Even after all these years, I'm not sure whether Ronald Reagan knew where to place Lebanon on a map, though the diminutive county proved to be the most enduring bane of his two administrations.
Yet that didn't prevent those of us who were living through the ferocious 88-day Israeli siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982 to look toward the White House to extricate us from our predicament. The United States dispatched to Lebanon an envoy of Lebanese origin, Philip Habib, to resolve the conflict. Habib organized the departure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Beirut, which was followed by the deployment of an American-led multinational peacekeeping force (MNF).
With that in mind one reads with curiosity this passage from David Ignatius' Washington Post column on Tuesday: "Reagan demonstrated his willingness to alter course in Lebanon. In a burst of nation-building enthusiasm, he had sent troops into that war-ravaged country in 1982. But after suicide bombers destroyed the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks there in 1983, Reagan decided to cut his losses and evacuate American troops… The pullout from Lebanon was either an amoral retreat under fire or a prudent exercise of realpolitik, depending on your perspective. But politically, it was obviously a winner. Most Americans agreed with Reagan that Lebanon wasn't worth the cost in American lives."
Ignatius argues that Reagan's commendable willingness to change course in Lebanon displayed a pragmatism that George W. Bush is now showing in Iraq, as his administration "struggles to find an exit strategy." Ignatius should know better: One thing Bush must not do in Iraq is imitate what Reagan did in Lebanon, because there the Gipper left behind one perilous wasteland.
The Reagan administration did not initially go into Lebanon to engage in nation-building. Indeed, soon after peace returned in September 1982, the MNF departed from the country earlier than scheduled. Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center, who was on the National Security Council at the time, has noted that the only thing that brought them back was the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut following the entry of Israeli forces into the Lebanese capital. This was prompted by the assassination of Lebanon's president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.
Subsequently, the administration was divided over how to proceed. Secretary of State George Shultz worked hard to bring about a Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement. Reagan went along with this for a time, until the effort collapsed in 1983. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, meanwhile, wanted to exit from Lebanon as quickly as possible. Either way, there was no solid administration constituency for remaining in the country after American political and military setbacks increased. That's why it was easy for Reagan to change tack in 1984 once Shultz realized that his scheme had failed.
The American departure may have been domestically popular, but it also meant that the "citadel of freedom" abandoned the Lebanese to a long night of Syrian hegemony, to an extended period of militia rule, and to six more years of savage civil war, despite many a stirring promise that this would not happen. Surely that's not behavior Bush should replicate in Iraq.
By failing to stick it out in Iraq, the U.S. could well make the same mistakes there that it did in Lebanon. True, Lebanon had no strategic significance for the Reagan administration, but when the U.S. simply cut and run, this did far more damage to its interests than many care to remember.
The Syrian-managed chaos that the Reagan administration left behind allowed for the blossoming of militant Muslim groups that kidnapped dozens of foreigners during the mid-1980s, leading to the fiasco of Iran-Contra. Many of these groups would eventually coalesce into Hezbollah, which the Bush administration today considers a major terrorist threat. The U.S. also took the 1983 suicide attacks against its embassy and soldiers lying down, effectively ceding Lebanon to a Syrian regime that had more than its share of responsibility for the ensuing deaths.
For Bush to allow this in Iraq would not only be amoral, to quote Ignatius in the Lebanese context, it would be downright immoral. An Iraqi civil war could indeed break out (whereas today one seems unlikely), Westerners would be vulnerable to kidnapping, militant anti-American groups could thrive in the vacuum, and in the absence of hegemony by one state, Iraq would be buffeted by the contending whims of several of its neighbors, which could provoke regional crises.
In death, nice words can be found for just about anyone. In a bizarre way Reagan always seemed destined for some measure of tribute. His charisma hid the fact that he was a dope and a lawbreaker and presided over one of the most corrupt administrations ever. But mostly I can't help but think of Lebanon and how Reagan left it to face the wolves. Though the Lebanese had much responsibility in that outcome, they are also better able to gauge today the heavy price the Iraqis will pay if one ignorant U.S. president misinterprets the legacy of another.