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War in Lebanon: Profiles in Cowardice

The debate on President Reagan’s war-making capability in Lebanon revealed the best–but mainly the worst–about our elected representatives

refuge, Palestinian, Sayda's camp, Lebanon

Taken refuge Palestinian of Sayda's camp in Lebanon in 1982.

Francoise De Mulder/Roger Viollet/Getty

Like other fateful moments in our history, the recent congressional debate over the authorization of continued war-making in Lebanon became a test of character, revealing the best and the worst about the participants. Some members of Congress, known previously as obedient sheep, faced the question bravely and now seem the larger for it. Others, who have enjoyed inflated reputations, talked their way into disgrace, voting for a military enterprise that they themselves had denounced as pointless and dangerous.

Unfortunately, Congress failed the character test. By permitting President Reagan to maintain U.S. troops in a combat situation in Lebanon for an additional 18 months, Congress showed it lacked the self-confidence to enforce its most important prerogative–the Constitution’s commandment that only the Congress, not the president, is empowered to declare war. That principle may sound like a dusty legalism, but the debate reminded everyone of its importance.

When a government makes war without a lawful declaration and without a defined purpose, then the people are not obligated to support that war. The basic contract of our democracy has been violated. The tragedy in Vietnam began in just this way.

In the summer of 1964, Congress acquiesced to a president’s unlawful war-making and embraced the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Full of bluff and vague intentions (just as the current Lebanon bill is), it gave Lyndon Johnson virtually unilateral control over our war machine. Later, when the North Vietnamese called our bluff and the carnage multiplied, Congress wished, too late, that it had insisted upon the letter of the law.

This time, no one in power can pretend that he was not warned. Throughout the four days of debate in the Senate and the House of Representatives during September, there were constant echoes of the mordant lessons of Vietnam. The majority–54 senators and 270 representatives–chose to ignore them. This time, if events go badly–if our bluff is called in Lebanon and more Americans are killed there–those who supported this venture will have bloody hands and no excuses.

***

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the recent congressional action is the deadly precedent it sets for future generations. Henceforth, any president who wishes to involve our soldiers in combat without congressional consent will be able to point to 1983, when Ronald Reagan refused to comply with the War Powers Act–and America’s elected representatives meekly went along with the deal.

In essence, the War Powers Act, approved in 1973, requires the chief executive to make a full, precise report to Congress within forty-eight hours of U.S. involvement in foreign hostilities. The president must describe the situation and the intended mission of the American forces. If Congress declines to approve that mission within sixty days, the president is obligated to bring the troops home.

But in Lebanon this summer, after the first marine was killed, Reagan short-circuited the process by refusing to file the War Powers Act report. His refusal to do so set the stage for the recent debate. When a number of representatives threatened to force his hand and comply with the law, a compromise was proposed by which the president would not have to declare a combat situation existed and Congress could set a time limit on our involvement. Yet this deal, ultimately adopted by Congress, manages to skip over the legal niceties of the War Powers Act and pretends that it really doesn’t matter.

But it does. If Congress accepts vague and open-ended objectives at the beginning of hostilities, as it has in Lebanon, it will have a difficult time insisting on precision later. During the debate, this fundamental point was developed brilliantly by the scholarly senator Paul Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat, who kept begging his colleagues to focus on the actual record of our engagement in Lebanon and recognize its gradual expansion from a limited mission to one with impossible objectives.

When the U.S. Marines first entered Lebanon in late August 1982, they were given a finely prescribed mission–to assist in the departure of Palestine Liberation Organization forces from Beirut. Reagan assured Americans, “In no case will our troops stay longer than thirty days.” And he assured Congress, “I want to emphasize that there is no intention or expectation the U.S. armed forces will become involved in hostilities.”

His word was good–for a while. The PLO leaders and their troops evacuated Beirut ahead of schedule, and the American marines were pulled out too. Then, the U.S. mission got fuzzy.

In late September 1982, the marines went back into their Beirut positions as part of a multinational peace-keeping force requested by the new, frail government in Lebanon. The vague objective was described in an exchange of letters between our government and Lebanon’s: the 1,200 marines were intended, our ambassador wrote, “to establish an environment which will permit the Lebanese armed forces to carry out their responsibilities in the Beirut area. It is understood that the presence of such an American force will facilitate the restoration of Lebanese government sovereignty and authority over the Beirut area.”

Any soldier would recognize that this was “mission impossible,” militarily; there was no way that 1,200 marines hunkered down at a few exposed positions could create an “environment” that promised peace and sovereignty to the Lebanese government.

