month stay in Lebanon.

When McFarlane arrived in Lebanon the Shuf was a ticking time bomb. Israeli forces had permitted Christian militia troops to take up positions in the Druse heartland. To calm the resulting uproar in the Druse community in Israel, the Begin government supplied arms to Jumblat's fierce Druse warriors. Meanwhile, Jumblat's main supplier, Syria, had provided artillery and other supplies for the looming confrontation. President Gemayel was seeking to realize his father's dream--Marunistan. He would wrest the Shuf from the Druse and make it part of a Maronite Christian canton, which would include Beirut and which, Jerusalem hoped, would ally itself with Israel. Syria could have the Bekaa Valley. It was the old Lebanese game: archenemies Syria and Israel hoping to capitalize on the Bloody Christian-Moslem civil war. Gemayel's desperate gamble began with the Israeli withdrawal from the Shuf on September 4.

But Reagan and McFarlane saw it as a showdown with the Soviet Union. thirteen warships, including two aricraft carriers, bearing 8,000 to 11,000 American sailors had been assembled off Lebanon's coast in a U.S. show of strength. The 1,400 marines stationed in Beirut were merely the most visible tip of the U.S. sword in the region. The White House view was that Moscow, Syria's major arms supplier, was moving against Lebanon, a vital U.S. ally. It was a view constantly challenged by the State Department and its Middle East experts, who saw Lebanon as a quagmire, the last place to make a stand. In beirut, McFarlane was demanding loyalty to Reagan, whom the former marine constantly referred to as the Commander in chief. "It was all this post-Vietnam syndrome and loyalty crap," said one U.S. Embassy official. But McFarlane got an enthusiastic response from Gemayel, who was losing his gamble in the Shuf. The Israelis had pulled out, despite President Reagan's repeated pleas to Jerusalem that they remain. As they withdrew, they had let 1,000 Christian militia troops loyal to Gemayel through their line to attack Jumblat's forces at a strategic road junction. The Druse butchered them on September 6. The survivors fell back behind the Lebanese Army line around the mountaintop village of Suk al Gharb. The Druse pounded Suk al Gharb with artillery. As long as the line held, the Druse would be prevented from joining up with Shiite militiamen in the Beirut suburbs, who were also surrounded by Lebanese Army units. But the American-trained and -financed Lebanese Army, made up of Druse and Shiite Moslems as well as Christians, was on the verge of disintegrating along factional lines. Gemayel pleaded with McFarlane for American military intervention. "Just a few hours by the American jet planes and they [the Druse] will be finished," explained Sabeeb Salem, a Gemayel confidant. "We are victims of outsiders," moaned the Lebanese President.

Events reached the boiling point on Friday, September 9. That night a series of assaults was launched against Suk al Gharb. There were reports that Syrians, Iranians and the Syrian-controlled Palestine Liberation Army fighters were involved in the attack. McFarlane agreed with the Gemayel government's assessment of the situation: Without U.S. military support, Suk al Gharb would fall. Syrian intervention had changed the odds. But both the marines and the U.S. armada were specifically prohibited by order of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from engaging in combat, reprisals or punitive measures. They could use their weapons only in self-defense, as prescribed by the War Powers Act. Under the act, the President must notify Congress if U.S. forces become involved in foreign hostilities. "What was needed at Suk al Gharb went way beyond self-defense," Dillon later told Pentagon and Congressional investigators. "This was direct combat support for the Lebanese Army against the Druse." In order to skirt the War Powers Act, McFarlane had to make the case that U.S. intervention was an act of self-defense. If the Druse captured Suk al Gharb, he argued, they would threaten the marines and the U.S. Embassy. That was patently bogus. From their present positions, the Druse could bombard the marines, as they had already done.

Nevertheless, President Reagan approved McFarlane's request for U.S. firepower. On September 12, the White House, in a formal message to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered that "direct support of the Lebanese Armed Forces was to be considered as an act of self-defense under the existing rules of engagement." The Pentagon promptly relayed the order, but the Joint Chiefs had tacked on an important cautionary proviso. The order said U.S. firepower could be used only "when the U.S. ground commander determined that Suk al Gharb was in danger of falling." Colonel Geraghty, the boyish-looking commander of the marines at the Beirut airport, was charged with making the determination.

Geraghty was convinced that wider American military intervention in the civil war would endanger his small, vulnerable force. "We'll get slaughtered down here," Geraghty told McFarlane during one shouting match that the tape-recorded by the Marine base's telecommunications center. "We'll pay the price." Geraghty was also convinced that dug-in Lebanese Army troops could withstand the Druse artillery barrages, and he proved to be right. To this day Suk al Gharb is held by the Lebanese Army. For six days, Geraghty refused to call in U.S. naval bombardments. On September 19, following reports that a tank column was approaching the village, he gave in. McFarlane and his aides had invoked the full authority of Reagan's office. "To me, they were speaking for the Commander in Chief," Geraghty later told associates. At 10:04 A.M. the U.S.S. Virginia opened up with its two 5-inch guns. In Washington the next day, Reagan said in an interview: "I have given orders that the marines are going to be able to protect themselves. The fighting is aided and abetted by the Syrians who are definitely influenced by the Soviet forces in their country."

After the Druse positions had been subjected to six days of sporadic shelling, Syria agreed to a cease-fire and negotiations in Geneva. Outwardly, it seemed a victory for Reagan's willingness to use firepower. But the cease-fire meant little to the marines, for they had come under sniper attack from Shiite Moslem forces surrounding the airport. "It very quickly became clear we had miscalculated by becoming involved in the civil war," Dillon told the Pentagon commission. The marines struck back with their own sniper teams, announcing "confirmed kills" to the Western and Lebanese press.

To protect his troops from Shiite fire, Lieut. Col. Larry Gerlach bunked them in the headquarters, made of reinforced concrete. That move reduced the number of casualties, but the Joint Chiefs remained determined to get the soldiers out. They ordered the senior ground forces commander, NATO Gen. Bernard Rogers, to recommend the withdrawal of the marines, and he did so in a memorandum dated October 18, the day of the fateful White House meeting.

Reagan's reasons for opposing the withdrawal are well known: such a move would prompt France, Italy and Britain, the other members of the international peacekeeping force, to retreat from Lebanon--to pull out under pressure from Syria and, more important, the Soviet Union. "It was a calculated gamble by Reagan to keep the marines there," said a Pentagon veteran who participated in the debate. "Reagan gambled and lost."

But that is an inaccurate assessment. The 241 dead marines, their parents, wives and children, their sweethearts and the cripples like Gerlach are the ones who lost. Reagan escaped unscathed and is still cheerily accepting advice from ignorant and inexperienced men, who divide their time between petty bickering and global miscalculation.
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Author:Sloyan, Patrick J.
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 27, 1984
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