America in the Mideast: A Breakdown in Foreign Policy
Former Undersecretary of State George Ball delivered the following address on February 28, I984, at a Georgetown University forum on "US Policy in the Middle East," sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Student Lecture Fund, Georgetown University.
When I was in the State Department during the long agony of Vietnam, I repeatedly reminded my colleagues of the anecdote of the small boy at the zoo whose father pointed out a large caged animal and announced, "See, that's a giraffe," to which the boy very sensibly answered, "Why?"
That question had a special relevance at the time for, throughout the top reaches of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, almost everyone was preoccupied to the point of obsession with the question "how," but there was little patience with the question "why."
As we stumbled more and more deeply into the Vietnam quagmire my colleagues, almost without exception, became increasingly fascinated by operational problems. In view of America's great preponderance of resources as compared with the wretched North Vietnamese, the logic of number, they contended, made it inevitable that we would prevail in the conflict; all we had to do was to find how to apply those resources most effectively.
Lately, our government has been repeating the same banal slogans and making much the same mistake in Lebanon. Not only does history repeat itself; presidents repeat one another. Those in charge seem totally preoccupied with a single question: How? How to force the PLO leaders out of Lebanon with the least bloodshed? How to negotiate the treaty with Lebanon that Israel has wanted? How to prop up the Gemayel regime, expel the Syrians, and create a unified country? Yet events have proved again and again that the logic of number is not the key to control in civil wars or local conflicts. Far more important are the unquantifiable elements of elan and motivation. So we encounter, to our dismay, only disappointment and frustration.
Just as in Vietnam, once our leaders blundered into a military and political cul de sac, they sought to justify their mistakes by mindless and extravagant rhetoric. To hear what the president and the top leaders of our government are saying, one would think that Lebanon was the strategic center of the Middle East, a key area of the world. America says Mr. Reagan, has a "vital interest" in that beleaguered country, but what that vital interest is, he has never explained. Lebanon possesses no significant military power and is not a menace to its neighbors. It produces no important raw materials, as do the states of the Gulf. Unlike the Arab- Israeli conflict and the Iran-Iraq war, the internecine fighting in Lebanon poses no substantial threat to our interests in the Middle East. In sum, Lebanon is, from the point of view of the United States, of minor political, military, or economic importance. It is only marginally relevant to American policy.
Why then, have we become so deeply involved in activities that are essentially diversionary? The answer, I would suggest, is shamefully simple. Lacking a coherent Middle East policy of our own, we have reacted without thought or foresight to the policies, decisions, and actions of the Israeli government, whose interests and objectives in Lebanon, as it conceives them, diverge sharply from our own. Rather than pursuing our own objectives and looking out for our own interests, we have offered ourselves to the Israeli government as the uncritical, undemanding supporter of its objectives, prepared to help it achieve goals not our own and then to sweep up the breakage created by its violent pursuit of excessive ambitions. We have paid dearly for that spear-carrying role- paid not only in American lives, but in the killing of which we ourselves have been guilty-while our ill-considered actions have beclouded our reputation as a wise, humane, and effective power.
The Israeli government had two objectives in invading Lebanon. The first was to destroy the PLO, not only as a military power but-much more importantly-as a political force. This required that the PLO be, in the Israeli phrase, "decapitated"-a winsome formulation which meant that its leaders must be either killed or dispersed throughout the Arab world. Israel was not seriously concerned about the PLO's military power: it possesses ten times the military force that the PLO could possibly improvise. Nor do all Israelis really want the PLO to stop its terrorist activities; for many, those activities are politically useful, since they serve to dehumanize the PLO-to make the Palestinian leaders appear to the world as, to use Prime Minister Begin's vivid words, "beasts walking on two legs."
