What America hasn't learned from its greatest peacekeeping disaster.
The picture was taken from the southern suburbs of the city. It's a steady picture, well-centered, and correctly exposed. Very likely the camera was already set up on a tripod, already pointed in the right direction. The incredible noise and the shock wave was all it took to alert the photographer that it was almost time to click the shutter. The man looking through the viewfinder was probably an Amal militiaman who, like the Marines below him, had been waiting, waiting, waiting. Only difference was, he knew what he was waiting for.
Taken just seconds after detonation, the picture reveals the dread mushroom shape already towering above a wounded city--a deadly copy of its instantly recognizable Hiroshima cousin. And although the blast was non-nuclear, it was nearly as large as the ones that ended World War II. Below several hundred feet of grey-white toadstool puff is a much more formless smoke-storm of nasty black. Below that is what's left of American Middle East policy for 1983--241 dead Marines and a lot of questions. The Marines should be left to rest in peace. But the questions should be raised.
The picture of the explosion should be much more famous than it is. This was, after all, the outcome of the first major foray into foreign diplomacy by George Shultz and Robert "Bud" McFarlane. One night not too long ago, you could flip on "MacNeil/Lehrer" and watch McFarlane explain how we should deal with Lebanon. You'd never guess that he once actually had that job. And screwed it up royally. We aren't likely to do better next time until we understand why the U.S. failed so miserably in Lebanon the last time.
There were two official government investigations of the bombing of the Marines at the Beirut airport--the report issued by the House armed services investigations subcommittee, and the report issued on behalf of the Department of Defense by an ad hoc collection of retired senior military officers called the Long Commission. Both investigations were limited to questions pertinent to operations within the military. Indeed, the most concrete action to come out of these investigations was the issuing of "nonpunitive letters of caution" to the two senior Marine officers at the airport, effectively ending their careers. In short, the real extent of the government's look at itself in the Beirut debacle was that a colonel and a lieutenant colonel got fired.
Christians 6, Moslems 5
Once you start probing the whole Beirut affair, it becomes clear why official Washington was satisfied with such an artificially narrow look at it. Because the people truly responsible were at much higher levels of government. Way above colonel.
A bit of history is central to the story. Lebanon was carved out of the old Turkish Empire after World War I and administered by the French under a mandate from the League of Nations. The newly partitioned population was dominated by Christians, but there were a lot of Moslems too. Under the French, a system of government evolved that guaranteed the supremacy of Christians in every facet of Lebanese life. In politics, there was a precise formula that reserved the office of president for a christian, the premiership for a Sunni Moslem, and the speakership of the Parliament for a Shiite Moslem, and that apportioned the Parliament in a way that guaranteed Christians a 6 to 5 ratio over Moslems. Similar mechanisms were in force in the civil service and the army.
This system stayed in place long after the demographics had changed dramatically. The power struggle between Lebanon's Moslems and Christians only intensified after the French left in 1946, and would punctuate the next 40-plus years. in 1958, fighting between the two factions prompted the Christian president of Lebanon to request American assistance. The U.S. responded by sending in 14,000 Marines, whose presence was stabilizing enough for elections to be held. Having sustained only three fatalities--two of them by drowning during recreational swims--the Marines were back home again in four months. In the 1970s, Lebanese strife went from bad to a horrible form of worse. As a result of the PLO's expulsion from Jordan, Palestinians were flooding into the country, but Lebanon's Christians were still trying to dominate the growing Moslem majority. In 1975, the conflict erupted into civil war.
Lebanon's sectarian battles presented problems and opportunities for Syria, to the east and north, and for Israel, to the south. Each country--a sworn enemy of the other--was wary of the burgeoning Palestinian presence there, and each wanted to bring Lebanon into its own sphere of influence. Syrian army units originally entred the fighting at the invitation of the Christians, but by the early 1980s, they were slugging it out in enormous artillery duels with Christian forces, duels that continue to this day. In June 1982, Israel reacted to what it viewed as the intolerably expanded Lebanese operations of the PLO and Syria with a massive invasion of Lebanon. Although Israel supposedly had promised the U.S. that its only aim in doing so was to provide a security zone for its northern border, in the operation Israel destroyed a quarter of the Syrian air force and some 300 Syrian tanks. Within days Israeli troops were in the suburbs of Beirut.
