When Israel's chief of military intelligence flew to Washington and outlined an ambitious plan to send Israeli forces all the way to the outskirts of Beirut to destroy a terrorist organization, the secretary of state was intrigued. Some people in the U.S. administration thought the terrorists in Lebanon were part of an international struggle against the West, so an Israeli blow against them would be a victory in that global war.
Other officials in the State Department and the intelligence community, however, were appalled. There are a million Shiite Muslims between the Israeli border and Beirut, one State Department official told the secretary of state. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut sent cable after cable to Washington, warning that another Israeli attack on Lebanon would provoke more terrorism and undermine America's standing in the Arab world. Washington never responded to any of them.
On June 6, 1982, Israel Defense Forces crossed the border into Lebanon. Eight days later they arrived at the outskirts of Beirut, trapping their quarry, Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Operation Peace for Galilee had accomplished its mission, or so it appeared.
Three months later, Israel's—and the Reagan administration's—hopes for a new order in Lebanon went up in smoke. Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel, the man Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had been counting on to unify his country and make peace with Israel, was killed by a bomb that a Syrian agent had planted.
It would be 18 years before the Israelis extricated themselves from Lebanon. They were driven out, in part, by a terrorist group that their invasion had helped to create, one that drew its strength from three sources: the Shiite faith, Iran's Islamic revolution and Lebanon's downtrodden Shiites. It called itself Hezbollah—the Party of God.
Rooting out terrorists, especially in the twisting alleyways of Middle East cities, was harder than it looked. Unable to hunt down Arafat or drive out the PLO, the Israelis laid siege to Beirut, and when President Reagan saw the carnage on television, he was troubled by what the Israelis were doing with American-made weapons and by what that was doing to America's relations with the Arab world.
On the Fourth of July weekend in 1982, veteran U.S. diplomat Philip Habib sent Washington a 17-page cable urging the Reagan administration to send American troops to Lebanon as part of a multinational force that would guarantee the safe withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut to whatever Arab nations would accept the Palestinians.
Eight hundred U.S. Marines went ashore Aug. 25 to safeguard the Palestinians' evacuation and to protect "law-abiding Palestinian noncombatants remaining in Beirut, including the families of those who have departed," according to an exchange of letters between the American and Lebanese governments.
The Marines departed 10 days later, their mission accomplished. So did the British and French contingents in the multinational force. So did the Italians, who'd been stationed outside the Palestinian refugee camps south of the city.
All of them would return in a matter of weeks, and their second deployments would end on a very different note, one that would be replayed over and over in Lebanon and beyond.
Gemayel's murder had given Sharon a reason to finish off the PLO in Lebanon by clearing out the terrorists and weapons caches he was certain Arafat had left behind.
On the night of Sept. 16, with the Israelis' permission, members of Gemayel's Christian militia entered the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Chatilla. But as was so often the case in the Middle East, the Israelis' allies had their own agenda.
When the Christian militiamen were finished, at least 700 Palestinian men, women and children had been massacred, and Sharon's political career was in ruins. He would rebound and go on to lead Israel, but he would never outlive the stain that Sabra and Chatilla left on his reputation.
Within 48 hours, the Reagan administration, which had promised to protect the Palestinians, had agreed to a Lebanese request to send the Marines back to Beirut. "There was almost no debate," said Geoffrey Kemp, then of the National Security Council staff.
A study by the Defense Intelligence Agency warned: "No one should be surprised if the peacekeeping force encounters intractable political and military problems on the ground." No one who mattered paid any attention to the warning.
On Sept. 1, Reagan had unveiled what he called "a fresh start" toward Middle East peace. Although Israeli troops were still occupying Lebanon and dueling with Syria, the administration aimed to revive peace talks between Israel and its neighbors. The first step, the plan's proponents argued, would be to send at least three divisions of American troops to Lebanon armed with ultimatums to the Israelis and the Syrians to get their forces out of the country.
Neither the Joint Chiefs nor Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger wanted any part of that. The result was that the U.S. sent too few troops without the right equipment to the wrong place on a mission that no one could define. They would be out by the end of the year, administration officials told Congress.
The order that the Joint Chiefs issued Sept. 23 defined the Marines' mission in Lebanon as "presence." When Ryan Crocker, the political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, visited the Marines aboard their ships as they prepared to go ashore, he asked whether anybody knew what a presence mission meant. If anyone does, Crocker said, please inform me, because the Department of State doesn't know, either.
