How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
American peacekeeping turned into American bloodletting in 1983. More than any event since the war and oil embargo almost exactly ten years earlier, the October 23 suicide bombing of Marine headquarters in Beirut brought the Middle East conflict home directly to vast numbers of Americans stunned by the carnage that eventually claimed 241 lives-more casualties than in any other single incident since the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.
The terrorist attack that Sunday morning was a pivotal event of 1983 for American policy. It symbolized the year's shift in Washington's agenda, away from the overall Arab-Israeli peace process and toward the acute dangers of the deepened Lebanese morass left in the wake of Israel's invasion of that country in 1982. It signaled, as later developments would confirm, that the United States was edging toward military confrontation with Soviet-backed Syria, which Washington charged with complicity in the bombing attack and which had become Washington's principal adversary in a struggle over the future of Lebanon. It severely strained the uneasy consensus in the United States behind policy in Lebanon, particularly the decision to keep the Marines there, and by year-end the consensus cracked wide open.
America's longstanding policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict had been fashioned by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the tense, waning days of the 1973 Middle East War. Underlying this policy were three premises deceptively simple to state but monumentally difficult to convert into practice: America's supreme national interest is to avoid an Arab-Israeli war that embroils the superpowers; an American-brokered negotiating process promising the Israelis peace and security and the Arabs the return of territories lost in 1967 must be the engine of Middle East peacemaking; this peace process must eventually embrace, or appear to hold out the prospect of embracing, Israel's relationships with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and-somehow-the Palestinians.
When Ronald Reagan went before a national television audience on September 1, 1982, to unveil his celebrated peace initiative, he confirmed and embellished this inherited American peace policy, explicitly invoking, as he rarely did, continuity with the foreign policies of his predecessors. Although he had badly neglected the peace process for a year and a half while chasing the phantom of an Arab-Israeli strategic consensus against the Soviet Union, he now outlined a more precise and categorical vision of how to deal with the Palestinian problem than any American President had ever dared before. While rebuilding a war-devastated Lebanon, the President said, American energies would also be turned toward getting Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to agree that the West Bank Palestinians be given self-government in association with Jordan. Israel must freeze the burgeoning Jewish settlements on the West Bank and renounce any claim to permanent control. Palestinians must set aside their goal of an independent state and find a way to work with Jordan. Jordan's King Hussein must do what he had refused to do since Camp David. He must join the peace process: not only join it, but become its linchpin.
The President referred to Lebanon only in passing during his landmark speech. Washington's conventional wisdom at the time was optimistic, in retrospect hopelessly and inexplicably so. Foreign troops would evacuate Lebanon soon-before Christmas, some senior Administration officials said. Evacuation, they hoped, would create an opportunity for Lebanon's leaders to reassert control over portions of the country vacated by the Israelis, the Syrians, and the Palestinians who remained after the enforced departure from Beirut of PLO leader Yassir Arafat and his main fighting forces.
But optimism on this score receded sharply as it became clear that Israel was reluctant to withdraw unless it could nail down maximum gains from its war in Lebanon, and that Syria would not withdraw before the Israelis. Syria had told American negotiators in October that Damascus agreed in principle to the idea of Israeli-Syrian troop withdrawal. Achieving withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon became, therefore, Washington's second broad objective, in tandem with the effort to move forward with the President's larger peace proposal regarding the West Bank.
When their moments of truth came in 1983, both the Reagan peace plan and the American effort to bring about withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon evaporated into mirages; it became a year when nearly everything that could have gone wrong with Washington's Middle East diplomacy did go wrong. Hostage to the crisis in Lebanon, brushed aside defiantly by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, rejected by the PLO, and fatally weakened by Jordan's refusal to negotiate without official Palestinian sanction, the President's initiative collapsed by mid-April.
By then, too, Washington had spent six months trying to find a key that would open the door on the troop withdrawal issue in Lebanon. In an important shift in strategy at the end of 1982, the United States invested its main energy in trying to get Israel and Lebanon to reach an agreement that was supposed to be a prelude to the withdrawal of all foreign forces. This new approach relegated Syria to the sidelines, where it presumably was supposed to remain until an Israeli-Lebanese deal was sealed that would enable Damascus to come on board. After the collapse of the President's peace initiative, the United States redoubled its efforts in Lebanon. Secretary of State George Shultz went to the region and brought back in May a Lebanese-Israeli agreement, but it quickly became and remains as much a part of the problem as of the solution in Lebanon.
As the Lebanese impasse hardened, Washington expanded its political and military commitments to Lebanese President Amin Gemayel's fragile government, accelerated its programs of training and assistance to the Lebanese Army, and made clear in a variety of ways its determination to put U.S. prestige and credibility behind the survival of Gemayel's government as the legitimate instrument of a unified and independent Lebanon. Yet, as the year progressed, such a Lebanon seemed always beyond reach and, for the most skeptical observers of that country's politics, perhaps even beyond imagination.
Darkening not only the Lebanese scene throughout, but also the larger Middle East setting that shaped prospects for the Reagan peace plan, was the shadow of Syrian President Hafez Assad. No development in 1983 had so surprising, so dramatic, or so large an impact on American policy objectives as Syria's masterful resurgence as a political and military force in the region.1 Humiliated by his military defeat at the hands of Israel in the summer of 1982, Assad turned to the Soviet Union and put as the first order of business the rebuilding of his devastated military arsenal at a pace and to a level that turned out to be staggering. Moscow provided some $2.5 billion worth of equipment, roughly double what had been lost during the 1982 war, and including advanced fighter aircraft and tanks in numbers exceeding what had been destroyed by the Israelis. It also provided Syria with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles; 8,000 Soviet personnel-most of them to man these air defense installations and related communications centers, the rest to train Assad's army-and a number of surface-to-surface missiles possessing greater accuracy-though not longer range-than any previously in the Syrian inventory.
Although several more years, at least, would be needed before the Syrians could absorb and master the newest high-technology matériel, the powerful momentum of the Soviet supply effort and the formidable military prowess that it augured for Syria in the not-too-distant future no doubt emboldened Assad's shrewd, high-risk diplomacy during 1983. He broke Arafat's control over a unified PLO and brought a portion of the Palestinian movement under Syrian control. He did much to sabotage the Reagan peace initiative, torpedoed the Israeli-Lebanese agreement, gained a strangle-hold over the process of national reconciliation among Lebanon's contending political forces, and served notice that he would no longer be odd man out of any serious dimension of Middle East diplomacy, whether in Lebanon or beyond.
For the Soviet Union, the Syrian connection is the only remaining window of opportunity and influence in the Middle East. But the Moscow-Damascus relationship remained a wary one, as it had been since they reluctantly consecrated their treaty relationship in 1980. During 1983, Moscow disapproved strongly of Assad's campaign against Arafat, and the Kremlin reportedly encouraged Syrian caution in the increasingly dangerous confrontation with the United States. Assad knew, for his part, that however much Moscow might relish Syria's success in thwarting American aims in the Middle East and in intensifying pressures that might lead to removal of U.S. troops from Lebanon, the Soviet Union did not countenance the sort of adventurism that would draw the superpowers into a direct confrontation.