And that's where the U.S. came in again in 1982. With the PLO surrounded and its back to the sea, Yassir Arafat wanted his fighters out of Lebanon. But he also wanted some sort of third-party military presence to ensure that his forces weren't routed in the bargain. And the Israelis, fearful of a less than thorough evacuation, insisted on U.S. participation in the scheme. The answer arrived at was a multinational force (MNF), comprised of U.S. Marines and French and Italian forces, which successfully supervised the peaceful departure of 15,000 PLO fighters from Lebanon. Having done their job, the MNF forces left Beirut in early September 1982.
Four days later, Bashir Gemayel, the head of the Christian Phalange Militia, who, under Israeli sponsorhip, was about to be installed as the new president of Lebanon, was blown up by a bomb at his headquarters. Two days after that, revenge-seeking Phalangist troops entered the West Beirut Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and murdered hundreds of innocent civilians. After these two bloody developments, Amin Gemayel--who replaced his slain brother as the head of the Phalange militia and of the fledgling Lebanese government--requested that the MNF return to Beirut for an indefinite period to provide stability. After the Sabra and Shatila episode, it wasn't clear that Gemayel could even control his own Phalange faction; he certainly couldn't control the Moslem factions and Syria and Israel.
Since a key part of the deal to evacuate the PLO had been the U.S.'s written promise that the Palestinian civilians left behind would not be harmed by the Lebanese Christian militias or Israeli troops, the request to reenter Lebanon was received with a considerable amount of American guilt. A Washington Post editorial caught the mood: Sending in the Marines again demonstrated that "the United States was still prepared to do its duty as a leader of the community of free nations. . . . A lesser response could have been the signal of an American retreat from responsibility."
But unlike when the Marines evacuated the PLO, this time they had no specific military objective or timetable. Their official orders merely stated that their mission was to provide "a presence in Beirut, that would in turn help establish the stability necessary for the Lebanese government to regain control of their [sic] capital." The fuzzy language was vintage State Department--emphasizing that we were only there at the request of the host government. But its vagueness set the stage for later tragedy, since it provided cover for military adventurers like McFarlane, who would later distort the mission from bipartisan peacekeeping into active military support for the Gemayel government.
The next mistake was made on September 29, 1982, when 1,200 Marines went back in. The problem was their location: they took up positions in and around the Beirut airport, which was chosen for its distance from beirut's mean streets and its closeness to the sea, which facilitated supply and, if need be, quick evacuation. Also, it was hoped that the Marines could keep the airport open--a superficial but commonly cited index of normality in turbulent locations. Despite these pluses, the airport was a disastrous choice for regular military operations. It was low, open ground--completely vulnerable to hostile artillery fire from the nearby Shouf mountains.
But perhaps regular military operations didn't seem too relevant at the outset of the Marines' deployment. War-weary Lebanese of many factions were glad to have them there, viewing them as friends and protectors. Indeed, when daily jeep and foot patrols into the neighboring predominantly shiite suburbs started in November, they were a big hit. "When we first arrived in Beirut, it was just great," one of the U.S. troops later told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. "People were always stopping you and giving you things. We felt really appreciated."
Even so, Lebanon in 1982-83 was not a simple place for any country trying to make peace, not to mention for America trying to make peace. Yes, the Christian militias and the Lebanese government they dominated were mostly pro-Western and pro-American, but the Moslem side of the equation was more complex. There were Lebaneze Druze, Lebanese Shiites, and Syrians and Palestinians and Iranians. Some of these Arabs had no initial hatred for Americans. Although the Druze had from time to time cast their lot with the PLO, they were politically conservative and hence not truly comfortable with the PLO's doctrinaire leftist anti-Americanism. The Druze repeatedly claimed that as long as the Marines and the Israelis left them alone, their only quarrel was with the Christians. And Lebanese Shiite Moslems--the most downrodden of all Lebanon's Moslem sects--had initially welcomed the Marines because they were only too happy to be rid of their arch-enemies, the Sunni Palestinians. There were even Shiite units in the Lebanese army receiving U.S. supplies and training.