Israel's central purpose in attacking the PLO leadership in Lebanon is to be found not in Lebanon, but the West Bank-an area the Begin government and its successor have passionately regarded as an essential part of "Eretz Israel." Even before Begin's party came to power, the Israelis had sought to foreclose any negotiated solution of the West Bank problem by preempting the land and water supply through its settlements program. Their tactics, which they made little effort to conceal, were to keep rigorously away from the bargaining table until they had settled a large number of Israeli citizens on the West Bank so as to absorb the area in fact, if not in law.
Now, by attacking the PLO leadership in Lebanon with the goal of destroying the PLO as a political force, Israel hoped to create a situation where it could impose its will on the leaderless West Bank Palestinians. At the same time, it also intended to spread such demoralization as to mute any interference from the Palestinian diaspora. Indeed, it seems probable that hardline elements in the Israeli government even hoped that, with their Phalange collaborators, they could spread terror in the refugee camps through such means as the Sabra and Shatila massacres-as well as the systematic bombing of Palestinian villages which still continues-in order to goad the Palestinians into panic flight to Syria, following the pattern of Deir Yassin in 1948. At the end of the road, the Israelis hoped to avoid yielding anything substantive in terms of Palestinian autonomy, while totally ignoring any Palestinian claims to self-determination. All this is clear from the repeated statements of Israeli leaders.
Israel's second aim in launching the invasion related more to Lebanon than the occupied areas. This objective had been evolving over many years in discussions between Israeli representatives and Bashir Gemayel, the head of the Maronite Phalange. Those discussions had produced a grand design, one which was fatally flawed by arrogance and insensitivity and a naive belief in the universal efficacy of military force.
That scheme was anything but subtle. With the help of the Phalange (Bashir Gemayel's private army, or more properly his gang of murderers), Israel would install Bashir as president of Lebanon. He would establish a government friendly to Israel and amenable to Israeli influence, and it would sign a formal treaty of peace that would satisfy three Israeli ambitions. First, Lebanon would accord Israel full diplomatic relations. This was of prime importance as a major step in Israel's strategic plan to settle with one Arab neighbor at a time. Second, Israel hoped that Lebanon would not demand the relinquishment of occupied territory, in contrast to the Camp David accords with Egypt. On the contrary, the treaty would accord Israel effective control of southern Lebanon, thus providing it both additional territory and an effective buffer zone. That zone would be useful not only for its defense, but also for facilitating its plans to divert Lebanon's water resources to its own depleting aquifers. Third, once the new Lebanese government was firmly established, Israel would assist it in expelling the Syrians from Lebanon and extending Gemayel's writ throughout the balance of the country.
That was the background of our involvement in Lebanon. Our country's role was subservient to Israel and a response to Israel's ambitions.
America's involvement in Lebanon since the Israeli invasion can be divided into three phases. From June 1982 to August 1982, we concentrated on helping Israel achieve its first objective of expelling the PLO leaders from Lebanon. From August 1982 to June 1983, we made a strong diplomatic effort to assist Israel to achieve its second objective of obtaining a peace treaty from the Gemayel government, while at the same time, by the threat and use of military force, we sought to further other aspects of Israel's grand design by propping up the Gemayel government and stimulating the withdrawal of Syrian forces.
The third phase of our involvement began in June 1983, when Israel abandoned its grand design as unattainable and withdrew to build its own buffer in southern Lebanon, leaving us to make out as best we could. By that time President Reagan seemed uncertain as to what we were trying to achieve, faithfully validating George Santayana's definition of a fanatic as one who redoubles his efforts when he has forgotten his aim. Now, very late in the day, we are getting out, having lost much and gained nothing but experience.
Israel invaded Lebanon on June 6, 1982. There was no particular reason for selecting that date other than that President Reagan and Secretary Shultz were attending a summit conference in Versailles and preoccupied with other matters; the northern Galilee region had been substantially free of PLO harassment from Lebanon for eleven months under a ceasefire that America had negotiated. When the invasion began, Prime Minister Begin assured President Reagan and the world that it was only a limited operation intended merely to drive the PLO fighters north of a line twenty-five miles above the Israeli border, and thus put PLO artillery out of range of Israeli territory. But that assurance was a ruse; the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) kept going all the way to Beirut determined to kill or-if that did not prove possible-at least disperse the PLO leaders, and destroy their military forces.
