Assessment of U.S. Strategic Goals Through Peacekeeping Operations in the 1982 Lebanon Intervention
This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019. More information about the writing contest can be found here.
The United States’ intervention in the Lebanese Civil War was a peacekeeping operation defined by long term strategic goals centered around increasing American hegemony in the region. The United States sought to leverage its position as a peacekeeper against Israeli and Syrian advances. However, significant overreach and unplanned events would play a substantial role in limiting the extent of American success in Lebanon.
In 1975, tensions between Lebanon’s sectarian groups erupted into civil war. The influx of Palestinian refugees throughout the 1940s-1960s threatened the political status quo of the country and civil war saw Palestinian militias engage Maronite militias. As the Lebanese Civil War waged on, various peacekeeping operations were attempted. June 1976 saw the entrance of the Syrian military on behalf of Maronite President Suleiman Frangieh. This entrance was followed by a task force known as the Arab Deterrent Force founded in October of that year. In response to the 1978 Israeli invasion of South Lebanon, the United Nations Security Council enacted resolutions 425 and 426, which created the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNFIL). Despite these measures, further instability was promoted by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The U.S. Reagan administration was deeply divided by these actions, and after serious cabinet discussions, Secretary of State Alexander Haig resigned. Haig was replaced by George Shultz, and after further discussions with the Lebanese regime of Elias Sarkis, it was decided that the U.S., United Kingdom, France, and Italy would establish a peacekeeping mission. Known as the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF), this iteration of international peacekeeping operations would, as described by U.S. Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes, “facilitate the restoration of Lebanese Government sovereignty and authority over the Beirut area and thereby further its efforts… to bring an end the violence which has tragically recurred.”
On August 21, 1982, the U.S. 2nd Battalion 8th Marines entered Beirut. Additional forces would arrive in the following days. From the onset, the U.S. and its allies were chiefly involved in establishing peace in the direct vicinity of Beirut. Such ideations were made clear in covert meetings conducted between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. Ambassador Philip Habib. Declassified Department of State documents reveal that in the months prior to the MNF intervention, negotiations with the Israelis emphasized “the serious situation in the city of Beirut, where [Habib was] informed of the lack of gas, electricity and other basic needs.” Contingent on such peace developments was the removal of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon. The removal was believed to be paramount for peace developments in the country. August 30 became the climax of these operations, as the U.S. and its allies were successful in moving Yasser Arafat and a sizeable portion of the PLO out of Lebanon.
However, such actions in the first weeks of MNF operations represented a small aspect of more complicated designs. The Reagan administration, recognizing the strategic importance of the region, hoped to use these developments as leverage against the Israelis, Lebanese, and Syrians. Significant weight was placed on furthering the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel, though this time with Lebanon and Jordan. This culminated in the development of the Reagan Peace Plan, which was shown to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 1. This plan emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to peace throughout the region and to its specific operations in Lebanon. More contentious were the Peace Plan’s desires for the Israelis to vacate the Palestinian territories, and for a potential merger between Palestinians and Jordan. Although Egypt accepted the deal, every other party was either hostile or highly suspicious.
Other strategic goals of the U.S. became threatened in the immediate aftermath of the PLO’s expulsion. It was believed by many that U.S. intervention would correlate with a weakened Syrian presence and a stronger central government. Such thought was justified by the results of the 1958 Lebanon War, where U.S. intervention resulted in the immediate stability of Lebanon and in the strengthening of Lebanese President Fuad Chehab’s political grip. In the case of the 1982 intervention, the U.S. and its plans were abruptly derailed by the September 14th assassination of Bachir Gemayel, a senior member of the Christian Phalange party and the founder and supreme commander of the Lebanese Forces militia. Peacekeeping attempts by the MNF hinged on a strong Maronite presence in Beirut. With Bachir Gemayel assassinated, the Maronites would be prone to infighting, the Syrians would see a resurgence in military capabilities, and the MNF would have to exert additional efforts in maintaining stability as the Maronites attempted to find new leaders.
Even before the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and the Beirut barracks, it was clear that the U.S. had failed in its strategic goals. According to U.S. intelligence officers, the unveiling of the Reagan Peace Plan created a situation that threatened Israeli sovereignty, and some postulated that the Israelis “could react to the President’s peace initiative by stirring up the pot.” Such ideas came to fruition as the Israelis strengthened their hold over West Beirut and engaged in additional attacks. The death of Gemayel, who had also been crucial for the Israelis, meant that Israel was now forced to act in Lebanon without internal actors they could coordinate with. For the U.S. the death of Gemayel meant its own actions would face similar problems and lacking a principle leader to rally behind meant U.S. peacekeeping operations would be examined with a sense of extra-judiciality.
In the aftermath of the 1983 bombings, President Reagan addressed to the U.S. public his reasoning for why Lebanon was so valuable. It was, according to the President, a region of substantial importance, an area that was “key to the economic and political life of the west.” While such ideals may have been the impetus for the U.S.’s involvement in Lebanon, the reality of the situation proved to be one of catastrophic failure, and the political blunders made by the Reagan administration meant that its efforts were wasted. These points are made somberly in a 1983 memo from National Intelligence Officer Graham E. Fuller to Acting Director William Casey of the Central Intelligence Agency. In it, Fuller writes that “the events of the past… present us with a singularly bleak outlook for U.S. interests in Lebanon… we must face the prospect that our current policies towards Lebanon are not going to work.”
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