But there were other Moslem factions implacably hostile no matter what the U.S. did. And, measured in the Middle East, "implacably hostile" takes on new meaning. To cite just one example: earlier that same year, Hafez al-Assad, the president of Syria, had, in the throes of a sectarian feud, unleashed an artillery assault on a Syrian town called Hama that killed 20,000 of his own countrymen. As the Marines took up their new post, they were being watched by enemies accustomed to playing by the region's "Hama rules" (Thomas Friedman's phrase)--including about 1,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, sent by the Ayatollah Khomeini to recruit Lebanese Shiites as anti-American Terrorists.
So, crudely put, where America was concerned, Lebanon had "good" Arabs (sympathetic to the U.S.), "bad" Arabs (unwaveringly hostile), and plenty of Arabs on the fence. Now, it could be persuasively argued that by late 1982, there were already so many "bad" Arabs in Lebanon that the Marine peacekeeping mission should never have been attempted in the first place. But if the Marines were to go in, it's clear that any U.S. peacekeeping mission would have one absolutely inviolable requirement--zealously guarding our image of nonpartisanship among all the neutral Arabs. Actually siding with one faction, or even just appearing to, would turn neutral Arabs into hostile ones. For the Marine mission to Lebanon to have any chance for success, we had to scrupulously avoid knocking Arabs off the fence.
So how, then, was it that we spent the next year doing just that--knocking the Arabs off the fence, in a way that virtually guaranteed the Marines' demise? It's a two-part question really: a) How did the U.S. turn neutral Arabs into hateful ones? and b) Why didn't the U.S. know about the dangers posed to its Lebanon mission by this large and growing anti-Americanism? Not understanding a) was like lighting a fuse. Not understanding b) was like standing around and watching it burn.
The failure to understand began in earnest with George Shultz. During the first months of renewed U.S. military presence in Lebanon, the newly-installed secretary of state made most of the decisions on Lebanon, working closely with the U.S. special envoy, Philip Habib. Shultz was new to the region, and, indeed, new to diplomacy, but Habib was a former foreign service officer who knew the Middle East well--it was Habib who engineered the PLO evacuation. Shultz thought that if the Israelis got a good enough deal, including tangible political, military, and even economic benefits, they could be convinced to leave Lebanon. And if the Israelis left, Shultz reasoned, then Syria could be persuaded to follow suit.
On the surface, this was the same formula that the U.S. had successfully pursued with the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, but to Shultz it may have had other appeals as well. By involving himself with a high-visibility negotiation, Shultz could gain the stature that had proven so elusive for some of his recent predecessors at State--recall how William Rogers was eclipsed by Henry Kissinger. And, indeed, no sooner had Shultz arrived in the Middle East than Time was reporting that "the secretary appears to be conducting a one-man negotiation," and that the Israelis thought he had "asked all the right questions." Also, in offering the Israelis so much of what they wanted, Shultz could silence other critics, too--those who thought his previous career at Bechtel, which does a lot of business in Arab countries, had left him with an anti-Israeli bias.
Habib's role in the Schultz strategy is not totally clear. Some diplomats believe that Habib expressed skepticism about it to Shultz in private. But he never took that view in any wider forum. Habib's loyalty as a good organization man seems to have overruled any misgivings he may have had about Shultz's plan.
Whatever Shultz's motivation, by the spring of 1983 it was clear his approach was off the mark. Shultz's tack corroded America's appearance of even-handedness when he should have been jealously guarding it. If the U.S. was to serve as a regional peacemaker, that meant coming across to all sides as scrupulously fair. By coming back into Lebanon for strictly humanitarian purposes, the U.S. got off to a good start on this count, but by pressing for an agreement that gave voice to many of Israel's strongest demands about Lebanon, Shultz's diplomacy was undercutting our stance as peacemaker.