By the closing months of 1983, American diplomacy was forced to concentrate mainly on containing a severely deteriorating situation in Lebanon. Moreover, it was a diplomacy that became increasingly muscular, backed by ever more menacing firepower from American naval and air forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, and coupled with strong doses of sometimes apocalyptic Presidential rhetoric in the White House.
The initial spasm of new violence in September was triggered by the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the volatile Shouf mountains around Beirut: the resulting vacuum provided Syrian-backed opposition to the Gemayel government an opportunity to launch a serious, frontal military challenge. From the time American naval guns provided their first direct support for Gemayel's government forces in September to the most serious escalation in December, when U.S. planes hit Syrian positions in Lebanon in retaliation for Syria's attack against American reconnaissance aircraft, the stakes for the United States had risen starkly. And America's military options in Lebanon had not been enhanced by Washington's dramatic refurbishment of a so-called strategic cooperation with Israel, which it hoped would weigh against Syria and its allies in Lebanon. Israel, although eager to repair its tattered relationship with Washington, set modest limits on its willingness to do Washington's bidding in Lebanon, where Israel's own disastrous and misguided adventures in 1982 traumatized its public and destroyed the formidable Menachem Begin.
The huge Marine casualties, signs of numbing political stalemate in the Lebanese reconciliation process, the clear determination of Syria to use force to assert its control over Lebanon, the risks of greatly enlarged conflict with Syria, the ominous and combustible proximity of American and Soviet troops in the region, the magnified dangers in this proximity because of the abysmal state of Soviet-American relations-all posed the gravest challenges to American strategy in the region. For, paradoxically, none of Washington's more assertive military actions dampened the impression that Washington was at the mercy of events in Lebanon rather than in control of them-and that, in the end, Syria might have time on its side.
Nor did the strands of American foreign policy seem to fit together very well for an American public that grew steadily more confused and anxious, even less so for the President's political advisers, who worried that Lebanon might become Reagan's Achilles' heel in the upcoming election year. Public support for the President's decision to keep the Marines in Lebanon after the October slaughter was initially strong. But it declined thereafter and at no time was it based on any clear understanding of what the Marines were there to do or of how, with honor, they were going to get out. These questions, more than any others, were paramount for the American public and Ronald Reagan at the end of a year of relentless seige and deepening jeopardy for U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The soul of the Reagan peace plan of September 1982 was a gamble on Hussein: that he would challenge a reluctant and suspicious Israel with a genuine negotiating option, that he would be Washington's lever against an Israel whose Likud government was determined never to relinquish the West Bank. Periodically between 1967 and Begin's election in 1977, in secret and in public, directly and through intermediaries, Hussein and successive Israeli leaders had tried to come to terms about the West Bank and failed utterly. Now Washington wanted to tease Hussein into taking the plunge once again, despite long odds and grave personal and political risks for the King.
In the aftermath of the 1982 war, Washington believed the time was ripe. The PLO was weakened and its embattled leader Yassir Arafat was presumably more pliant, his military option gone, his political options dwindling. Syria's humiliation in the war had diminished the likelihood of Syrian or Soviet mischief-making, and Syria was further hampered by its isolation in the Arab world over its support for Iran in the Gulf war. Begin would not last forever, and Israel's public and Labor Party opposition, Washington believed, might be amenable to compromise over the West Bank. The Israeli-Palestinian war in Lebanon must now become the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
And Hussein seemed ready. After giving the Reagan Plan a qualified endorsement, Hussein met with Arafat and began what seemed to be a promising, if tentative, effort to work out a common approach to negotiations about the West Bank. In effect, such an approach would have reversed the Arab world's Rabat decision in 1974, which gave the PLO the exclusive right to represent the Palestinians in any peace negotiations. Most important, Hussein was greatly encouraged by the results of his critical talks with Ronald Reagan in Washington at the end of December 1982.
"We'll be partners for the next six years," Reagan reportedly told Hussein. He secretly pledged to try to halt Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza if Jordan simply offered to join the peace talks. Reagan promised that the United States would telescope the negotiating process, to avoid the lengthy haggling that had killed the Camp David autonomy negotiations in 1979-81. And he promised sophisticated weapons, including F-16 aircraft-knowing what was until October 1983 a tightly held secret, namely that the United States and Jordan had been working for several years to outfit a Jordanian mobile strike force for use in the Persian Gulf, mainly in the event of internal threats to conservative Arab states emanating from Iran or from domestic sources of instability.
Though reassured, Hussein nevertheless was stalked by a long history of disappointed reliance on the United States. President Lyndon Johnson had promised him in 1967 that Israel would be out of the West Bank within six months. Kissinger, soon after taking the helm at the National Security Council, had initially been convinced that the first step toward peace should be an Israeli-Jordanian deal, but he changed his mind after realizing how problematic an Israeli consensus would be, especially regarding the status of Jerusalem-an issue that could not be avoided in any West Bank negotiations. Kissinger tried in 1974 to make a West Bank agreement palatable to Jordan and Israel, but the gap between the paltry terms offered by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's weak and divided government and Hussein's maximal demands could not be bridged. Because Camp David gave the King so few incentives to join the peace process-he was neither consulted in advance nor present at the summit negotiations that assigned Jordan a principal role in the proposed autonomy talks-Hussein opted out and stayed out.
Hussein's hopes faded quickly. Even at the outset of 1983, it was clear that Washington was not going to succeed in getting Israeli, Syrian, and PLO troops out of Lebanon on anything like the optimistic schedule originally anticipated. By miscalculation and default, Reagan had encouraged a linkage between the peace plan and progress in Lebanon; and in their own way Hussein and other Arab leaders had too, by insisting that the peace process could not get under way until Washington demonstrated its credibility in Lebanon. It was a trap that victimized the Reagan initiative throughout early 1983. Those who controlled events in Lebanon, especially Israel and Syria, were given a veto over the peace initiative, which they both opposed vehemently. Presidential assurances were not followed by urgent diplomacy from Washington to keep the Reagan initiative alive.
Israel meanwhile accelerated its plans for new settlements on the West Bank, no doubt intending a message aimed as much at Washington as at Hussein. Hussein knew, of course, that by the spring of 1983 the election of 1984 would become a factor in the United States; he was convinced that it would not be the political season for the sustained American pressure on Israel that would be required for making genuine progress on a revived peace process. During early 1983 Washington's credibility in Hussein's eyes seemed to dissolve on all counts. Then Arafat's ability to bring along his own constituency became more and more in doubt, and in the end, this was the factor that brought the Reagan enterprise to a halt.