Lebanon’s ambassador offered an equally hollow assurance: “In carrying out its mission, the American force will not engage in combat. It may, however, exercise the right of self-defense. It is understood that the presence of the American force will be needed only for a limited period to meet the urgent requirements posed by the current situation.” It is notable that the 30-day assignment had now become “a limited period” without any clearly stated ending.

On August 29th of this year, wishful thinking was obliterated by reality. Arab artillery killed the first marine; soon after, three others died and several dozen were wounded. Our troops were compelled to fire back, and inevitably, the U.S. combat role escalated beyond that of self-defense. The Reagan administration authorized naval gunning and air strikes–not simply to defend the marines, but to aid the Lebanese army in its battles for territory. That escalation violated assurances that both governments had made a year earlier.

Such was the existing situation when Congress was asked to approve an eighteen-month extension of the U.S. presence in Lebanon. But the congressional resolution actually broadened the American military purpose. The resolution states that U.S. forces in Lebanon are to further the following goals: “the removal of all foreign forces from Lebanon…to restore full control by the government of Lebanon over its own territory…progress toward national political reconciliation.”

No one pretends that 1,200 marines and all those navy guns can actually accomplish the desired objectives. The Republican majority report, which accompanied the bill from committee, even concedes that the marines are not really being used as a military force but as “a symbol of the international backing behind the legitimate government of Lebanon.”

That’s dangerous in itself because, as Sarbanes warned repeatedly during the debate, the expanded purposes invite future buildups of military forces if diplomacy fails.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to evaluate what the task is and how feasible it is that our troops there will be able to achieve it,” Sarbanes said. “Are we, in effect, taking on a responsibility for which we have not committed the resources? Does that mean in the future we will diminish the responsibility or increase the resources?”

Senator Lawton Chiles, the Florida Democrat, made the same point more bluntly: “One of the things I remember so vividly that I sort of said in my own determination after Vietnam was that I was not going to be willing to commit troops to another engagement unless we knew the rules in which they were going and we sort of knew when we could claim victory. Can a senator tell me when we would claim victory here?” No one answered.

Those who voted for the Lebanon resolution took refuge in their claim that Congress was indeed imposing limitations on the presidents war-making capability, insisting that the restrictions imposed a year ago (and already violated) would still apply: no combat role beyond self-defense and no activity outside the Beirut area. Further, the resolution authorizes only 18 more months of U.S. presence and no escalation without congressional approval.

As a practical matter, however, the president may ignore those restrictions just as he ignored the War Powers Act and his own prior promises about the limited combat role.

When Senator Sarbanes questioned Secretary of State George Shultz on this, Shultz made it clear that Reagan does not accept any of those limitations on his actions. Shultz promised that regardless of what the congressional resolution forbade, the president would not feel bound by its terms. The secretary of state told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “I think the president–or perhaps any of you if you were president, thinking about your constitutional role as commander in chief–would be very reluctant to tie your hands and say that you could only order U.S. forces to do something…after the Congress had authorized it.”

Sarbanes asked. “So is it your position, then, that you could substantially expand them without a congressional authorization?”

Shultz replied: “The constitutional reservation goes to the presidents role as commander in chief, and therefore, to his capacity to be in charge of the deployment of the armed forces of the United States. I have no doubt that he will continue to assert that role.” In fact, Reagan said the same thing when he signed the resolution.

If Reagan does escalate, then Congress will again have to choose between sheepishly accepting it or upholding the law and the Constitution. Since the resolution was passed, already two more marines have been killed in Beirut. Perhaps if there is more bloodshed, Congress will find its courage.

***

The Intense, emotional debate ultimately revealed courage–and gutless-ness–by various members of Congress. Sometimes, these traits appeared from surprising sources.

The august senator from Mississippi, now 82 years old and quite frail, rose from his desk to deliver a painful confession. As a respected elder and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Democrat John Stennis had been an important figure in preserving congressional support for the war in Vietnam.

Year after year, as the casualties mounted and controversy engulfed the nation, Stennis rose to urge patience and steadfastness. This time, he revealed his regret.

“On a day-to-day basis, I was working steadily with a number of the experienced, seasoned and wise members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee,” Stennis recalled. “All would ask the question to each other, over and over again: ‘How did we get into this war?’ It was just unbelievable…Our people at home,…felt that they were taken in blind.

“But I fully made up my mind, many times over during all this Vietnam experience, that when the fighting was over, I would seek a way to implement and make known the importance and wisdom of that constitutional provision that provides that the Congress shall have the power to declare war.”