But once Shultz fixed on his course of action, he could not be deterred. Nicholas Veliotes, the assistant secretary of state in charge of the whole Middle East, told Shultz the plan wouldn't work; so did every one of Shultz's ambassadors to a major Arab state, at a closed-door meeting before the final round of Lebanon negotiations. At that meeting, for example, Robert Dillon, the ambassador to Lebanon, argued that the strategy was doomed because Gemayelhs support inside Lebanon was much more narrow than the Shultz/Habib strategy presupposed. Gemayel certainly couldn't speak for all of Lebanon in addressing Israel because he didn't control all of Lebanon. He didn't even control all of West Beirut.
This was the background for the accord between Lebanon and Israel--personally presided over by Shultz--which became knonw as the May 17 agreement. According to the agreement, in return for withdrawing its troops, Israel was granted de facto recognition by Lebanon, while still retaining considerable control over the military situation inside southern Lebanon. The accord put strict limits on the number of Lebanese forces allowed in southern Lebanon while yielding control of the area to the Israeli-sponsored South Lebanon Army.
These features played very badly in much of the Arab world--the dominant Arab perception was that this U.S.-forged agreement forced Lebanon to recognize Israel, while ceding the Israelis real power. Moreover, there was an incredible "side agreement" provision that meant that for all these palpable drawbacks, nothing had truly been gained after all: not one word of the agreement took effect unless Syria removed its troops--something Syria's Assad immediately refused to do. So the Israelis didn't leave then either. In fact, in linking Israeli withdrawal to Syrian cooperation, the accord gave Syria new power to keep the Israelis bogged down and doomed any hope of a quick Marine withdrawal.
George Shultz called the agreement a "milestone." In retrospect, it was a millstone. Without really changing anything on the ground, the U.S. had managed to lose its standing as a neutral broker. According to Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy, the accord "showed what a naif Shultz was. He just didn't understand Lebanon. He thought it was a country like any other, but it's not a country--it's a collection of tribes."
The fuse was lit.
Meanwhile, as U.S. diplomacy was setting the Marines up, U.S. intelligence was letting them down. The need for good intelligence in Lebanon should have been obvious from the start, since no matter what the U.S. did, there would be large numbers of "bad" Arabs out to get us--and willing to play by Hama rules. Once the U.S. began violating its image of impartiality, driving more Arabs into the "bad" camp, the need for good intelligence only grew stronger. Exhibit A of that need came on April 18, 1983, when a bomb-laden kamikaze truck blew up the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Responsibility for the act was claimed by a previously unknown Shiite group, pleding allegiance to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Virtually the entire CIA contingent for Lebanon was killed inside the embassy when it blew up. The Lebanon CIA people were so uninformed that they weren't even able to protect themselves.
In subsequent months, intelligence blunders compounded. In June, a special Defense Department team returned from a trip to Beirut with word that the Marines were not being given adequate intelligence about terrorists. The Pentagon ignored the news. And as Jim McGee of The Miami Herald later reported, after the embassy bombing, the CIA sent two officers into Lebanon who discovered that a five-man, Iranian-financed ring did the deed and that the key member of the plot was a very high-level official of the Phalange--the group that dominated the Lebanese government. The CIA learned this months before the bombing of the Marine barracks. But incredibly, the CIA never told the Marines.
Kept in the dark, the Marines continued to rely on Lebanese government officials and soldiers. And that may have been the habit that cost them their lives. Because the initial arrangements for the Marine mission in Beirut stressed a low-profile presence, and an expanded role for the Lebanese army, the latter was given primary responsibility for vehicle inspections along the airport's outer borders. No one knows for sure how the bomb-truck got into the airport, but the best guess is that it came through the Lebanese army checkpoints along the highway. But if the Marines had known that a high-level Phalange had helped bomb the embassy, they almost certainly would have restricted the ready Phalange access to their compound and would have tightened security along the outer perimeter as well.