The PLO leaders proved not very accommodating. They did not offer themselves to be killed nor did they promptly depart. So Israel conducted a ten-week siege of West Beirut during which its massive air, land, and sea bombardment killed thousands of civilians.
It was at this point that the United States moved onto the stage. Appalled at the indiscriminate loss of life, the administration sent Ambassador Philip Habib to try to arrange for the peaceful departure of the PLO so that Israel could achieve its objective without prolonging the slaughter. Since the Israeli army, in violation of its promises, already had entered West Beirut, protection had to be found for the PLO leaders during the evacuation, which required that some kind of peacekeeping force be interposed between the IDF and the PLO fighters.
The normal procedure would have been to ask the United Nations to establish a peacekeeping force composed of neutral elements. The US administration and Congress, as well as the Soviet Union, clearly preferred that solution. However, since Israel for many years has detested anything involving the United Nations, it vetoed the project. History has proved that Israel almost invariably wins any test of will with the United States, so again our government reluctantly agreed to organize a multi-national force containing a unit of American Marines.
For anyone who knew the past experience of peacekeeping forces, that seemed an appallingly bad idea. I told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in testimony at that time that, "We would imprudently hazard the lives of our Marines to commit them to an area where anti- Americanism is a dominating sentiment.)" I added that, although America might facilitate the removal of PLO leaders, "There will be plenty of frustrated Palestinians left behind and they may be driven to desperate acts of terrorism by the atmosphere of death and violence that has enveloped the city." Finally, I suggested that, if there must be third party intervention, "Let the troops of other nations undertake it-young men who are not Americans and hence not the natural targets for assassins."
Unfortunately, the administration ignored such cautionary counsel. It sent a contingent of Marines into Lebanon to stay until the conclusion of the evacuation, then abruptly withdrew it after only 17 days.
That limited exposure was merely the prelude to a much greater military involvement. Soon after the departure of the PLO leaders Bashir Gemayel was assassinated [September 14, 1982] and the next day Israel's armed forces violated the ceasefire agreement, entered West Beirut, and promptly threw open the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila to the murderous Phalange. Our national prestige suffered tragically from that event for, in negotiating the agreement with the PLO leaders, Philip Habib had pledged on the honor of the United States to guarantee the safety of the PLO's families left behind in the refugee camps. To be sure, in giving those guarantees he had qualified them by noting that: "The United States will provide its guarantees on the basis of assurances received from the government of Israel and the leadership of certain groups with which it has been in touch." Still, our own good faith was clearly laid on the line, for he added: "On the basis of these assurances, the United States government is confident that the government of Israel will not interfere with the implementation of this plan for the departure from Lebanon of the PLO leadership, officers and combatants, in a manner which will (a) assure the safety of such departing personnel, and (b) assure the safety of other persons in the area." Finally, Habib's commitment went even further, saying, "I would like to assure you that the United States government fully recognizes the importance of these assurances from the government of Israel and that my government will do its utmost to ensure that these assurances are scrupulously observed."
In fact, we did not do our utmost; we withdrew our Marines fortunately, without making any effective arrangements to protect the Palestinian families left behind. So our assurances were not scrupulously observed but wantonly violated. At least nine hundred men, women, and children in the camps were murdered, and the United States lost much of its authority in the area. After all, the PLO leaders had agreed to leave only because of our assurances that their wives and families would be safe; without our guarantee they never would have put credence in Israel's promises.
No doubt because we felt some sense of guilt, our government then made the major error of committing 1,800 Marines to a peacekeeping role at the Beirut airport with an ill-defined mission. Unlike the earlier deployment, the administration was vague as to just what the Marines were supposed to do, and confusion was compounded further as the president kept shifting carelessly from one formulation to another, broadening the Marines' mission and digging us in more deeply with every new statement.