Arafat's room for maneuver was narrowed not only by well-known and rather predictable divisions within the Palestinian movement, but also by Hafez Assad's fresh determination to end Arafat's stewardship over the PLO and to bring a chastened PLO under complete Syrian control. Soon after the end of the 1982 war in Lebanon, as Arafat began testing the waters with Hussein and showed open signs of willingness to join a negotiating process, Syria's anger at the PLO leader became more pointed, more public, and more threatening. Damascus openly challenged Arafat's legitimacy as PLO leader in the fall of 1982, then gave its apparent blessing to anti-Arafat Palestinian terrorists led by PLO renegade Abu Nidal, and finally helped to promote a portentous split that was developing within Arafat's own Fatah organization. The links between the Fatah dissidents and Syria were already active early in 1983 and they matured throughout the year.2 The dissidents were deeply rejectionist in their overall thrust, opposed to negotiations on the basis of any peace plan, committed to military action against Israel, and unwilling to contemplate any dealings between Arafat and Hussein.
The PLO leader's first major test came in mid-February at a tumultuous session in Algiers of the 350-delegate Palestinian National Council, representing Palestinians from around the world and meeting for the first time in nearly two years. Deep ambivalence about the Arafat-Hussein talks among the organizations making up the PLO was obvious during the wide-open debates at the PNC. The council-usually responsive to Arafat's wishes-waffled in its formal resolutions, neither giving Arafat his head nor reining him in. The Reagan Plan was not rejected explicitly and unequivocally, but neither was it endorsed as a basis for negotiations. Arafat's talks with Hussein could continue, but no bargain could be struck unless the PLO represented the Palestinians, and unless the negotiations were based on the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, including the right to set up an independent state before deciding whether to confederate with Jordan-all conditions which stood at the heart of the Fez plan adopted by the Arab Summit in September 1982 and intended as a unified and basically affirmative Arab answer to the Reagan initiative.
Arafat, acting as if he had been vindicated at the PNC meeting, proceeded into the final frenzied weeks of his maneuverings. He tried to outflank Hussein elsewhere in the Arab world, hoping to get a better deal than Hussein was likely to give him in Amman. He repeatedly postponed face-to-face negotiations, while warning Hussein not to go forward without PLO approval. Hussein insisted that time was running out, and reportedly said that he might have to approach West Bank Palestinians without Arafat. He made it clear to Arafat that responsibility would fall on his shoulders if this negotiating opportunity passed and the West Bank slid further into Israel's grasp.
The showdown came at the beginning of April in ten hours of private negotiations between Hussein and Arafat. When it was over, what was striking was not their failure but rather how close they had come to success. The talks foundered over predictable issues: could Jordan speak for the Palestinians? Would the Reagan Plan alone be the centerpiece at the negotiating table? Hussein and Arafat reached agreement, and a joint announcement was drafted, answering both questions in the affirmative and indicating that Hussein would lead a negotiating delegation including PLO-approved Palestinians not themselves members of the organization. Hussein signed, but Arafat backed away at the last minute, claiming that he needed time, a couple of days, to clear it with the rest of the Palestinian leadership. The PLO leader never returned to Amman, for he was decisively repudiated, for the first time ever, by both the PLO Executive Committee and the Central Committee of Fatah.
To preserve the unity that he had always put uppermost over diplomacy, Arafat retreated-a fateful choice, for by the end of the year his organization was shattered by the Syrian-backed mutiny and Arafat ended up with neither unity nor diplomacy. Even before his negotiations with Hussein were officially broken off, one of Arafat's most moderate associates was gunned down in Europe, a killing widely interpreted as a Syrian-sponsored warning to Arafat. Later the same day, April 10, Hussein released a remarkable, sharply worded 11-page document defending his efforts historically on behalf of the Palestinians of the West Bank, blaming the collapse of the talks on Arafat, and saying that the PLO was now responsible for saving the West Bank. Hussein did not reject the Reagan Plan, and still has not done so. But the Jordanian-Palestinian rivalry, fed by passionate historical animosity and reflecting deeply divided political perspectives about the West Bank, had devoured an opportunity to throw down the diplomatic gauntlet to Israel.
Virtually unnoticed on that same April 10 was an event that symbolically confirmed the collapse of the second gamble implicit in the Reagan Plan-the gamble that Israel's apparently relentless drive to absorb the West Bank could be stemmed by the President's peace initiative, and eventually reversed by a successful negotiating process. Begin's last word on these matters, Reagan was wagering, might not be Israel's. On the day that Hussein released his statement, Israel announced its decision to publish the most ambitious plan ever sanctioned officially by the Israeli government for encouraging Jewish settlers to move to the West Bank. The settlements issue was to become the measure of Washington's ability to press Israel for concessions and the measure of Israel's determination to resist. Moreover, as some of the President's best-informed advisers knew, the evidence had been accumulating throughout 1982 that the Israeli government was planning a bold and innovative new approach to the settlements. When these plans went into high gear in 1983, Israel's unequivocal rebuff to the Reagan Plan was sealed not merely with words but with bulldozers and bricks and mortar and macadam that together are remaking the map of the West Bank.
Released at a time when some 27,000 Jewish settlers were already living in nearly 100 settlements on the West Bank, the new five-year plan envisages 57 new settlements and as many as 100,000 more settlers in the 1980s. The novelty of the plan, however, is not in its numbers, but in the new breed of settlers that will transform the plan into reality. Settlers who are suburbanites, not zealots. Families seeking a good life, not activists seeking ideological or religious satisfaction. Workers commuting from planned communities to jobs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, not pioneers motivated by Zionist attachments to the land and willing to scratch a subsistence out of barren hillsides. Israelis who are eager to escape the high costs and congestion of their country's metropolitan areas, not patriots convinced that their new planned communities will bolster Israel's security. Indeed, these are Israelis who believe that Israel without the West Bank is even now unthinkable, who believe that there is no longer reason to forego personal or family comfort for the sake of politics or principle, who believe that the combined impact of 16 years of Labor and Likud policies on the West Bank has forever erased the once-clear "green line" that divided pre-1967 Israel from the land of Biblical Judea and Samaria.
Israeli settlements are but the surface manifestations of a vast and often esoteric network of security, political, and socioeconomic policies that have tightened Israel's grip over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967, embracing all aspects of daily life for the million-plus resident Palestinians, as well as all-important dimensions of planning for the future of these occupied lands. Over the years Washington's ritual protests against the settlements have produced dreary testimony to American ineffectuality and Israeli tenacity. The State Department first protested against the settlements in the summer of 1967, soon after the first new dot or two began appearing on the West Bank map, and regular protests followed. Kissinger, in the mid-1970s, rather than condemning the settlements at every turn-this, when there were fewer than two dozen of them on the West Bank with a couple of thousand settlers-simply said they were not important to his ongoing diplomacy. "I don't see those installations," he once said in reference to the West Bank settlements. "They're transparent. I look right through them. When the time comes for me to open my dossiers on Golan and the West Bank, I shan't let them impede a settlement. When the time comes, the President will prevail on the Israelis to withdraw." For Jimmy Carter, the years of Camp David thrust the settlements issue into unprecedented prominence, but it was Begin and not Carter who prevailed.
