I recently read a piece on Foreign Policy arguing that President Reagan showed courage for his decision to cut-and-run in Beirut, which he made about 30 years ago this month. I have spent way too much time on this subject not to respond.
First, the writer argued that Reagan sent Americans to Beirut as part of a Multi-National Peacekeeping Force. That is of course correct, but there is so much more to it than that: behind the closed doors of the White House Situation Room, Reagan and his team saw an American presence in the Middle East both as an opportunity to keep the Soviets out of Lebanon and as the chance he was looking for to show the world that the United States had moved beyond the "ghosts of Vietnam."
Second, the author argued that Reagan deserves a lot of credit for a "tough decision." I'm not so sure it was a tough decision or that Reagan came to the decision to abandon Beirut for the right reasons. In terms of saving American lives in the short term there is no question that it was the right decision. But why make that decision in January/February 1984? Why not in April 1983 after terrorists bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killing over fifty of the best American Middle East analysts? At that point Reagan knew that there were going to be more American casualties -- the reality was that the Marines stationed in Beirut just could not be protected, which of course proved out in October when 241 Americans were killed after a suicide truck bomber rammed into the American Barracks at the Beirut International Airport. Why not pull out then?
In my mind the only explanation for why Reagan pulled the Marines out of Beirut when he did was that he did not want to go through 1984, an election year, with the realization that the Marines in Beirut were sitting ducks. Had Reagan's approval ratings for most of 1983 been over fifty percent (they were in the mid forties), I suspect he would have stuck it out in Beirut longer. But with more Americans disapproving of his leadership than approving, Reagan could just not take the chance that American casualties in Beirut would jeopardize his reelection.
Third, and this goes to the heart of this piece, did Reagan really make a courageous decision to cut-and-run? If you believe, as I do, that his decision rested on the fact that it was an election year decision than I don't see how it could have been courageous. It was a safe decision. A courageous decision, in my mind, would have been a determination to let the MNF do their job at least through the 1984 election. Would sticking it out a little longer have changed anything? We know what pulling out led to -- and yes, it did lead to emboldening terrorists (think of the hijackings of TWA 847, the Achille Laura, Pan Am Flight 73) -- but what if Reagan had made the really hard choice and told his advisers, "I don't care if this is an election year, we have a job to do and we are going to do it!" I'm not arguing for an open-ended commitment, just suggesting that a decision to let the Marines do their job at least through the 1984 election would have set a better precedent while also accomplishing another of Reagan's goals: showing that the U.S. had moved beyond Vietnam.
Last, if reelection did in fact sway Reagan's decision in 1984 to cut-and-run, why then did he not reintroduce troops in 1985? My feeling is that by 1985 Reagan realized that the Middle East was not as "vital" as he thought it was in 1981 and 1982. Reagan also had his hands full with the arms-for-hostages dealings in Iran and the numerous Middle East crises that just seemed to be never-ending. Then, by 1986, after his first one-on-one with Gorbachev, he knew that the Cold War could be managed without American troops in the Middle East. So, Reagan may have actually backed into the right decision (though I think the timing did do damage to American prestige), but giving him credit for doing so misses the point that were it not an election year, and had his approval ratings been higher, he very likely would have kept American troops in Beirut for the near future.
For those interested in further exploring the events and decision-making process, I suggest a visit to my website, www.TheReaganFiles.com, on which you will find over 100 recently declassified documents related to Ronald Reagan and the Middle East, among other collections.