Even before leaving Washington, the CIA agents who undertook the embassy bombing investigation were ordered not to cooperate with the teams the FBI sent to Lebanon to investigate. This was repeated to them upon their arrival by new Lebanon CIA station chief William Buckley--who was later kidnapped and murdered by the same terrorist crowd the agents were trying to stymie. When one of those agents returned to Washington briefly before leaving on his next assignment, it became inescapably clear that the CIA headquarters as well, the prevailing attitude towards the embassy bombing investigation was apathy. "When I came back, no one debriefed us," he remembers. "No one even asked us to file a written report. On my own initiative I went back to the office where we had been sending reels and reels of tape we made during our investigation. There was one Arab girl with a couple of tape recorders, months behind in transcribing the tapes we sent her."
The fuse was burning brightly now. And we were just watching it glow.
Cowboys in the saddle
Now it was the turn of Ronald Reagan's National Security Council to make things worse.
There was never any such thing as an "administration line" on Lebanon. While George Shultz wanted to send the Marines into Lebanon to bolster his diplomacy, the Pentagon desperately wanted to keep them out. Most military leaders had serious misgivings about a "presence" mission, with no clear goals. As Francis "Bing" West, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, later explained in a Keenedy School case study on Lebanon: "[The Marine mission] stuck many in the Pentagon as having a high degree of danger, without explicit orders as to what the MArines would do. . . ." Moreover, one word was in the back of almost every senior military mind: Vietnam. Few military officials wanted an overseas deployment without firm and express congressional approval. As one senior officer put it, "The top echelons of the military had formed a 'Never Again Club.'"
But the Pentagon dovishness on Lebanon was finally outweighed by the hwkishness of the NSC, which, under Ronald Reagan, had taken on a crazy cowboy quality. Nowhere was the recklessness of the Reagan agenda better represented than at the NSC.
If Vietnam was at bottom the reason the Defense Department wanted to stay out of Lebanon, it was also the reason the NSC wanted to go in. Throughout the crisis, the NSC's more cavalier staff members spoke of the chance to overcome, once and for all, the "post-Vietnam syndrome," which they saw as paralyzing U.S. foreign policy. Their guiding thought was: "What was the point of the big Reagan defense build-up if our renewed military capacity couldn't be used in situations like Lebanon?" (Two days after the Marine bombing, the Reagan administration found a more docile setting to fight a war--Grenada.) Thus, the NSC hawks kept devising new proposals to expand out military role in Lebanon. At one point they came up with a plan calling for the deployment there of 63,000 U.S. troops.
The NSC's compact size makes it a particularly dangerous agency with hawks at the helm. With the passive William Clark holding the post of national security advisor, McFarlane, and his like-thinking aides Geoffrey Kemp and Howard Teicher, were able to dominate the same staff. And unlike State or Defense, the NSC was small enough to pack up and take most of its key people "operational" in the field--it could gain the kind of upper hand an organization gets when its top echelons are on the scene. According to the Keenedy School study, the Washington inner circle at State tended to dismiss the NSC zealots as "a bunch of bright kids hanging around and making comments." But they were hanging around the While House and were making those comments to the president.
The Washington turf battles over Lebanon cried out for resolution. But McFarlan thought he could supply it.
After the May 17 agreement, Syria's Assad would no longer talk to Habib, citing the agreement as a personal betrayal; so a new presidential envoy was needed. McFarlene, then deputy directo of the NSC, was tapped for the job.
While Shultz had already made the Marines vulnearble by rendering our diplaomacy partisan, McFarlane would finish the job by making our military partisan as well. McFarlane was so anixious for the U.S. to throw its military weight around in Lebanon that he usually avoided even consulting anyone who might counsel differently. Morris Draper, who had been Habib's assistant, recalls how close-minded McFarlane was during his arrival in July. "He didn't even want to be briefed [by the outgoing envoy team]," Draper said. "But Shultz made him. He had his own views and didn't want to hear others." Dillon, the former ambassador to Lebanon, says McFarlene and his aids refused to talk with Habib for fear of being "tainted."
Mr Farlene's refusal to confer with the area's experts was almost criminal, particulary given his lack of background; althought he was a former Macine lieutenant colonel, he's d scarcely set foot in the Middle East before. By contract, Habib had spent much of his career mastering its intracies. Even if McFarlene intended to change the region's policy, and even if he considered 90 percent of the professional diplomats' views to be fudge, he still could have leared a tremendous amount by putting questions to the smartest people. McFarlane's disdain for Habib was yet another embodiment of the Reagan ideological spirit--stick to your bias and let the facts be damned.
