No U.S. role in Lebanon

August 24, 2006|By Drew Bennett

WASHINGTON -- Having served in Beirut when a suicide bomber killed 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers on Oct. 23, 1983, I am concerned about the potential for sending U.S. peacekeepers back into Lebanon.

Although the Bush administration says that it does not plan on putting troops on the ground, some - including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft - suggest that the United States might need to send peacekeepers into Lebanon, and one poll shows 51 percent of Americans favor sending U.S. peacekeepers. Experience has taught me that peacekeepers must be neutral and perceived as such, a condition that does not exist for the United States in this region today.

Twenty-four years ago this month, Marines landed in Beirut as part of a multinational effort to supervise the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The world perceived these Marines as neutral, working to accomplish a specific mission that might help stop the fighting among Israeli, Syrian, PLO and other militia forces inside Lebanon.

Although everyone knew the United States supported Israel, Philip Habib, the U.S. Middle East envoy, had worked with all sides for a year trying to bring peace to the region. Moreover, although the United States had increased its supply of arms to Israel before the invasion, immediately afterward the United States appealed for moderation and called for a cease-fire when Israeli forces reached Beirut. With the PLO gone and the mission accomplished, the Marines departed on Sept. 13, 1982.

The following day, a bomb killed Bashir Gemayel, the president-elect of Lebanon. Mr. Gemayel had created the Phalangist Party, supported mostly by Maronite Christians. From Sept. 16-18, Phalangist militia members, supposedly searching for PLO members to hand over to the Israelis, entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of inhabitants. Although Israel denied that it knew a massacre was occurring, Israeli forces had surrounded the camps, maintained communications with the Phalangists' militia, and fired illumination flares above the camps.

This event caused the Marines and the multinational peacekeeping force to return. Yet, people in the region still perceived the Marines as neutral and their initial actions as impartial.

In September 1983, however, when U.S. ships fired into the Shouf Mountains - not in support of American peacekeepers but in support of Lebanese forces - many in the region considered the United States and its personnel in Lebanon actively participating in combat. The bombing of the Marine barracks was a direct result.

In Lebanon today, many view America as biased. The United States did not immediately call for a cease-fire and reportedly increased the supply of some weapons to Israel after the start of hostilities. Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has visited the region, many there do not see her statement, "Hezbollah is the source of the problem," as neutral.

In the eyes of the world, the United States has taken a side. Today, our military is heavily engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq. But even if we could find available forces, our actions regarding Lebanon have limited our strategic options. Our support for Israel appears to overshadow any ability to remain impartial.

Our military has significantly improved since the bombing of the Marine barracks. The problems with the chain of command, rules of engagement, and force protection that contributed to that tragedy have received enormous attention. Today our military possesses unparalleled technological capability and competency. However, Americans must understand that despite these improvements, peacekeeping in any environment is dangerous. When the peacekeepers are not neutral, it is next to impossible.

Ultimately, national leaders must decide whether the risk is worth the gain. No one doubts that if ordered, commanders will internalize the mission, and fine young men and women in American uniforms will do their very best to execute peacekeeping tasks in Lebanon.

Despite what we think and even if we are acting as part of a multinational force or wearing blue U.N. berets, U.S. peacekeepers will not be seen as neutral. It will not matter that our goal is to minimize the sufferings of the innocent; many will only see U.S. forces as combatants.

In this context, U.S. forces on the ground would operate with a level of risk that makes the accomplishment of a peacekeeping mission unattainable, and many Americans would die needlessly. As someone who had to dig through rubble to recover the bodies of dead comrades the last time we had a peacekeeping force in Lebanon, I would caution anyone calling for U.S. peacekeepers today to consider the price that would certainly be paid.

Drew Bennett is a Marine colonel on the faculty at the National War College. These are his personal opinions and do not represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps or National War College. His e-mail is bennettd2@ndu.edu.

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