Now it was Ronald Reagan's turn. He did more than merely call for a settlements freeze in his peace initiative. Immediately after his speech he instructed the American Ambassador in Israel to convey to Begin a message that was political dynamite: the United States would not support the continuation of the settlements as extraterritorial outposts in a negotiated settlement. Begin's rejection of the initiative was coupled with announcements of new settlements, which his key deputies called Israel's "answer" to the Reagan Plan. And despite continuing evidence of Reagan's displeasure over the rebuff on this issue-displeasure shared in some measure by some of Begin's political opposition in Israel and by many within an American Jewish community seriously divided about Begin's West Bank line-Begin did not let up on the settlement push.
In January, the Israeli government launched a conspicuous television, radio and newspaper advertising campaign to boost the new settlement drive. In April, at about the time the new five-year plan was released, the government sponsored, outside Tel Aviv, a public exhibition that brought tens of thousands of Israelis to view booths and displays offering attractive flats, land deals, subsidized financing arrangements, and a glimpse of the new world awaiting them on the West Bank.
In the final hours of the Hussein-Arafat talks, Washington tried to avert their breakdown by going public with the President's earlier private pledge to Hussein promising an American effort to halt the settlements if Jordan agreed to enter negotiations. Israel promptly dismissed the move for the tactical expedient that it was, and yet another round of reaction and counter-reaction came to an end. With that, Israel proceeded on schedule with plans to complete new clusters of settlements key to the early progress toward the goals outlined in the five-year plan, and by the end of 1983 the settler population on the West Bank had increased approximately 10,000 over what it had been at the outset of the year.
Israel's ongoing West Bank and settlement policies now pose an immense challenge to American policymakers. First, important elements of those policies have been consciously framed in the past five years to limit the scope of any Camp David autonomy agreement that might be negotiated, in effect to preempt the possible outcomes that the autonomy negotiations of the late 1970s and early 1980s were intended to hold open, at least in the American view. Second, the sheer scale of the new settlement plans will make their ultimate success dependent indirectly on the continuation of present American aid levels to Israel. For the settlements push will now become, in economic terms, one of the largest claims on the scarce resources of the grievously stricken Israeli economy, which sank into deep crisis in late 1983. No one doubts that Israel's economy, more than ever before, can only manage with large infusions of U.S. assistance. Third, the historical momentum of the changes on the West Bank is now so powerful that it has become a political fact in its own right, intertwined with arguments inside and outside Israel about whether the process of absorption has become-in a practical sense-irreversible.
The point of no return is fast approaching; that much is sure. The closer it gets, the more the trends on the West Bank make a mockery not only of the Camp David formula but of the Reagan Plan or of any other blueprint purporting to promise an end to Israeli control. They make a mockery of claims that Israel is settling the West Bank because it wants to encourage the Arabs to negotiate, or that Israel is planting new settlements for security reasons. They make a mockery of the declared platform of Israel's opposition Labor Party and that of Israel's small but vocal peace movement, both of which profess to offer West Bank compromise as a realistic security and political option, or as a moral imperative. They make a mockery, as well, of the hopes of all those supporters of Israel in the United States who genuinely want to believe that a peaceful future for Israel based on an accommodation with the Palestinians and the Jordanians is still achievable.
Ronald Reagan's third gamble in his peace initiative was the hope that the diplomatic spotlight could be kept pointed at the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which had become the focal issue for Washington's Arab-Israeli diplomacy since Camp David. This gamble, too, was lost-almost immediately-in the chain of events following the mid-September massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila camps, by Phalangist militia operating in Israeli-occupied West Beirut, and by the worsening Lebanon imbroglio. Developments in Lebanon did more than smother the Reagan Plan. They pushed the country closer to partition, provoked a devastating political and leadership crisis in Israel, provided Syria with ample opportunities to reverse its fortunes, and triggered erratic swings in U.S. relations with Israel. Above all else, Lebanon sucked Washington into deeper and increasingly unmanageable commitments, throwing American Middle East policy away from the central issues of Arab-Israeli peace and war, and into the multiple crises of a country that had never been a confrontation state.
The architect of Israel's invasion of Lebanon was also the architect of Israel's immediate postwar diplomacy concerning Lebanon. Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon wanted to dictate to Lebanon a peace settlement that would justify in Israel the tragic and costly war that he had engineered. Sharon envisioned a so-called new order in Lebanon, a Maronite Christian-dominated state led by Bashir Gemayel and allied with Israel. And, as nothing less than a self-appointed nemesis for Washington, Sharon also wanted to demonstrate that Israel did not need Washington as an intermediary in Lebanon, or concerning the West Bank.
The United States, on the other hand, while committed to a settlement that would preserve Israel's security on its northern border, sought to maintain for Lebanon a freedom of maneuver enabling it to remain in an Arab rather than an Israeli orbit. In Washington's view, this objective required an independent and unified Lebanon resistant to Syrian domination, retaining the confidence of its mainstream Arab backers, and prepared to reform long-obsolete Christian and Muslim power-sharing arrangements-so that there could be an end to the wretched civil war that had savaged Lebanon for nearly a decade.
While some Israeli leaders sensed that the assassination of Bashir in September 1982 ended Sharon's dream, the tenacious defense minister proceeded to stake out his maximum claims on Bashir's successor, his elder brother Amin, narrowing the room for compromise with Muslim and leftist forces that had initially endorsed Amin's presidency and on whom he depended for support in negotiations to get Israeli troops out of Lebanon. Sharon insisted on a fundamentally political agreement with Lebanon, a deal as close as possible to a full and firm peace treaty, coupled with a strong Israeli security presence in southern Lebanon. Amin, with Washington's encouragement-encouragement that drew harsh public criticism from Sharon-held out for a much more limited agreement than Sharon wanted, one that went some distance toward meeting Israel's security needs but that remained military in character and aimed above all else at bringing about Israeli and Syrian withdrawal. The broad lines were thus drawn for the first phase of diplomatic skirmishing in late 1982 and early 1983.
By the time U.S. Ambassador Philip Habib was able to nudge Israel and Lebanon into face-to-face negotiations during the final days of 1982, Washington's original timetable for withdrawal had already slipped. The talks were deadlocked first by diversionary haggling over minor issues and then by serious substantive disagreement. In Lebanon's Shouf mountains, serious fighting erupted between Druze forces and Phalangist militia who had entered the traditionally Druze and non-Phalangist Christian area on the coat-tails of Israeli invaders. The Israelis remained interposed between the warring factions and astride the Beirut-Damascus highway. Sharon was convinced that only by holding positions in such threatening proximity to the Syrian capital could Israel persuade Assad to withdraw from Lebanon.