If the Americans weren't sure what they were doing in Lebanon, another group was. Not long after the Israelis invaded, Iranian Revolutionary Guards began arriving via a dirt road from Syria into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to help repel the Israeli invaders.
The Iranians set up shop in Baalbek, an ancient city known for its magnificent Roman ruins and its high-quality hashish. Before long, posters of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's Shiite Islamic revolution, and signs proclaiming "Death to America" began appearing in the streets.
A more ominous message also began appearing: "Martyrdom is the aim and hope of God's worshippers."
With only 1,500 Marines and five tanks stationed at the Beirut airport on the flat land between the sea and the mountains, American policy depended heavily on training the Lebanese army. The sooner the Lebanese could stand up, the sooner the Americans could stand down.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that the Lebanese could take over their own internal security in 18 months and control their borders within three years—if the Syrians and the Israelis withdrew and the country's multiple Christian, Shiite, Sunni Muslim and Druze militias all disbanded.
That was one problem. Another one, said Col. Arthur Fintel, the U.S. officer in charge of training the Lebanese, was that "Actually, there was no Lebanese army to rebuild." It had fallen apart in the country's 1975 civil war, and at one point in 1982 only five people were showing up for work in the marble and glass headquarters of the Ministry of Defense.
The worst problem, though, was that most Lebanese considered the army a tool of the Christians, and so the more the American Marines worked with the army, the more they appeared to be taking sides in the country's sectarian struggles.
The first Marine to die in Lebanon was Sgt. Alexander Ortega, who was killed on the morning of Aug. 29, 1983, when a mortar round hit his platoon's command tent at the Beirut airport.
A little more than a week later, U.S. Navy ships offshore began firing in support of the Marines. Col. Timothy Geraghty, the commander of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit at Beirut airport, sent a situation report warning of "the increasing involvement in direct and more frequent combat actions." The "stakes are being raised weekly," he wrote, "and our contribution to peace in Lebanon since 22 July stands at four killed and 28 wounded."
As some in the Reagan administration saw it, though, there was no choice but to dig in more deeply. The struggle in Lebanon wasn't just a neighborhood brawl among Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Syrians and Israelis, with the occasional Iranian and Palestinian thrown in for good measure. No, what Reagan called "Soviet-sponsored aggression against Lebanon" was part of a global war against totalitarianism, even if it wasn't entirely clear what the atheists in Moscow had in common with Islamic revolutionaries.
When Marine Lance Cpl. Eddie DiFranco heard the sound, he looked up from his sandbagged guard post outside the headquarters of the Battalion Landing Team at Beirut airport. It was 6:30 Sunday morning, Oct. 23. He saw a yellow Mercedes-Benz stake-bed truck ramming through a 5-foot-high roll of concertina wire. "I knew something was going to happen," he said later.
Experts from the FBI said the explosion that came next was the largest non-nuclear blast they'd ever seen, the equivalent of 12,000 pounds of TNT. It killed 241 men, and a nearly simultaneous attack on French peacekeepers killed 59 more.
A previously unknown group that called itself Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the U.S. bombing, but finding the suicide bomber's return address wasn't easy. The trail led back to Baalbek, and from there to Damascus and from there to Tehran. But there was no smoking gun, no evidence that would stand up in any court. In the end, the Americans offered no retaliatory response of any significance.
By January 1984, all hope was lost. In the opinion polls, 57 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should get out of Lebanon. Republican congressmen returning from their Christmas recess began backing away from the administration's policy.
The job of telling Lebanon's boyish President Amin Gemayel, the brother of the murdered Bashir, that the United States was abandoning him fell to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the latest in a succession of American Mideast envoys.
Rumsfeld and his aides, along with U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew, all of them wearing sidearms, arrived in Gemayel's antiseptic white bunker in the basement of the presidential palace in Baabda, above Beirut. Rumsfeld told Gemayel that the decision to withdraw the Marines had been made; it was final and it would be announced shortly in Washington.
"I just felt terrible," Rumsfeld later recalled. "I just felt sick to my stomach."
"What was our mission?" asked Lance Cpl. Nick Mottola. "I'll tell you what our mission was: A lot of people died for nothing and then we left."
(Adapted from "Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism," by David C. Martin and John Walcott, published in 1987 by Harper & Row. Walcott is the Washington bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers; Martin is the Pentagon correspondent for CBS News.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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