Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 3, 1983, Page 2


The Muddle Over the Marines

What are the Administration's goals for the marines in Lebanon?

This is the question about Lebanon that clearly concerns Americans the most, however things turn out in that unhappy country.

Yet more than a year since the marines first landed, a consensus appears to have emerged within Congress and among the public that the Administration has never come forth with a clear and consistent answer.

The impression of confused policymaking was reinforced in the closing days of September, during the Congressional debate preceding passage of a measure to give President Reagan authority to keep the marines in Lebanon an additional 18 months.

Prior to passage, Secretary of State George Shultz angered Congressmen by a statement suggesting that the President would not be bound by Congress on matters pertaining to the mission and expansion of the size of the marine contingent. Later, President Reagan sent a letter to Congress which appeared to overrule Shultz—but left many Congressmen with the feeling that the letter contained loopholes which would allow the President to do just about anything he wanted (see text on p.6).

As if to demonstrate this, Secretary Shultz indicated publicly that the mission of the marines might well continue even beyond the withdrawal of "foreign forces" (a move which many observers believe will take many years, if it happens at all), when he said: "We've always had it in mind that if withdrawal of all foreign forces could be brought about and the Lebanese armed forces (could) take charge in those areas, that the multinational force, (including) our marines, might occupy some strategic positions in Lebanon." Mr. Shultz did not indicate what he thought would happen if the Lebanese government of the time regarded the Americans, French, Italian and British troops as unwelcome "foreign forces"—a possibility that is far from a remote one.

An appearance of confusion over the role of the marines in Lebanon has been a feature of U.S. policy ever since the first group of800 arrived there on August 25, 1982, for an authorized period of 30 days. The Administration at that time was still laboring under the illusion—seemingly borrowed unthinkingly from the Israelis—that the PLO was the sole cause of all of Lebanon's troubles. The marines were sent in to provide a symbolic guarantee of the security of the PLO guerrillas as they withdrew from Beirut under the terms of a U.S.-mediated agreement (under which the U.S. also gave the guerrillas assurances that they would not have to fear for the safety of the families they were leaving behind). Then, as soon as the PLO was out, the marines left, too—even though there were still 14 days left of the 30 authorized for their mission. The ordinary American could have been excused for thinking that the problems of Lebanon were over, as far as any direct U.S. involvement was concerned.

After the massacre of Shatila, back came the marines on September 29. When the President announced to the nation nine days earlier that they would go, he said they would have "the mission of enabling the Lebanese government to resume full sovereignty over its capital—the essential precondition for extending its control over the entire country." A few hours after the marines arrived, however, he said the marines would leave Beirut only when the Lebanese authorities said they themselves could provide for the nation's security. The President also said that the marines would stay "only for a limited period." This estimate was fine-tuned by U.S. Assistant Secretary Nicholas Veliotes, who told Congress that the "outer limit" of their stay would be the end of the year—i.e., December 31, 1982.

Reporters were then told by Pentagon officials that the marines not only would not engage in "combat" but would actually be withdrawn if major fighting broke out in Lebanon. Major fighting actually did break out a month ago but the marines did not withdraw. No one was asking them to, and Pentagon officials conveniently forgot their earlier statements.

Because marines were not supposed to get into combat, they were under standing orders not to shoot unless attacked—and even then to do so only if their lives were directly threatened. When Druze-Maronite battles broke out in the Shuf mountains, and shells aimed at the Lebanese army began falling on marine positions, these restrictions were gradually thrown out the window. First, U.S. warships were allowed to fire at Druze artillery positions responsible for the shelling. Then, the marines were no longer limited to returning fire, and were permitted to use artillery and air strikes in support of the Lebanese army—on the grounds that the Lebanese were helping defend the U.S. marines. After this, U.S. warships began bombarding artillery positions belonging to anti-government forces deep inside Syrian-controlled territory with the announced aim of protecting not just the marines but all other Americans in Lebanon. This was followed by naval shelling of Druze positions near the strategically placed town of Suq al Gharb, in direct support of the Lebanese army units defending it. Several marine officers, no longer confining themselves to their fixed positions at Beirut airport, were in Suq al Gharb during the middle of the battle, "gathering information"—which Lebanese soldiers on the ground said was information to help the U.S. warships with "target coordination."

Throughout this escalation, and despite the deaths of four marines and the wounding of more than three dozen others, U.S. officials were insisting for the record that the marines were not engaging in "hostilities" within the meaning of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which would have required the President to get permission from Congress to keep the marines in Lebanon after the first 60 days. Also, throughout this escalation, the U.S. line was that the increased activity of U.S. forces in Lebanon was essentially a means of defending American lives. Yet both common sense and the private comments of officials made it clear that in fact the U.S. was truly in the middle of hostilities, and that its use of firepower to support the Lebanese army was not only to protect American lives but to keep the government of President Amin Gemayel from being overthrown. No wonder the public was confused.

As part of the fall-out from this "hidden agenda" of the U.S. was a lot of confusion among Americans about the status of the Druze, a religious sect which is seeking greater power in the government of Lebanon and whose members have no history of enmity against the United States. The fact that the Druze were fighting against the Lebanese army, which the U.S. was supporting, made them automatically the "bad guys," according to the black-and-white criteria used by some of the U.S. media. Making the Druze image even darker was the fact that Druze shells aimed at Lebanese soldiers fell frequently on American positions very close by, and the U.S. responded by bombarding the offending Druze artillery emplacements on the hilltops. It didn't help when President Reagan said that it was necessary for the Lebanese army to hold on to the ridgeline of Suq al Gharb so that the Druze who had already been "shooting at" the U.S. marines would not be able to "look right down their throats." Yet despite this free-form painting of the Druze as "the enemy," at least two top experts of the Administration said publicly that it wasn't so. On September 18, General Paul X. Kelley, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said: "Whoever is shooting at us ... is shooting more at where we are than who we are. There is no indication anybody is purposefully taking Marines under fire." This was followed on September 26, the day of the ceasefire, by a statement of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau to a Congressional committee: "We believe there is no concerted effort to target the marines. But they are in an area where there is violence."

A spinoff from the U.S.'s military involvement against the Druze is that the people who started out with no history of enmity against Americans are now very angry—at the Americans, of course. This is not surprising in view of the fact that American shelling caused a number of Druze casualties, including the deaths of civilians. Druze who have demonstrated in front of American embassy buildings in Beirut have accused the U.S. of taking sides in an internal conflict being waged by a Christian-Maronite dominated government against the Druze and others. One of the Druze interviewed by a U.S. reporter kept repeating, "I never thought Americans would bomb us. Never, never."

Ironically, the U.S. involvement in support of the Gemayel government did not stop more and more of the Maronites from complaining that the U.S. was not giving sufficient support to their cause—particularly after the U.S. helped negotiate a cease-fire which they thought could eventually result in an unwelcome dilution of Maronite power in Lebanon.

Some Americans like to say: "If both sides are against us, we must be doing something right." But others believe that things might have worked out better for Lebanon if the marines had never gone in—and could become much, much worse for the U.S. if they don't get out.

Additional information