Shultz in Lebanon
1983 bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon
Declassified Correspondence
President Reagan writes to Margaret Thatcher in 1982 about prospects for peace in Lebanon. (Read here, courtesy of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation archive.)

President Reagan writes to Margaret Thatcher in 1983 about conversations with Egypt and Jordan about what turned out to be dwindling prospects for an independent Lebanon. (Read here, courtesy of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation archive.)

June 1982. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had settled in southern Lebanon in order to launch attacks on northern Israel. Eventually, Israel responded by sending a massive invasion force into Lebanon--driving through to Beirut. Israel justified its actions by citing the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London as well as the build-up of PLO forces and arms in South Lebanon.

On June 6, the United States joined a unanimous U.N. Security Council Resolution, which demanded that the PLO withdraw from Lebanon and that all parties observe a border cease-fire. The stage was set for a joint French-American-Italian peacekeeping intervention, called the Multinational Force (MNF). The PLO would have to get out of Lebanon.

By August, the US had reached an agreement with the Lebanese government, which would allow the MNF to safely evacuate the PLO and protect the remaining population. This force included 800 U.S. Marines and was intended to exist for less than a month.

Ongoing violence, however, lead President Reagan to decide that the Marines, in conjunction with the MNF, must stay until Lebanon was stable, independent and self-governing. Enter Secretary of State George Shultz who was charged with brokering an agreement between Israel and Lebanon that would ensure peace.

April 1983. Shultz left Washington:

“My objective was clear and public--” Shultz writes in his Reagan-years memoir Turmoil and Triumph “achieve an agreement between the Lebanese and the Israelis. The bottom line was an Israeli commitment to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.” (Turmoil & Triumph, p. 196)

The stakes were especially high, as this trip was viewed as a ‘must-win’ situation. Not only could the conflagration flare up at any moment, but Shultz – personally and professionally - had to prove his muster as newly appointed Secretary of State. Success would be complicated by a variety of factors, however:

“In effect, every side wanted to squeeze the system for its own purposes, regardless of the cost to the Lebanese. Jordan wanted an Israeli settlements freeze; Israel wanted U.S. assistance stepped up. Lebanon grew fearful of renewed Syrian dominance as massive Soviet military resupply flowed to Syria, and warring militias battled each other beyond the control of the weak Lebanese central authority.” (T&T, p. 196.)

According to Shultz, Syria was the biggest threat to brokering a peace. Syrian leaders wanted Lebanon under their control. The extent of Syria’s threat became fully evident in the months that followed.

Over the next month or so, a lot of politicking ensued. Shultz traveled all around the Middle East trying to get support for a peace agreement that would create a stable and independent Lebanon. His work culminated in the famous May 17th Agreement, or more officially “The Agreement on Withdrawal of Troops from Lebanon.”

Shultz writes:

“Under the terms of the agreement, each country would respect the sovereignty and territorial rights of the other; the state of war between them was terminated. Israel would withdraw its armed forces from Lebanon…The two nations agreed to settle disputes by peaceful means…neither would allow itself to be used as a staging ground for hostile activity against the other or against a third state…” (T&T, p. 220)

The May 17th Agreement involved costs and benefits for both sides. It had the potential to lay a basis for Lebanon’s return to stability – as well as territorial control. If it held, it would provide a foundation for a broader Middle East peace plan.

It remained to be seen, however, if the plan could succeed. Syrian and the Soviet influence complicated matters and put the entire agreement in a precarious - and dangerous - position:

“There were soon indicators, which taken together were most serious, that the Soviets and Syrians were determined to see that the region remained a tense and dangerous place. The Soviets began to pull their dependents out of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria; Soviet military personnel continued to be assigned to forward command sites in Syria and Lebanon. Syrian air defenses began to challenge Israeli reconnaissance flights, and a wartime command structure appeared to be taking shape in Syria.” (T&T, p. 220-21)

President Assad of Syria said he would not withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon. According to an Arab League agreement from 8 months earlier, the Syrians would only leave when the Israelis did. But during the course of the 8 months, Syria had become much stronger, mostly with the aid of the Soviets. They were now unwilling to budge.

Meanwhile, a provision in the May 17th agreement stated that Israel did not have to withdraw troops until Syria did. Shultz therefore needed to convince the Arab League to prevail upon Syria to leave so that Israel would then leave, giving the May 17th Agreement a chance to work. He had to find a way to break the deadlock in order to give Lebanon a chance at a stable future.

The Syrians then stepped up military pressure on U.S. marines, Lebanese government positions, and Israeli-held areas. The Israelis held a stronghold in the Shouf mountains (a strategic high ground around Beirut) but came under increasing pressure from the Syrians. They could not hold their position without suffering casualties and consider retreating (a move which would leave the marines and Lebanese vulnerable in Beirut).