Obviously, in the climate of intense violence following the Gemayel assassination, we should have avoided deploying American forces. Both the administration and large elements of the Congress clearly wanted a United Nations force, which was quickly and easily available. Ever since March 1978, the UNIFIL force had been stationed in southern Lebanon. It was composed of 5,300 men from such uninvolved countries as Finland, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, and it was quite competent to do the job. But once again we yielded meekly to an Israeli diktat when the IDF flatly refused to permit UNIFIL units to move north through its lines. All this proved for the hundredth time that, when the United States and Israel are eyeball to eyeball, we habitually blink.
Even so, our Marines based at the Beirut airport were, for a number of months, free of casualties, largely because Israel's army was occupying the Chouf Mountains-the ancestral home of the Druze community-which overhung their base. But that situation was not to last.
During the early months of 1983 the United States worked to arrange a peace treaty between Israel and the Lebanese government that, as I mentioned earlier, was one of Israel's prime objectives in launching the invasion. Secretary of State Shultz personally undertook that negotiation. But, as talks wore on, it became clear that no Lebanese government could concede the degree of derogation of its sovereignty that Israel demanded and still survive. The original scheme had been devised with the Maronites, one of whom, Amin Gemayel, was now president. But the Maronites are only 20 percent of the population and the majority Muslim elements strongly opposed any substantial concessions to Israel, which they regarded (with reason) as the Maronites' friend.
As a result of arduous negotiations Secretary of State Shultz finally produced a document that was signed on May 17, 1983, which was basically unsatisfactory to everyone. Although it gave Israel less than its leaders wanted, it impinged far too much on Lebanon's sovereignty to be accepted by the Lebanese Muslim factions, and it was offensive to the Syrians who balked at withdrawing their forces unconditionally after Israel had extracted substantial conditions as the price of the IDF's departure.
Disappointed and disillusioned, Israel's leaders now realized that they never would be able to secure their desired control over southern Lebanon by treaty or agreement, and would have to achieve it by building a buffer of their own by force. Nor could the Israelis hope for a tractable Maronite government in Beirut that would be amenable to their influence, yet strong enough to extend its writ to the entire country, and force the withdrawal of the Syrian army. They now recognized what should have been apparent from the beginning-that such a combination of strength and accommodation was an unresoluble contradiction.
The Israeli decision meant that having drawn America into helping achieve its ambitious program, Israel was now bowing out in a spirit of sauve qui peut. However, although the Reagan administration should have taken Israel's withdrawal as a clear message, it appears neither to have heard nor heeded it. Instead, our government redoubled its efforts to try to carry out-by itself-the scheme that Israel had abandoned because it had proven unfeasible even with America's help.
Israel's decision to jettison its long-held plan not only put America in an awkward diplomatic posture, but, by withdrawing from the Chouf Mountains, it left our Marines dangerously exposed. It had long been obvious that, once the Israelis ended their occupation of the Chouf, fierce fighting would begin as the Druze struggled to protect their mountain homes against the Phalange and Lebanese army. In addition, since our Marines were based next to a Lebanese army post, they would be endangered by the cross-fire. Why, then, was anyone surprised that, almost immediately after Israel announced its intention to withdraw, our Marines began taking their first casualties?
As some of us strongly urged, the United States should finally have faced reality. It was clear, as the Israelis had implicitly conceded, that the Gemayel government could never extend its writ over the whole country; indeed, there was doubt it could survive at all. It was obvious also that it had no chance whatsoever of consolidating its position with other Lebanese factions as long as the May 17 agreement yielded such favored treatment of Israel. In view of all this, prudence clearly required that we withdraw our Marines before any more were hurt or killed, leaving the Gemayel government free to abrogate the May 17 agreement and negotiate effectively with the other Lebanese factions. Instead, the administration began to portray America even more dramatically as the dedicated champion of the Gemayel regime, while still demanding, at Israel's urging, that President Gemayel not abrogate the May 17 agreement.