In Israel, the wrenching crisis following the Sabra and Shatila massacres was coming to a head as the independent inquiry commission led by Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Kahan prepared to release its findings in 1983. And in Washington reports circulated that charged Israel with stalling on the withdrawal negotiations not only to deflect attention from the flagging peace initiative but also to await the release of the Kahan report. U.S.-Israeli tensions accumulated. The White House openly opposed increases in aid to Israel. Hints were dropped that Begin was not welcome in Washington until there was progress in Lebanon. Sharon secretly met with his contacts in Lebanon to end-run Washington's mediation. Much-publicized frictions pitted American Marine peacekeepers in Beirut against Israeli soldiers still occupying portions of the city.
The February report of the Kahan commission placed squarely on Sharon the brunt of the blame for failing to prevent or to stop the massacre, and recommended that he resign, or failing this, that the prime minister consider removing him. Reluctant to force him out of the Cabinet entirely, Begin made him a minister without portfolio and replaced him with Ambassador to Washington Moshe Arens. Arens had a distinctly different agenda in Lebanon. He wanted to repair frayed ties with Washington. He was not saddled with Sharon's overwhelming need to justify the war in Lebanon. He was more sensitive to Israel's domestic malaise, which worsened as continued involvement in Lebanon promised only more casualties, declining political gains, unprecedented dissent at home, and indefinite occupation in what was coming to be called Israel's North Bank. Arens, therefore, backed away from Sharon's most ambitious demands, but he and the Cabinet laid out a tough position: special Israeli security arrangements in southern Lebanon; a continuing role there for Major Haddad, Israel's surrogate and local ally; and normalization with Lebanon that would include cross-border flows of people and goods. Washington signaled its frustrations with Israel by withholding shipments of F-16 aircraft, saying they would not be delivered until Israel left Lebanon. The negotiations dragged on into the spring, until Washington moved decisively to break the logjam.
Washington's new activism was born of great impatience, even a touch of desperation, fueled not only by the stigma of hobbled diplomacy but also by indications that the Marines in Lebanon might be exposed to a growing vulnerability that they could neither avoid nor eliminate by force of arms. The core of the problem was the ambiguity of the mandate for the Marines. Originally sent to Beirut in August 1982, along with French and Italian peacekeepers, to oversee the departure of PLO fighters from the city, the Marines did their job and left promptly in early September. In the aftermath of the massacres in the Palestinian camps that same month, the Marines were sent back at the request of President Amin Gemayel, who had just succeeded his murdered brother, Bashir.
At the time, Reagan reported to Congress that the Marines would be needed only for a limited period, that there was no expectation or intention to involve them in combat responsibilities, and that the Marines would be operating in an essentially non-hostile environment, risking at worst isolated acts of violence but assured that the armed factions in Lebanon would not interfere with the peacekeepers. The purposes of the Marine deployment were stated generally by Administration officials: to assist the government of Lebanon and the nascent Lebanese Army in carrying out their responsibilities in the Beirut area, and to help further the overall objective of restoring the sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity of Lebanon. These assumptions shaped the original understandings of America's partners in the peacekeeping force, once again the Italians and the French, joined in early 1983 by the British.
For many months the 1,200 Marines stationed at Beirut's international airport performed their mission without major incident. But in March 1983 came the first direct attack on members of the Marine contingent; other evidence also suggested the beginning of a possible campaign to force the peacekeeping contingents out of Lebanon. In mid-April, a car bomb demolished the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Congress was becoming nervous about the role of the Marines. The Hussein-Arafat talks had collapsed. If Reagan's Middle East diplomacy was to show results, they would have to come in Lebanon. So the President dispatched George Shultz on April 22 on his first trip to the region, with a mandate to bring home an agreement. Before leaving Washington, Shultz let Arens know that the White House would be prepared to reward Israeli flexibility with a more forthcoming attitude toward pending military and economic aid issues.
By May 17, Shultz had shuttled his way to an agreement; two days later it was already a dead letter. The fatal flaw was miscalculation of the Syrian factor. The agreement between Israel and Lebanon was very generous to Israel. It ended the state of war between the two countries, established liaison offices to conduct diplomatic relations, and set a six-month deadline for opening negotiations on normalization, while de facto normalization would meanwhile be maintained. A security belt stretching 28 miles into southern Lebanon was delineated, within which joint Israeli and Lebanese patrols would operate for at least two years. Tacitly, an important role for Haddad and for his forces was preserved, in future security arrangements in the south. Eight to twelve weeks after the agreement took effect, Israel would withdraw all of its troops. The hitch: there was no provision indicating when it would go into effect, and Israel had always insisted that it would not withdraw independently of Syrian and PLO withdrawal. Syria, in other words, held the veto. It was an agreement, as Israel's Abba Eban would say, that had non-implementation built into it.
Syria had never specified exactly the conditions under which it would withdraw if Lebanon and Israel reached an agreement, though its general and always vague assurances of late 1982 were, as months passed, hedged with conditions that left Assad a wide open door for refusing to go along with a deal that he did not like. Moreover, Syria's resistance became more likely, as well as more credible, as its military capabilities grew. In early January Syria had warned that no agreement could be carried out without its consent, and that Israel must not be allowed to realize political or military gains in return for agreeing to end its occupation of Lebanon. In the months that followed, Assad branded Israel's evolving terms as capitulationist.
Habib chose to assume that these objections were for the record only and that Syria would in the end leave Lebanon if Israel did likewise. The Saudis and other Arab players encouraged Habib's expectations.
But when the pact was sealed, Syria's rejection was unequivocal. Assad encouraged his allies in Lebanon to coalesce against it. He imposed sanctions on Lebanon. He received Shultz in Damascus only to give him an unvarnished statement of Syrian opposition to the Secretary of State's handiwork. He thereafter officially declared Habib persona non grata, ending his effectiveness as Reagan's Middle East envoy.
A carbon copy of Camp David-so went one of the Syrian charges against the withdrawal agreement. For Assad, the comparison was not mere rhetoric. True, Syria has historical ambitions in a Lebanon that it regards as part of Greater Syria-ambitions fed by the Syrian leader's aspirations to a position of leadership in the Arab fold. True, Syria's opposition to the agreement was buttressed by its judgment that Israel's resolve in Lebanon was weakening, that Amin Gemayel's power was shaky, and that the United States seemed on the defensive. True, the Assad regime, resting on a minority Alawite base vulnerable to internal and external pressures, wanted to make sure that Lebanon would not become an arena for anti-Syrian activities by opponents of the regime.