Shultz and Reagan had to convince Israel not to abandon the Shouf Mountains, or risk everything falling apart under increasing Syrian influence and pressure. If the Israelis were to leave because of Syrian pressure without gaining any concessions from the Syrians, the chances for a successful and peaceful resolution to the Lebanese situation was unlikely:

“I was determined that the United States would not give up on the agreement, certainly not unless something genuinely satisfactory was put in its place. I knew, however, that if Israel weakened and pulled its troops back unilaterally, that would be close to a death blow for the May 17th Agreement.” (T&T, p. 224)

On Tuesday, August 30, tragedy struck. Three U.S. marines were killed due to Syrian violence. The situation was worsening by the day. Shultz took his mounting concerns directly to President Reagan:

“I went to the White House to brief the president. The situation was deteriorating rapidly. Under Syrian threat, the key Lebanese factions would not join a government of national reconciliation unless the May 17th Agreement was scrapped. Israel had agreed to delay its pullout from the Shouf, but only until Saturday. The Lebanese were killing each other at Syria’s behest. The marines were hunkered down, taking hostile fire and doing little else. The Israelis were packing their bags. And all parties were heaping scorn on the one negotiated agreement that could help.” (T&T, p. 224)

The May 17th agreement Shultz had worked so hard to broker, was unraveling. Because U.S. Marines were stationed in a limited peacekeeping role, they could only return fire in self-defense. Therefore, they became even more vulnerable to Syrian violence, a situation made worse when Israel retreated from the Shouf Mountains; “…September 4th, the Israelis moved out of the Shouf, leaving the marines vulnerable to fire and demonstrating to Syria and the rest of the Arab world that Israel was retreating without any corresponding concession from Syria.” (T&T, p. 225)

This move severely undercut the May 17 Agreement, but Shultz was determined to salvage it. A commitment had been made to Lebanon to help it achieve sovereignty and Shultz felt that for peace to be achieved, that commitment had to be honored.

Up to this point, the French and Italian arms of the Multi-National Forces had been under attack, as well. Officials back home recognized the need to step up military presence. As Shultz describes the situation, “We kept getting drawn into a more militant posture, but only in a hesitant way. We needed to stand firm, showing strength that was purposeful and steady.” (T&T, p. 226)

But could the peacekeepers get the time they needed?

“On September 28, 1983, the House voted 250 to 161 to authorize the deployment of marines in Lebanon for an additional eighteen months. The vote was of immense importance. It let everyone know the United States had staying power.” (T&T, p. 227)

A terrorist act on October 23rd tested American resolve. A truck carrying explosives crashed through the perimeter of the compound where U.S. marines slept in barracks. 241 marines died in the explosion.

“We were shocked and grieved. But the president was determined not to be driven out of Lebanon by a terrorist attack. We replaced our marine contingent and continued our effort to help the Lebanese out of their civil war and into a process of national reconciliation among the traditional confessional groups.” (T&T, p. 227-228).”

Shultz and Reagan were both determined to see the Lebanese achieve independence and stability and recognized the need for the U.S. to stand firm against the Syrians.

“As the strife-filled days went by, we observed that when our forces were aggressive in reconnaissance and reacted sharply when fired on, the Syrians stepped back and sounded more accommodating. If our forces seemed to hesitate, Syria’s statements and actions grew more hostile.” (T&T, p. 228)

While Shultz and Reagan were determined to stick it out, the rest of Washington’s support for a continued presence in Lebanon was waning. Vice President George H.W. Bush was increasingly worried. Plans for withdrawal from Lebanon began to surface. Shultz was not happy about these developments, fearing that withdrawal would destroy all hope for Lebanon’s future.

However, there was little Shultz could do. The dynamic within the administration had fundamentally changed: “On Monday, January 9, 1984, at a National Security Planning Group meeting, Vice President Bush was more than ready to get out of Lebanon. I could see the political handwriting on the wall. From this moment forward, my effort would be to maintain the strength and steadiness needed to enable U.S. forces to achieve an orderly departure and to give the government of Lebanon and its army a fighting chance. But I could no longer hope to fulfill President Reagan’s pledge of December 10, 1983 that only when ‘internal stability is established and withdrawal of all foreign forces is assured, the marines will leave’” (T&T, p. 229)

Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Shultz testified that the U.S. should not cut and run when faced with state-sponsored terrorism and should not abandon Lebanon:

“I emphasized that state-sponsored terrorism was a new world-wide phenomenon. I said the United States should not let the terrorists force us to retreat from Lebanon. I stressed that we needed to concentrate on discreet diplomacy to create greater stability and expand the reach of the legitimate government in Lebanon. When Senator Chuck Percy raised the possibility of resolutions about withdrawal, I said they would undercut our ability to negotiate a reasonable settlement. Washington had ‘pullout fever.’” (T&T, p. 230).

Shultz was scheduled to leave on a badly-timed trip to Central and South America. While he was gone, the situation in Washington had deteriorated even further: “By the time I got back to Washington on February 8, I found a virtual stampede just to ‘get out’ of Lebanon.” (T&T, p. 231).

Shultz grimly recalls the final events of the Lebanese peacekeeping mission:

“Our troops left in a rush amid ridicule from the French and utter disappointment and despair from the Lebanese. The Italians left as they saw us departing. The French stayed until the end of March, saying that their peacekeeping mission was no longer possible in what was basically a civil war, supported, in effect, by Syria…. I knew then that our staying power under pressure would come into question time and again—and not just in the Middle East.” (T&T, p. 231)

By March, 1984, the multi-national forces had abandoned the Lebanese to the Syrians. The event would become a stain on U.S. foreign policy. It was not only a failed mission, but a personal failure for Shultz and Reagan. How the United States understood warfare, however, would be forever changed. The experience would profoundly shape the U.S. response in the years following September 11, 2001. For better or worse, such responses have been affected by George Shultz, who would forever return to the events in Lebanon in reckoning with a new era of terrorism.

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