By now, the inconsistencies in our position had become obvious. We were pretending that our Marines were a neutral peacekeeping force just at a time when we were disavowing neutrality by making a strategic alliance with one of the warring parties, Israel. We continued to pretend that the Marines were playing a peacekeeping role, even after they had visibly chosen sides and noisily joined in the fighting. By increasingly firing at the Druze, Shiites, and Syrians, we were behaving more and more as though we were merely another of the feuding, quarreling factions that have bedeviled tragic Lebanon for so many years.
If America were to continue to bomb and shoot up Lebanon, the administration needed to have an enemy to justify that activity, so it elected Syria for that role. Yet Syria was not really our enemy, nor did it wish to be; all it did was accept arms from the Soviet Union while the Druze, in order to defend their homes against the Phalange, obtained arms from the Syrians. Nevertheless, by its convoluted logic, the administration was able to fit the struggle into its Manichean framework. By firing at the Druze and bombing the Syrians, the president implied, we were trying to keep the Soviet Union from taking over the country and changing the power balance in the Middle East. Meanwhile we assembled in the waters off Lebanon a formidable armada with 30,000 men and 300 airplanes.
At the moment, as we withdraw our Marines, every faction and country is concentrating on its own interests except the United States. Israel is busy establishing its occupation of South Lebanon where it is likely to remain on a more or less permanent basis, despite mounting harassment from the Shiites it is displacing. In time, some coalition of forces may be able to form a government in Beirut that will give a fairer share of the power to the majority Islamic elements and deprive the minority Maronite faction of the domination it has exercised for so many years. Syrian forces will almost certainly stay in the Beqaa valley-at least as long as Israel occupies South Lebanon-and there is no doubt that, as a result of its ill-conceived Lebanese adventure, Israel has greatly enhanced President Assad's influence in the Arab world. In addition, the IDF has increased Syria's military clout materially, for, in the course of its invasion, it quite unnecessarily attacked Syria and destroyed an impressive amount of Soviet-provided second-class equipment. That was a costly expression of bravado since, by thus humiliating the Russians, Israel compelled Moscow to reequip the Syrian forces with its most advanced weaponry and to reinforce its security guarantees.
Our country has emerged as the big loser from its foolhardy involvement in Lebanon. Only now, extremely late in the day and without achieving any of its fatuously exuberant objectives, the administration is beginning to cut its losses while loudly proclaiming that it is not doing so. But the sooner our leaders stop play-acting the better; let us hope they complete the process by promptly silencing the New Jersey's huge guns and redeploying our ships. Firing at Syrian positions aimlessly is not legitimate warfare but senseless and immoral slaughter.
Finally, let someone point out to President Reagan that merely because this is 1984, he need not indulge in " doublespeak." A defeat is a defeat; it is not a triumph. At this somber time, he would do well to heed the reaction of a statesman who had the sense and courage to acknowledge reality. Let him repeat the words of Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, following the evacuation from Dunkirk: "We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. "
America, in its history, has made many mistakes, yet they have been total disasters only when they failed to educate. We shall have gained nothing from this lamentable Lebanese episode unless our leaders recognize the clear but simple lesson that emerges: our country is not Israel's legal guardian and we should stop acting as though we were. For almost two years we have wasted time, money, and human lives fruitlessly in order to help the Israeli government pursue its self-centered interests in Lebanon and to clear away the damage it has created. That is no role for America. We are a great nation, quite capable of devising our own policies and the strategies to fulfill them. The Middle East is teaming with threat and turmoil and we can no longer afford to waste time, money, and human lives on irrelevant diversions, while our major interests in the area go begging for attention.
What are those interests? The most important is obviously the oil under the desert sands around the Gulf, which is vital to the economies of a number of the Western democracies and Japan. But the free flow of that oil depends, to a high degree, on peace and stability in the area, and today that oil flow is threatened directly by the conflict between Iraq and Iran, and indirectly by the dragging on of the festering Arab-Israeli dispute.
