Benghazi vs Beirut
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
My uncle, President John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning best-seller Profiles in Courage recounted the stories of courageous U.S. Senators—Republicans and Democrats—who chose patriotism over partisanship and sacrificed personal ambition to national welfare. The GOP’s recent efforts to gin up presidential scandals in punitive hearings, media lynchings, and weekly calls for impeachment, evince a party-wide pathology that puts partisanship over patriotism. For Republicans who believe that patriotism ends with lapel pins and cowboy costumes, it might be useful to consider some historical examples of true patriotism by a political party.
At 6:22 a.m. on Sunday, October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a six-ton truckload of high explosives through a lightly fortified plywood fence, past two marine guards with no bullets in their rifles, and detonated his payload at the Beirut airport. The largest non-nuclear explosion ever recorded toppled the four story U.S. marine barracks from its foundation and killed 241 sleeping soldiers. It was the deadliest day for the Marine Corps since Iwo Jima.
Ignoring protests by Congressional Democrats and his own Secretary of Defense, Casper Weinberger, President Reagan had sent the marines to protect Beirut’s airport during the bloody civil war that followed Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Citing the April 1983 U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut, where 63 people died including 17 Americans, Weinberger and Congressional Democrats had argued that Reagan’s plans for deploying additional marines to Beirut would make the American soldiers “sitting ducks.” Worse yet, because Reagan had labeled the marines “peacekeepers,” he ordered them not to appear “warlike.” Their orders forbade them from erecting fortifications or perimeter fences or loading their weapons. Weinberger had entreated Reagan to station the soldiers in a less vulnerable redoubt, instead of the highly exposed and indefensible airport barracks building. Weinberger later lamented.
I was not persuasive enough to persuade the president that the marines were there on an impossible mission. They had no mission but to sit at the airport which is just like sitting in a bull’s-eye. I begged the President to put them back on their transports as a more defensible position.
The American press pilloried President Reagan for putting the marines and servicemen in harm’s way without ammunition or any clear mission during a violent civil war in a country rife with sophisticated suicide bombers and a history of successful attacks against Americans. CBS Evening News reported,
the marines rely on the inexperienced Lebanese army to check vehicles. Today, all kinds of vehicles were being waved right through without the slightest verification… the question remains what are the marines doing in Beirut? They are here to prop up a government that still controls only a part of Beirut and none of the rest of the country, and are being told to sit at the Beirut airport where they became prime targets.
Richard Threlkead of ABC’s World News Tonight invoked the bitter refrain from Alfred Lloyd Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, the poet’s rant against idiotic commanders and chicken-hawk politicians; “Tennyson would have understood it,” he said angrily. “‘Theirs is not to reason why, theirs but to do or die.'”
Reagan’s response to press badgering about the absence of ammunition and protective barriers only stirred public anger about the president’s lack of concern for troop safety. Reagan’s explanation for the blunder seemed flippant, “Anyone who ever had a kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would be.”
Late on the evening of the deadly attack, top Congressional leaders including House Speaker, Tip O’Neill became even more unsettled while attending a secret meeting with the president, his cabinet and Joint Chiefs of Staff in the White House residence where they had been spirited in separated cars and through secret corridors from the Old Executive Building.
Reagan began with a story of the Filipino people who supposedly greeted American marines with flowers and flags as they landed on Philippine beaches during World War II. A flummoxed Tip O’Neill considered that story to be apocryphal — perhaps, a scene from an old movie. Reagan next pledged to the stunned Congressional leaders that he would never allow the terrorists to drive the marines from Beirut and promised that the U.S. would only abandon its watch when peace was assured. He predicted, “I can see the day, not too many weeks from now when the Lebanese people will be standing at the shore, waving and cheering our marines when they depart.”
Impatient, O’Neill pounded the table, interrupting Reagan’s sentimental flight of fancy. O’Neill demanded loudly, “Mr. President, you are going to have to tell Americans why Americans are in Lebanon?” O’Neill’s forceful response shocked Reagan speechless. Majority Senate Leader Howard Baker, soothed Reagan gently, “Mr. President, he’s not being critical. He’s one of your strongest supporters… he’s trying to give you the facts of life.” As the meeting ended, O’Neill in a gesture of warmth and support, reached out and touched Reagan’s sleeve, “Good luck.” O’Neill had considered Reagan’s Lebanon enterprise a fool’s errand from the outset, and had predicted it would end tragically. But the following day, he made what Congressional Democrats called the most passionate appeal of his tenure as speaker. He told the closed Democratic caucus that “it was their duty, now, not to criticize but to support their President and to do nothing to undermine him no matter what the political advantage.” O’Neill told them that it was time for “patriotism over partisanship.”
The subsequent Defense Department investigation placed blame directly on the White House for the tragedy. Following the bombing, a bitter Weinberger refused a direct presidential order to launch retaliatory strikes against Shiite encampments in Beirut and summarily withdrew the remaining 1,600 marines from Lebanon.
Four years later, Reagan was caught illegally selling 2,000 missiles to the Iranian terror state in violation of American law and a U.S.-led international arms embargo. Reagan had used the proceeds of that criminal enterprise to illegally fund Nicaraguan terrorists in violation of American laws forbidding the president from financially supporting the Contras. Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger had opposed the Iran/Contra deal from the outset. Shultz warned the president during its planning stages that funding the Contras was “an impeachable offense.” The fact that the White House traded some missiles for hostages, set off a brisk bout of new hostage taking across the Mid-East. Looking directly into the television camera Reagan publicly told the American people that he had known nothing about the caper. A week later, the press uncovered documents authorizing the arms for hostages deal — signed and approved by Reagan in his own handwriting. Reagan was forced to publicly acknowledge his deceit. Instead of politically exploiting this impeccably documented spree of high crimes and felonies by the president and his henchmen, the Democratically controlled Congress instead pursued a deliberate path to avoid impeachment proceedings that might distract the country from urgent economic and foreign policy concerns. Tip O’Neill working side by side with Senate Republicans took impeachment off the table and then hammered out a quiet deal under which Reagan fired his high level staff and brought Senator Howard Baker in to supervise a house cleaning and allow Reagan to serve out his term in dignity.
That was an era when patriotic politicians put their country’s interest above their narrow political agendas, a time when politics was an honorable profession and the men who wielded gavels loved their country more than they loved power.