Yet it was also true that Assad wanted to underscore as firmly as possible that he would no longer be shunted aside in Middle East diplomacy, left to face Israel alone as happened after the second Israel-Egyptian disengagement agreement in the mid-1970s and in the separate peace in 1979 between Israel and Egypt. Camp David, the Reagan Plan, and now the Lebanese-Israeli agreement were all, in Assad's view, recipes for Syrian isolation. Speculation and uncertainty persist, as they have for many years, about Syria's ultimate intentions toward peace with Israel on terms consistent with a moderate Arab consensus. But in 1983 Assad removed all doubt about his short-term objectives: the American-led peace process must be scuttled, and nothing would soon take its place without Syrian consent. So he helped torpedo the Hussein-Arafat negotiations, and stepped up his campaign against Arafat by fomenting ever more singlemindedly in the spring the mutiny against him by Fatah rebels. And he made it clear to all concerned that any new efforts to revive the Reagan initiative would be met with relentless hostility from Damascus and the PLO remnants under its thumb.
For most of 1983, Assad played spoiler to American objectives. But during the final months of the year he used his levers of diplomacy and military power for more ambitious ends: to dominate and control the political progress in Lebanon, to narrow the options for implementing the May agreement between Israel and Lebanon, and to face down the United States and Israel in an escalating contest of arms. Central among Syrian aims was a determination to bring about the exit of American Marines from Lebanon, and Damascus manipulated not just their vulnerability in the field but the vulnerability of their commander-in-chief at home, faced as he was by widening controversy about perpetuating the Marine presence.
Syria confronted Washington with its most dangerous challenge as Lebanon's agony intensified-as many had predicted it would-because of developments in the volatile Shouf Mountains. The violence that had flared there in the winter of 1982-83 had confirmed for many Lebanese Muslim observers that Phalangist aims could not be contained by Gemayel, who had not only placed Phalangist officials in key governmental positions but also had not restrained Phalangist ambitions in the Shouf. When severe fighting there erupted again during Shultz's shuttle mission, it was a sign that Gemayel's power would before too long be tested in the Shouf, where Israel was growing increasingly restive with its interpositionary role.
Over the summer, indications multiplied that Israel-despite objections from Gemayel and Washington, the latter still insisting on a single, complete withdrawal on the terms agreed in May-was planning to redeploy its forces from the mountains to more defensible lines in the south, at the Awali River. It was a move that could be read as a further step toward the partition of Lebanon, in the wake of the failure of the withdrawal agreement, as well as toward the reduction of Israeli casualties. When the redeployment finally happened in early September, American diplomacy and military power had to fill the vacuum as hostilities engulfed Beirut's suburbs and the Shouf.
The fighting between Syrian-backed Druze and the government's Lebanese Armed Forces-newly rebuilt and improved with American assistance but untested and not capable of large-scale operations without active American support-brought Lebanon to the brink of full-scale civil war. An obscure village called Suk al Gharb, in the hills overlooking Beirut, became the unlikely cockpit for the renewed conflict and for a test of wills between the United States and Syria.
First to protect the American Marines in the peacekeeping contingent and later to assist directly the combat forces of President Gemayel, Reagan authorized the first U.S. naval bombardment in the Mediterranean since World War II. American firepower struck positions in Syrian-controlled territory and massive barrages were directed against Druze attackers threatening to roll back Lebanese Army defenders from Suk al Gharb. Not until the end of September did the crisis ease, and then only after two sets of extremely complicated negotiations had been successfully completed.
The first set was in Washington, where Congress reached a compromise with the White House that allowed the President to keep the Marines in Lebanon for another 18 months, an outcome shaped less by enthusiasm for an obviously vulnerable Marine role than by a deference to presidential prerogative and to claims that an obligatory earlier pullout under the terms of the War Powers Act of 1973 would weaken U.S. negotiating leverage. The second negotiations were in the Middle East, where the new American envoy, Robert McFarlane, working closely with Saudi Arabia, mediated a cease-fire and an agreement among Lebanese leaders to begin national reconciliation talks over new power-sharing arrangements among contending Christian and Muslim leaders. Announced in Damascus and initially hailed by the Soviet Union, the deal seemed to open the way to what Reagan called "a new beginning in Lebanon."
To get this agreement, Washington reportedly squeezed Gemayel to compromise and deal with his Syrian-backed opponents. The United States tried for a brief time to signal its interest in meeting legitimate Syrian interests in Lebanon, hoping to enlist Assad's tolerance for measures that would move the reconciliation process forward and create conditions for withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon. But from this point on, the hoped-for reconciliation process turned into a roller coaster of expected breakthroughs that usually never came and backsliding that regularly threw up more stubborn obstacles. And from this point on, too, the U.S.-Syrian collision began showing signs of spiraling out of control.
Nearly all of October passed without the reconciliation talks getting under way, largely because of early disagreements over a site for the proposed negotiations, an issue that involved both important political symbolism for the parties and genuine considerations of personal security. Washington's assessment of Syrian intentions underwent revision, meanwhile, as the President and his top foreign policy spokesmen proclaimed that Syria's initially positive attitude toward the September agreement had turned to obstructionism, and that the continuing and expanding Soviet supply of advanced missiles to Syria cast serious doubt on Syrian intentions in the region. Syria now tightened its noose around Yassir Arafat, who had surreptitiously returned to Lebanon in late September. The Syrians maneuvered politically to replace him as PLO leader, forced him to leave the Bekaa Valley with some 1,000 Fatah loyalist troops, and penned them in on the outskirts of Tripoli in northern Lebanon under the guns of Syrian-sponsored PLO mutineers. Lebanese factions allied with Damascus stepped up attacks against the Marines.
In all, as the September cease-fire weakened and as all parties used the interlude to gear up militarily for another round of fighting, Syria seemed bent on a multifront drive to work its will and to test the United States. The terrorist bombing of Marine headquarters, as well as those of the French contingent, was followed by a similar attack on an Israeli installation in Tyre. The President declared, in his October 27 speech, a vital American interest in Lebanon. Washington and Damascus were on collision courses.
The long-awaited reconciliation talks finally got under way in Geneva on the last day of October, with Syria an observer along with Saudi Arabia. Not since the onset of Lebanon's civil war in 1975 had Lebanese leaders from all factions faced each other at the negotiating table. It was hardly surprising, however, that their immensely complicated and difficult task of inching toward a new political bargain among five key Lebanese negotiating blocs became immediately overshadowed by the single question of the future of the May withdrawal agreement. Syria insisted it must be abrogated before any progress could be made on the reconciliation dialogue, and the eventual compromise was more blurred than Damascus would have liked. The May agreement was neither to be ratified nor scrapped; parties to the reconciliation talks decided, in effect, to freeze the agreement; and they gave President Gemayel, his stature enhanced by the recognition given him by his conferees, a mandate to find another formula, in negotiations with the United States and other powers, for achieving Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
With only this result to show for a week of talks, Lebanon's formal reconciliation dialogue did not resume for the remainder of the year, its prospects dampened mercilessly by the cascade of new violence and military action in Lebanon. By mid-November, the Syrian-PLO rebel assault against Arafat's forces around Tripoli moved into high gear, despite Soviet remonstrances to Syria and Arab uneasiness with the Syrian drive to crush Arafat. Elsewhere in Lebanon the September cease-fire began to come unstuck. The United States had moved to increase its naval forces dramatically, and Israel and France retaliated against Iranian-backed groups identified as perpetrators of the recent terrorism. Particularly worrisome were the first incidents of scattered Syrian antiaircraft attacks against American reconnaissance planes.