Many lives might have been spared. American and Vietnamese, if Stennis had made this speech on the Senate floor fifteen years ago, but at least he was making it now, and his anguish was visible. Stennis, who normally rallies in support of any chief executive in crisis, announced that this time he could not support the president’s war.

Then, the senator delivered this warning to his younger colleagues: “Without luck–I will put it this way–we can quickly get into a spot just like we were in Vietnam mighty easy…The real concern and meaning to our people is that, by and large, they are the ones that are going to have to put up the boys and the blood and the members of their families to fight a war if we get into it now or later. Let us just look it right in the face and tell them the truth.”

Tell the people the truth. That was one of the lessons. Some representatives learned it better than others. Take Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana. On the crucial questions of war and peace, it isn’t easy for a senator to vote against his own president and his own party, but Quayle, a young conservative Republican, nevertheless spoke his mind and declared his opposition. Without military escalation, Quayle observed, it was hard to imagine how the limited presence of 1200 American marines could persuade the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon or achieve any of the Reagan administration’s other broad objectives.

“We have been told that [the administration is] not going to impose military solutions in Lebanon,” Quayle said. “Therefore, we are left with the other option, and this is an option to withdraw. I certainly would not want to have an immediate withdrawal, with the idea that you are ducking and running under fire. I believe that we are really approaching a time when we will have to consider and pursue policies–to have what I call an organized withdrawal from Lebanon over a period of time.”

Brave words, but Senator Quayle had to swallow them. During the final roll call, he withheld his vote until he was confronted by his majority leader, Senator Howard Baker. While guests in the galleries watched, Quayle and Baker held a little chat in the well of the chamber. Immediately afterward, Quayle meekly voted “yes.” Three other Republicans–Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware–displayed more fortitude. Despite the partisan overtones, they voted “no.”

In the House of Representatives, a respected veteran of Vietnam also chose to remind his colleagues of that war’s lessons. Representative John McCain of Arizona, a whitehaired Republican, has credentials as a hawk unmatched by any other member. He is a retired navy captain and former Pentagon lobbyist; for six years, he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

McCain quoted one-time Vietnam ambassador General Maxwell Taylor on what the war in Indochina taught us about the necessary conditions for deploying American troops in overseas combat: “First, the objectives of the involvement must be explainable to the man in the street in one or two sentences. Second, there must be clear support of the president by the Congress for the involvement. Third, there must be reasonable expectation of success. Fourth, we must have the support of our allies for our objectives. And finally, there must be a clear U.S. national interest at stake. I do not view the U.S. involvement in Lebanon as meeting General Taylor’s criteria.”

McCain suggested that the president is ignoring one of the basic lessons of Vietnam: don’t raise the possibility of military force as a diplomatic bluff unless you are willing to use that military force. “Do you really think naval forces off the Lebanese coast are going to intimidate the Syrians so much so that they engage in meaningful negotiations?” McCain asked his House colleagues. “For this to occur, the Syrians must believe we will use the full military power at our disposal. Are we prepared to use this power? I do not think so, nor do I believe the Syrians think so.”

Yet, McCain explained, by making the bluff, the U.S. government is creating the classic trap for itself, the same dilemma that led to escalation in Vietnam. Sooner or later, the enemy will test the bluff, and the United States will then have to answer the test or face deeper humiliation.

“The longer we stay in Lebanon,” McCain warned, “the harder it will be for us to leave. We will be trapped by the case we make for having our troops there in the first place.” McCain conceded–as the resolution’s supporters argued –that a U.S. withdrawal would probably produce embarrassment for us and renewed violence in Lebanon. But, he said, those consequences would be inevitable anyway if we stayed. In other words, withdraw now before it gets worse.

It takes enormous courage for an old military man to deliver a message like that. It also requires a clear-headed sense of military power. McCain voted “no,” joined by twenty-six other Republicans and 134 Democrats in the House, a mixture of liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves, young and old, who shared McCain’s deep misgivings about the future.

If more Americans are killed without purpose in Lebanon, one of the political figures with bloody hands will be Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the Democratic leader who worked out the bastardized bargain with the president. In speculating why O’Neill compromised, much was made of his bipartisan patriotism, his desire to rally round the president and to preserve a united front in foreign policy.

All undoubtedly true, but O’Neill was also playing power politics. It enhances his stature to cut a deal with the White House while Senate Democrats are an impotent minority. And O’Neill likes to be powerful.

When I asked one of his aides why the Speaker yielded on the crucial question of timing, giving the president 18 months instead of insisting on a shorter period. O’Neill’s aide explained the politics of it. The White House wouldn’t accept 12 months, because that would place the expiration date just before next year’s election.