New gang in town
McFarlane quickly aligned himself with Amin Gemayel's narrow, and widely hated, Phalange faction. McFarlane had managed to get himself and his deputy brought into Lebanon above Dillon in the diplomatic chain. And in that superior position, McFarlane went alone to talk with Amin Gemayel--something Habib would never have done--and then at Gemayel's urging, ordered Dillon to break off all communications with the leader of the Druze militia. The original American plan for dealing with Lebanese factionalism leaned heavily on the idea of strengthening the Lebanese army and making it truly multi-sectarian. But not only was Gemayel failing to open up his army and government to Moslems; in attempting to assert government control over West Beirut, he was arresting them in wholesale numbers, and dynamiting their homes. The more McFarlane's fidelity to the Gemayel government increased, the more he turned previously neutral Arabs against us.
And it wasn't as if McFarlane had no leverage over Gemayel; he controlled huge amounts in military aid that Gemayel wanted desperately. Not to mention that he could probably get the Marines taken out of the country with a couple of phone calls.
Because of McFarlane's partisanship and because of the Iranian recruiting campaign among Lebanese Shiites--which that partisanship helped make more successful--by the late summer of 1983, Lebanon's anti-American population was growing fast. This trend accelerated in September, when domestic pressures on the Begin government peaked, forcing the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Shouf mountains southeast of the Beirut airport. With the Israelis out of the Shouf, Syrian-sponsored Druze militias, as well as the increasingly hostile Shiite groups, began to infiltrate the western and southern suburbs of Beirut and the high ground to the east overlooking the Marines. By this time, as a result of the growing U.S. support for the Gemayel government, the Druze were pretty soured on the Americans. Together, the Shiites and Druze constituted, as one of the Marine commanders said later, "a new gang in town."
And it wasn't long before the new gang was shooting at the Marines. They weren't shooting at the nearby Lebanese positions and hitting Marines with a few stray rounds by mistake. They were shooting at the Marines. Exposed on their low, open ground, the Marines were now subject to nearly constant artillery and mortar barrages.
At the end of August, the Marines at the airport suffered their first fatalities from Moslem fire. At first, the Marines and an offshore Navy cruiser responded by firing nonlethal illumination rounds over the guiltly Druze position. But when, despite this warning, the incoming rounds kept slamming into the Marine bunkers at the rate of four a minute, the Marines used live artillery fire in response for the first time, silencing the Druze weapons.
Two days later, the Marine jeep patrols into the towns adjacent to the airport, which a few months before were still being enthusiastically greeted by the Lebanese, were called off.
Any hope the Marines ever had for playing peace-keeper was now lost. And, given their untenable geographic position, there was no way to win an artillery exchange. With their image of neutrality shattered, and with the shells falling, only one sensible option remained: McFarlane should have ordered the Marines out of the airport and back onto their ships.
Instead, McFarlane plunged into the new fighting up to his eyeballs. Making nearly constant use of satellite communications with the White House, McFarlane soon won approval for a number of exppanded military measures: Navy fighters from carriers off the coast began flying reconnaissance missions over the Shouf; more Navy ships started returning fire against Druze positions; the battleship New Jersey was alerted for deployment off the coast of Lebanon; and 2,000 more Marines were added to the Navy fleet just offshore. Each of these measures further imperiled the peacekeeping mission and put the Marines in further danger. With the military role expanding, so too was the likelihood of deaths among Moslem civilians. And the thirst for revenge that would cause would not be directed against the carriers and battleships--they were too far away. It would be directed against the Marines--who, tied to their low ground, remained in easy reach.
As disastrous as these new U.S. tactics were, they were as least self-defense. But McFarlane would not settle for that. He saved his most perverse move for last--he put the U.S. forces in Lebanon on the offensive.
