John Bolton Trashes the Lessons Learned After the Deaths of 241 Marines

In the middle of the night on October 23, 1983, White House operators started calling National Security Council staffers with the news that a yellow Mercedes truck weighed down with explosives and gas canisters had detonated at the Beirut Airport where U.S. Marines were trying to bring peace to the Lebanon’s long civil war. As casualty reports poured in, the staff rushed to help President Ronald Reagan figure out what to do next.

“The Beirut Massacre,” as one headline called it, killed 241 Marines and injured 100 more. Yet the decision days later by NSC staffers and National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane to push for an aggressive response to the bombing, without consulting the Pentagon, proved far more consequential. Their shortcut undermined trust between the White House and Defense Department and set the stage for even bigger mistakes in the years ahead.

The tragic history of the Marines in Beirut and the breakdown in Washington is becoming better understood as top-secret documents from the Reagan administration are declassified. What is being revealed is a stark warning for John Bolton, who next week will mark his one-year anniversary as President Donald Trump’s truculent national security advisor, of what might happen—and who may pay the price—for his continued neglect of a regular process of making policy decisions.  

Secretary of Procurement and Pacifism

The only reason the Marines were in Beirut in the first place was because in September 1982 the NSC staff pushed Reagan, over the vocal opposition of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey, to try to bring some peace to a restive Lebanon. As State Department diplomats worked for a ceasefire, U.S. troops were assigned to serve as a “presence” from their Beirut Airport barracks between the struggling Lebanese Armed Forces, communal groups battling for a greater say in government, burgeoning terror entities, and Israeli, Iranian and Syrian personnel and proxies.

The mission gave everyone in Washington something to complain about. For those on the NSC, who wanted the Marines to do more to bring about peace, a presence was too limited. Meanwhile, it unnerved Weinberger and many others at the Pentagon, who believed the risks outweighed the reasons for being in Lebanon and that presence was not a mission the Defense Department trained for. As months rolled by, some at the NSC complained of “déjà vu”: every time they pushed on the State Department for results or the military for more firepower, the answer was no.

With a hands-off president, these sorts of policy disagreements tended to grow personal in the Reagan administration. NSC staffers questioned the motives and even the courage of their counterparts: some called Weinberger the “Secretary of Procurement and Pacifism.” The ill feelings were mutual. The defense secretary believed the NSC staff was so eager “to get us into a fight somewhere— anywhere” that he was reminded of the “old joke ‘Let’s you and him fight this out.’” Those at the Pentagon were not the only ones frustrated; at one point, a State diplomat told one staffer: “Butt out, I don’t need the NSC staff telling me when and how to get things done in Lebanon.”

Still for more than a year, the NSC staff pushed through the normal policy process—in draft decisions memoranda, interagency meetings, and briefings for the president in the Situation Room and Oval Office—for the United States to take more action and support the Lebanese Armed Forces in the fight. In the days after the bombing, though the NSC’s recommendation to join the fight directly did not change, how they pushed for it did. Rather than debate the plan with the Pentagon, McFarlane’s deputy ordered, in a handwritten note I found in the archives while researching for a forthcoming book on the NSC: “We’ll go direct to President.”

Direct to President

Reagan sided with the NSC and decide to launch air strikes, but the staff’s end-run decimated the trust that’s essential to an effective policy process. In response, Weinberger and defense leaders tried every bureaucratic trick in the book to slow down the new policy, which McFarlane and the NSC believed “constituted insubordination.”

In the end, Reagan, based on the increasingly vocal warnings of Pentagon leaders and the re-election worries of his political advisers, ended the Marines’ mission early in 1984.

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