But why 18 months instead of, say, six months? “If you give him 18 feet, it makes it a lot easier for the president to hang himself,” the aide explained. “Six feet isn’t enough rope.”

I hope this aide doesn’t have to give that explanation to any gold star mothers in the next 18 months.

The pressures of politics tipped O’Neill’s hand, as it did the postures of others. For example, everyone listens to Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland because he is respected as a thoughtful, liberal Republican, willing to rise above the narrow, partisan arguments on foreign-policy issues.

During the recent debate, Mathias argued for a much tighter leash on the president’s military venture in Lebanon, proposing that Congress limit the U.S. presence to only six months in duration, and not the 18 months the White House wanted. “We will surely know in the next several months,” he explained, “whether Lebanon is going to disintegrate into civil war or whether the various factions will be able to resolve their differences.”

When Mathias’ proposal came to a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it actually won by a nine-to-eight vote–eight Democrats and Mathias constituting the majority. In the stunned silence, the embarrassed majority leader, Howard Baker, leaned over to Mathias and whispered an unrecorded admonition in his ear. “Mac, this thing is going to fall apart, starting now,” Baker reportedly warned. Some cynics thought Baker might also have whispered that Mathias could never hope to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee if he opposed his party on this crucial issue.

Whatever was said, Mathias caved in. He blushed, swallowed hard, then announced limply that he would switch his vote–thus defeating his own proposal. Not a pretty moment for democracy when a “thoughtful” senator loses his guts in public.

***

The legal arguments over war-making will seem precious and irrelevant, of course, if the current cease-fire holds and the negotiations progress toward a genuine settlement of Lebanon’s ancient discords. Then, after an appropriate interval, the president can withdraw our marines and scold the opposition for being nervous Nellies. I fervently hope it works out that way.

But the history of Lebanon suggests we will not be so lucky. This is the 179th cease-fire in the last eight years. America did not create the hatred and bloodshed there; it is folly to believe that we can resolve it.

So let’s not blink away what Reagan is doing in Lebanon: with a token American force, he is running a game of bluff, both dangerous and duplicitous. When nervous Republican senators asked their majority leader about the administration’s real intentions, Baker assured them that the president really does want to pull out and will do so just as soon as the negotiations are solidly on track. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration is sending the opposite signal to the adversaries in the Lebanese conflict–that the United States intends to stay in Lebanon indefinitely and is prepared to expand its military role there.

On the weekend before the cease-fire was announced, Secretary of State Shultz delivered that signal in a television interview: “We’ve always had it in mind that if withdrawal of all foreign forces could be brought about and the Lebanese armed forces, which we’ve been helping train, can move in and take charge in those areas, that the multinational force, not just our marines, might occupy some strategic positions in Lebanon.”

News accounts that weekend amplified this possibility, quoting an unnamed “senior official” in the Reagan administration who said that plans had already been made to deploy Western forces in such strategically important areas of Lebanon as the Beirut-Damascus Highway, port areas and other regions. That implies not only a much larger military deployment, but a permanent occupation of Lebanon as beyond anything Reagan has hinted at to Congress or the American people. Was

Shultz only bluffing? Was he trying to tell the Syrians that they had better accept the cease-fire, since the U.S. was prepared to up the ante if they didn’t? Maybe so. Or maybe he meant what he said: that the Reagan administration envisions a large and continuing American occupation force in Lebanon.

In either case, the Syrians and the other warring factions aren’t dumb. They can read our newspapers and easily grasp that the domestic political support for Ronald Reagan’s use of military power is fragile and thin. The theory is that sometime in the coming months, the Syrians or someone else will test American resolve by renewing the combat. Their purpose, to put it bluntly, would be, let’s kill a few more marines and see how the Americans react.

If Reagan follows the historic reflexes of presidential war-making, he will then have to increase our firepower to show that he is sincerely tough. If Reagan is wiser than I think he is, he will cut his losses and get out.

The power reality is this: Reagan has made our marines pawns in a complex diplomatic struggle, a position of weakness that all of the contending factions, not just the Syrians, have the power to exploit. If we give the Syrians what they want at the negotiating table (and Reagan is now tilting in that direction), they will behave, but then the right-wing Christians may decide it is in their interest to resume the fighting, thus dragging the United States deeper into the quagmire. If we block the Syrians from the control they seek, then they can provoke us in the hope that political pressures back home would force Reagan to withdraw.

Ronald Reagan has stumbled into his own version of a no-win war, but I am reasonably certain that Lebanon cannot become another Vietnam. The American public will not stand for it.

In 1984, if the president is a candidate for reelection, the voters can remind him what candidate Reagan told them in 1980: “We will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Politics

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