To counter growing Syrian assertiveness, Washington turned to Israel in November and the two countries celebrated at the end of the month a peculiar love-feast that masqueraded as "strategic cooperation." But what was happening was not particularly strategic, and it was cooperative in a very limited sense only. Washington had run out of short-term leverage against Damascus and wanted to show clear evidence of joint Israeli-American determination. But Israel's leaders, though eager to make the most of Washington's new twist, knew full well that neither their public nor their military were prepared to be Washington's sword against Syria in Lebanon. Washington, for its part, made it plain that combined military operations with the Israelis in Lebanon were not in the cards. And leaders in both countries knew that if they were drawn into a war with Syria, the risks of confrontation with the Soviet Union could bring the two superpowers into a collusion that would work to Israel's disadvantage. Moreover, fundamental, perhaps even irreconcilable, differences remained between U.S. and Israeli views on the overall peace process and on the West Bank in particular.
Thus the so-called strategic cooperation boiled down to a genuine convergence of important tactical aims, immediate diplomatic objectives, and mutual political needs-cemented by the fact that both countries' installations in Lebanon had been subjected to terrorist attack. There were to be new understandings on technical military ventures of various kinds, as well as enhanced intelligence cooperation. American aid was to be more generous, and Washington hoped that Israel would ease its opposition to American arms sales to moderate Arab states, especially Jordan. Israel's new Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, who had taken the reins in October after Menachem Begin resigned, a broken and disconsolate man as a result of the Lebanese debacle, had reason to be pleased that he could show at home that Israel's essential relationship with the United States was being and presumably would be preserved under Likud rule. Reagan had reason to be comfortable in the knowledge that he could enter an election year without the disadvantages of "an Israel issue" working against him from Democratic Party challengers visibly eager to play on such an issue.
The new American-Israeli strategy aroused unanimous criticism and dismay from Arab states, including those generally considered most friendly toward the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. President Gemayel, moreover, had visited Washington at the beginning of December, only to come away with renewed American pledges to seek the full implementation of the Israeli-Lebanese agreement. It also quickly became evident that closer ties with Israel would do little to ease Washington's predicament in Lebanon during the dangerous days of December, and would not prevent the reemergence at the end of the year of American-Israeli disagreement over the fate of Yassir Arafat and the course of the overall Middle East peace process.
At the beginning of December, in response to a heavy and concentrated Syrian anti-aircraft attack against U.S. reconnaissance jets over Lebanon, Washington launched its first air strikes of the Lebanese conflict and its first direct attack against Syrian forces. Twenty-eight carrier-based planes attacked Syrian gun positions in the mountains east of Beirut; two were shot down, with one airman killed and another, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, captured by the Syrians, who declared that he would not be released until the Lebanon war was over and until the United States was out of Lebanon. In the stormy weeks that followed, unease with the latest escalation rose sharply among America's partners in the multinational peacekeeping force, the American public, and among observers who judged that while the military gains from the air raid were demonstrable, the American losses were such that Syria could take considerable comfort from an outcome that at the very least was a psychological victory for Damascus. Fresh Marine casualties followed in renewed attacks against their static positions in Beirut. By mid-month the United States unleashed its heaviest naval gunfire to date in Lebanon from the massive guns of the battleship New Jersey, which shelled Syrian and Syrian-backed Druze positions.
Yet another Lebanese cease-fire followed these exchanges, setting the stage not only for a pause in the American-Syrian confrontation, but also for Yassir Arafat's denouement in Tripoli. The PLO leader had agreed at the end of November to a Saudi proposal for his evacuation from Tripoli, but implementation was short-circuited by difficulties in working out satisfactory international guarantees for safe passage of Arafat and his 4,000 loyalists, and by obstruction and harassment from Israeli gunboats that shelled the Tripoli harbor area after Arafat claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. But safe passage was arranged, although only after the United States weighed in behind the plan at the urging of President Gemayel and after Washington pressed Israel into non-interference.
Israel's reluctance to go along with the plan was then in part motivated by a wish to deny Arafat another hero's departure from Lebanon, complete with the fanfare that accompanied his exodus 16 months earlier. Muted though it was, Arafat's evacuation on December 20 did lead to developments that confirmed Israel's apprehensions about a possible Arafat political resurgence. He paid a surprise visit to Egypt, his first since Sadat's peace diplomacy began six years earlier. His meeting with President Hosni Mubarak, short on substance apparently but long on symbolic importance, fed intense speculation that Arafat might be signaling a willingness to cast his lot with Arab states favoring a renewed peace process and to try once again to reach an accord with Jordan. Mubarak's part in the meeting suggested that he was prepared to quicken the pace of his efforts to end Egypt's isolation in the Arab world, taking advantage of heightened Arab disaffection with Syria for its treatment of Arafat and its support for Iran. Washington applauded the meeting publicly. Israel was outraged over the meeting as well as over the American reaction, an outrage shared, ironically, by Syria and Arafat's opponents within the fractured Palestinian movement.
The U.S. response to the Arafat-Mubarak reconciliation reflected a hope in Washington that Jordan would be encouraged by the split in the PLO to press once again for a Jordanian-Palestinian understanding that could facilitate negotiations over the West Bank. Arafat, according to this reading of events, lost no support from West Bank Palestinians during his besieged last weeks in Lebanon. Broad Palestinian antipathy deepened toward Syria and the PLO rebels it sustained.
A continuing Palestinian leadership vacuum on the West Bank precluded negotiations without a Jordanian-Palestinian understanding, even though key Palestinians in the occupied territories showed a recent disposition to stake out a more assertive role. And Arafat was still a prime player in reaching such an understanding.
This was a script freighted with optimism. King Hussein will do Arafat no favors, and hinted that he would soon be exploring avenues-such as reconvening the Jordanian Parliament with West Bank representation-that would minimize rather than fully reincarnate a lead role for Arafat. Syrian opposition was as certain as anything can be, and Syria's capabilities for obstruction were surely greater now than they were in the spring of 1983-a string of attacks against Jordanian diplomats in the closing months of 1983 was generally regarded as a Syrian-orchestrated message to Hussein. Israel's opposition was no less certain. Having charged that the Arafat-Mubarak meeting was a first step in the resuscitation of the Reagan initiative, Israeli officials declared that they would respond by accelerating the settlements program. All of this left America's peace policy dangling in a nether world of high ambitions and low credibility, a mix even more unpromising at the end of the year than at the beginning.
