Thirty years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan made perhaps the most purposeful and consequential foreign-policy decision of his presidency. Though he never said so explicitly, he ended America's military commitment to a strategic mistake that was peripheral to America's interests. Three-and-a-half months after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. military personnel -- and after repeatedly pledging not to do so -- Reagan ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Lebanon. As Gen. Colin Powell later aptly summarized this military misadventure: "Beirut wasn't sensible and it never did serve a purpose. It was goofy from the beginning."
What was particularly remarkable about Reagan's bold decision was its rarity. Presidents often authorize using force or deploying troops to achieve some discrete set of political and military objectives. When they prove incapable of doing so with the initial resources and political support, the mission can be scaled back in its scope, enlarged to achieve additional missions, or, the atypical choice, terminated. The latter option requires having the ability to recognize failure, and political courage to end a U.S. military commitment. In large part, it is a combined lack of strategic awareness and political courage that explains many U.S. military disasters. To understand how Ronald Reagan successfully pulled this off, it is worth reviewing and remembering the strategic mistake that was the U.S. military deployment to Lebanon in the midst of that country's wrenching civil war.
Upon the request of the government of Lebanon, the United Nations authorized the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF) in 1982 to help the government regain control over the country. There was strong disagreement within the Reagan administration about potential U.S. involvement, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously opposed to the deployment, and the National Security Council and State Department deeply enthusiastic. Subsequently, the Joint Chiefs developed a range of options for America's participation in the MNF, including sending up to 63,000 U.S. troops to Lebanon to disarm the militias, and enforce the peace in territory under the control of Syria and Israel. Ultimately, without congressional approval, Reagan authorized the deployment of what was seen as a limited mission of some 1,800 Marines, who joined French, Italian, and later British troops. Reagan claimed: "Their mission is to provide an interposition force at agreed locations," but "in carrying out this mission, the American force will not engage in combat."
After the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) pulled out of Beirut in August 1982, MNF troops withdrew to their ships offshore. But the assassination of Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel, massacre of Palestinian refugees -- who were living in camps under Israeli military control -- by militias linked to the Maronite Christian Phalange Party, and the subsequent chaos led almost immediately to international support for a second MNF deployment.