This fatal new military involvement came in connection with fighting between Lebanese government troops and Druze forces at the Shouf village of Suq-al-Gharb. In the second week of September, McFarlane became convinced that the fighting at Suq-al-Gharb was an all-or-nothing Druze offensive, and that if the Lebanese army was not strongly supported by American firepower in response, the town and even the government itself might, as he put it in a message back to the White House, be routed "within 24 hours." In making his request to Washington for U.S. artillery and tactical aircraft to support the Lebanese army at Suq-al-Gharb, McFarlane also passed along reports of Palestinian and Iranian fighters joining the fight on the side of the Druze, reports fed to him by Lebanese government and army officials.
What McFarlane was now asking for went far beyond anything the U.S. military in Lebanon had done before. The Druze that McFarlene decided to attack at Suq-al-Gharb weren't firing at the U.S. It was no longer a question of using U.S. forces to stop the war in Lebanon. McFarlane now wanted them to joint it. In doing so, he would be obliterating the Marines' last pretense of bipartisanship. Could any Lebanese Moslem now be expected to remain neutral towards them?
The estimates of the opposing force's size that McFarlane passed on to Washington proved to be wildly exaggerated, and no hard evidence of significant Palestinian or Iranian involvement in the fighting at Suq-al-Gharb was ever found. And as for the imminence of it all, well, Suq-al-Gharb never fell. Not in 24 hours, not in 24 days. Indeed, as of September 1989, it still hadn't fallen.
Neutrality in shreds
At Suq-al-Gharb, McFarlane may have consciously manipulated his accounts of the situation to further unleash his own desires for battle. Or he may have been misled by the Phalangists.
Or perhaps he just panicked. After all, since coming to Lebanon, he'd been operating constantly on adrenaline and two hours' sleep. And despite the low-key monotone the press knew him by, those who worked around McFarlane knew that he had in fact always been the antithesis of the cool operator. Referring to McFarlane's later suicide attempt in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, one NSC source thinks Lebanon was where McFarlane "first began to become unwrapped."
Before McFarlane could engineer his disastrous military expansion at Suq-al-Gharb, he had a two-fold bureaucratic problem: 1) The "rules of engagement" under which the deployed American forces were operating--dictated by the constraints imposed by the War Powers Act--only permitted hostile fire as a means of self-defense; and 2) All requests for gunfire support had to come from the top Marine commander at the airport, Colonel Timothy Geraghty. McFarlane finessed 1) by stressing for Washington the idea that Suq-al-Gharb was the linchpin for the security of the American forces in Lebanon. Handling 2) required him to go toe-to-toe with Geraghty.
It was quite a struggle. The Marine commander who knew in his bones that calling U.S. fire into the hills would seal the fate of his men, trying to hold off the former artillery officer who seemed to think he was back in his old Marine job, not heading up a negotiating team.
It took a week of shouting matches, with McFarlane frequently using his role as presidential envoy to invoke the wishes of the "Commander-in-Chief." This made it particularly hard for Geraghty since nobody else talking to him was purporting to represent this ultimate level of authority. In a heated phone call with either McFarlane or McFarlane's military advisor (accounts vary), Geraghty shouted that if U.S. fire was used to support the Lebanese army, "we'll get slaughtered."
But Geraghty was in effect arguing with the White House. Moreover, it had to cross his mind that he would be in big trouble if he refused to order the supporting fire and the Lebanese army was then overrun. He finally gave in.
On September 19, a cruiser, two destroyers, and a frigate fired 338 five-inch rounds into the mountains above the airport. The last shreds of Marine neutrality were destroyed with the first naval salvo. The Marine unit's official report of the day's events marked the disastrous turn of events with a subtle change: that day, for the first time, it referred to the antigovernment forces as the "enemy."
The fuse was white-hot now. And short.
A month later, 241 Marines and their four-story building disappeared beneath the towering toadstool. Their average age was 19.
As for Bud McFarlane, he got a promotion. He went on to become National Security Advisor, and, in that post, brought us Iran-Contra. Last year, he pled guilty to four counts of withholding information from Congress. Thought he's out of the government (and the psychiatric wing) now, you can still catch him on the evening news. There before Robert MacNeil's respectful gaze, discoursing on world affairs. I tried to reach him for this story, but he was busy. Traveling in Europe.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 1989|
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