At the turn of the New Year, the leitmotifs that had dominated the Lebanon story and the fate of the Reagan peace plan-stalemated conflict and diplomatic immobilism-had also dominated the other two arenas in the region of high strategic interest and potential danger for the United States: the war in Afghanistan and the conflict between Iraq and Iran.
As the fourth anniversary of Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan passed in December, more than 100,000 Soviet troops remained locked in a no-win, no-retreat confrontation with a loosely organized grouping of some 25,000 Afghan resistance fighters, the Mujahedeen. Moscow's dilemma runs deep in Afghanistan. The Babrak Karmal regime remains riven by factionalism, which this year deteriorated into open fighting, and which has prompted more open signs of Soviet frustration with Karmal's inability to unify the opposing factions despite his much-publicized efforts to do so during 1983.
Disarray at the top of the Karmal regime has impeded Soviet hopes on many fronts: the Afghan army, numbering 40,000-50,000 soldiers, falls far short of the strength and effectiveness that Moscow would like. The Soviet forces, which continued to be deployed and used selectively to control key areas and counter major insurgent threats, were not able in major battles with the Mujahedeen to tip the balance significantly, and the resistance displayed throughout the year an increased capacity to harass them and to take the resistance into new locations, including Kabul and other major cities. But none of these pressures seriously undermined Soviet staying power; casualties remained at tolerable levels, and Moscow's readiness to deploy more force if necessary seemed firm.
Increases in covert as well as overt Pakistani and American support for the resistance were pronounced in 1983, but the Mujahedeen, too, remained divided and disorganized and far from being able to coalesce into the kind of political or military front that could take maximum advantage of the broad popular support enjoyed by the resistance.
Fresh diplomatic efforts to end the occupation were the most important developments of the year. Arranged and conducted under U.N. auspices, the secret negotiations that had gotten under way in 1982 produced in April 1983 a blueprint for a comprehensive settlement, which had been worked out indirectly with Islamabad and Kabul and with background consultations along the way with American and Soviet leaders. The essence of the envisaged compromise was that the Soviet Union would agree to a progressive withdrawal in return for Pakistan's agreement to end its support for the resistance, and the use of its territory for transmission of American and other aid to the Mujahedeen. But efforts to turn the plan into an operative treaty faltered badly over the summer and remain in limbo. Close observers of the negotiations believed that both the United States and the Soviet Union retreated from earlier indications of possible interest, each blaming the other for the impasse.
In the stalemated and horrendously costly war between Iran and Iraq, the flashpoint that set alarms ringing throughout the West was Iraq's threat in July to take the war to the economic heartland of Iran by attacking Iran's oil production capabilities, a threat made more ominous by the revelation a month earlier that France would provide Iraq with Super Etendard jet fighter-bombers carrying the Exocet missiles that Argentina had used successfully against British warships during the Falklands war. Iran counter-threatened that it would answer an Iraqi attack by blocking all oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, through which passes 20 percent of the world's oil trade, and later hinted that it would attack Arab states supporting Iraq. Washington warned immediately that it was prepared to take whatever action was necessary to keep the straits open.
Iraq's ratcheting up of the stakes in this conflict, which it had been foolhardy enough to begin three years earlier, was a product of desperation-over the prospect of unacceptable losses in the war of attrition, over the state of its badly crippled economy and curtailment of its own oil exports by the war, over the impotence of the superpowers and a variety of other interlocutors to end the conflict. Baghdad and Teheran escalated their war, and their war of words, during the rest of the year, as Iraq shelled Iranian cities with long-range surface-to-surface missiles and launched new air attacks, and as Iran opened a new ground offensive.
By year-end, the battlefront stalemate continued, but American policy moved, at first gradually and then more conspicuously, toward what was dubbed a "tilt" toward Iraq. Having earlier eased its initial opposition to the French jet deal-the planes were delivered in October-and taken other diplomatic steps in Iraq's direction, the Administration openly declared that an Iraqi defeat would be contrary to U.S. interests. This was Washington's most pointed shift to date, though still a limited one, from its official posture of neutrality, a shift reinforced by late-year visits to the Gulf by American planners for consultations over how to deal with Iranian threats, by Ambassador Rumsfeld's December visit to Iraq, and by active consideration of other measures that would strengthen Iraq's economic capacity and restrict American economic dealings with Iran.
More than its own and the American public's preoccupation with the Lebanese crisis suggested on the surface, the Reagan Administration's private worries were intense at the end of 1983 that the Gulf powderkeg could explode into a nightmarish strategic crisis, threatening disruption of the global oil trade and a wider military conflict in the region. The United States saw its gestures toward Iraq as a potential deterrent to a slide toward such a crisis. Washington, too, was eager to pressure Syria by these moves toward its enemy in Baghdad, and to respond against Iran, which Washington held responsible for instigating the attacks by Shi'ite fundamentalist terrorists against American and French targets not only in Lebanon in October but also in Kuwait in December.
Notwithstanding these apprehensions about the Gulf, Washington's attention at the close of the year remained riveted on Lebanon. There were two surprising developments. The first, and the more far-reaching, was the unexpectedly harsh inside indictment of the Administration's policy from the Long Commission, a five-member panel established by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the bombing attack on the Marine headquarters. Going beyond its formal mandate in a coda section of its report that reflected widely known reservations within the defense establishment, the Long Commission criticized the over-reliance on military options at the expense of diplomatic alternatives for achieving American objectives in Lebanon, and urged what it described as "a more vigorous and demanding approach to pursuing diplomatic alternatives."
Just as the impact of the report's findings were receiving wide publicity, the second surprise development captured the public eye-and confounded official Washington-for many days: the personal mission to Damascus by Democratic Party hopeful Jesse Jackson. He managed after meetings with Hafez Assad, then emerging from nearly two months of confinement for illness, to bring home Lieutenant Goodman, the captured American pilot whom Syria had said it would not release until the United States left Lebanon. By this time, there had been a mid-December pause in the Syrian-U.S. standoff in Lebanon that had lengthened into a palpable relaxation of tensions, with both Damascus and Washington sobered and wishing to avoid another cycle.
In the aftermath of the Jackson success, the atmospherics between the two capitals improved noticeably. With encouragement from Syria as well as Israel, and active mediation by the United States, new discussions got under way among Lebanese leaders for security arrangements that would extend President Gemayel's reach and authority into opposition Muslim and Druze territory in return for political concessions to these groups that might regenerate the long-stalled reconciliation process. The arrangements also could include creation of buffer zones and withdrawal of Phalangist units from key areas of the Shouf. This prospect of political progress, in turn, was being held out by the Reagan Administration as the key to the withdrawal of the Marines, calls for which became more insistent and frequent, and came from more domestic quarters, at the turn of the year.