Of these, the more immediate is probably the protracted conflict between Iran and Iraq-which could have major consequences, whatever the outcome. If Iran should manage to defeat Iraq decisively, the repercussions could be considerable, though hard to identify with precision. Nothing, I would suppose, could unite the Arab nations more than a common Persian enemy, particularly since that spectacle would evoke long memories of past struggles in a history-haunted area of the world. Moreover, no one can assess all of the implications and consequences that might flow from the triumph of Islamic fundamental- ism. It might well foment serious troubles in Arab countries with substantial Shiite populations-not merely Bahrain and Kuwait, but even Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, a decisive Iraqi victory would contribute little to stability, provoking problems not merely for the more moderate Arab states but exacerbating the rivalry between Syria and Iraq, Syria has been supporting the Iranians, not only because that a majority of Iraq's population is Shiite.
The greatest danger-and one which most worries the Gulf states-is that, as the war moves toward a climax, the escalation of violence might lead to reckless and even suicidal measures. Thus, Iran might, in desperation, try to carry out its threat to close the Straits of Hormuz, or at least discourage oil traffic in the Gulf while fanatical Iranian elements might bomb the Saudi oil fields which lie exposed and basically defenseless.
Realistically, there is little we can do to affect the fighting and the only prudent course for America is, for the moment, to remain neutral and await developments. There are, of course, rumors that the United States may be tilting toward Iraq, presumably from a desire to create unease in Damascus. If true, such action, in the long term, could prove extremely shortsighted. With 40 million people and a location on the eastern littoral of the Gulf, Iran is a country of extraordinary strategic importance. Today the Soviet Union has little influence in Tehran, but the Ayatollah will not live forever-although his elder brother is 96-and were we to appear to take sides, we might very well prejudice relations with some future Iranian government. After all, even the anti-Khomeini elements in Iran are strongly nationalistic.
If we can do nothing effective about the Iran-Iraq war except hold a watching brief, that is not the case with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet any effective initiative will require something more than words. On September 1, 1982, President Reagan made a much-heralded speech in an effort to restore momentum to what is called, with more hope than confidence, "the peace process." But, as so often happens, the administration confused rhetoric with action. Israel flatly rejected the peace proposals and intensified its construction of settlements. Yet the United States did not respond. Now, as long as the Israelis continue to preempt the land and water supply of the West Bank and the United States continues to subsidize that process, I see little chance that any Arab state will put such trust in American intentions as to risk an offer of serious negotiations.
Politics is, of course, tolerant of concealed contradictions but, in our policy toward Israel, no one any longer bothers to conceal them. Israel's settlements program costs us an estimated $200 million a year, and without America's subsidy it could never continue, for Israel's economy is a total shambles. American policy will appear hypocritical as long as we make speeches urging a Middle East peace, yet persist in paying Israel to frustrate that objective.
I have sought to concentrate.my remarks on Lebanon because it seems one more example of a tendency all too apparent in American diplomacy-the the temptation to chase rabbits that lead us far off course from our main objectives. We tend too often to become so intensely preoccupied in the chase that we confuse an obsession with a policy.
So let me conclude my comments on Lebanon with a nursery rhyme, since we have approached the Lebanese adventure with a wide-eyed innocence not normally achieved by adults. The rhyme I have in mind is one that amused me a half century ago, and which beguiled English children long before that.
The good old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
As many of you will recall, the old Duke of York, who was the second eldest son of George the Third, was not regarded in his day as very bright. But there was still something to be said for him. He knew when he marched up the hill why he was going there, and he recognized when he got to the top that he was in an untenable situation, so he marched his troops back down again. And finally, when he reached bottom, he knew where he had been and why he had gone there.
It is too bad that the old Duke is not around today. Our government certainly could use his help.
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