Special Report

Reagan’s Rules for Military Action

What Reagan's foreign policy experience can teach us about Syria.

By 9.3.13

Send to Kindle

They are Reagan’s Rules. 

There are four of them, all concerning the use of American military force.

Ronald Reagan had learned them the hard way, and he wanted to make sure he communicated what he learned to his presidential successors. So he wrote them out one-by-one in his memoir, An American Life.

What prompted them? What are Reagan’s Rules? And how do they apply to the current situation in Syria?

We’ll begin with what happened, move on to the four Reagan Rules and then apply them to Syria.

Reagan’s Disaster in Lebanon

October, 1983.

What began a year earlier as just one more chapter in the seemingly eternal turmoil of the Middle East had, predictably, mushroomed. In response to the attempted assassination of Israel’s British Ambassador by the Abu Nidal faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had had enough. On June 6, 1982 Begin had launched an Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon. It was an invasion designed to expel the PLO from Lebanon, strip Syria--then run by President Hafez al-Assad (the father of today’s Bashar al-Assad) -- of its Russian backed influence in Lebanon. Then, once done, install a pro-Israeli government run by the Christian Bashir Gemayel.

Suffice to say, all hell broke loose. Lebanon quickly became a nest of vipers. There was the PLO, the non-PLO Palestinians, the Right and the Left, the Christians, the Muslims, this and that paramilitary group, the armed forces and the security forces. There were the occupying Israelis and the conniving Syrians, the latter a client state of the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War.

The international community, as the media loves to call Everybody Else, was frantic. Lebanon went to the United Nations begging for help -- and got it. That help came in the form of what was called the “Multinational Force in Lebanon,” MFN for short. President Reagan had warily agreed to U.S. participation, and by October of 1983 the MFN “peacekeeping” force included Americans (US Marines and Navy Seals), British and Italian soldiers plus French paratroopers.

For a while, it seemed to be working. At least, President Reagan thought so.

On the Friday of October 21, 1983, the Reagans flew to Augusta, Georgia for a weekend of rest -- which meant golf for the President. He liked golf but didn’t play regularly and in fact it had been so long since he had played that he expected his performance to be miserable. As events turned out, his golf game was to be the least of his worries.

At four in the morning, Saturday, Reagan was awakened by his national security adviser, Bud McFarlane. There was a problem -- a big one. Slipping on his bathrobe over his pajamas, the President walked into the living room of the Augusta National Golf Club’s “Eisenhower Cottage” -- so-named in honor of another president who really was a serious golfer and used the place on his own golfing vacations.

Already there was McFarlane and Secretary of State George Shultz. The problem? The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) was urgently asking for the United States to intervene militarily on the island of Grenada. Grenada had been on the president’s radar for months. In his famous March speech on the Strategic Defense Initiative -- “Star Wars” as it was derided by liberals -- Reagan had mentioned the growing problem of Grenada then. There had been a Marxist coup in 1979, and along with the Soviet presence in Cuba and Nicaragua, Reagan had spent a considerable amount of time discussing what appeared to be yet another Soviet attempt to establish a military base in the Western Hemisphere, a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. A 10,000 foot runway had been built at the Grenadian airport. Since tiny Grenada didn’t even have an air force, military analysts knew there could only be one purpose: to accommodate Soviet transports bringing in weapons and ammunition. On top of the military buildup, with both Soviet and Cuban aid flowing into the country, there were threats from Grenada’s Communist government to take 800 American medical students studying on the island as hostages. Always believing that predecessor John F. Kennedy’s hesitation at following through in the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation the Eisenhower administration had been organizing against Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba -- a mere 90 miles off of Florida -- was a mistake, Reagan was determined that if similarly confronted he would not repeat the same mistake. At Reagan’s directions, the Pentagon had been at work planning a military option if one was needed.

Of a sudden, that October night the situation had come to a head.

The Communist government of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was overthrown by an even more radical group of Marxists. Now the new government -- having freshly executed Bishop -- was refusing a State Department request to send an American diplomat to arrange for the safe departure of 800 American medical students studying on the island. In other words, 800 young Americans were now officially hostages on Grenada.

Reagan was determined. There would be no repeat of the JFK Bay of Pigs disaster, a disaster that launched further crises with the Soviets as it sent a message of weakness. Both the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis had resulted. Reagan would have none of that. He believed the Communist presence on Grenada to be a direct threat to United States national security. He also believed he had the authority as commander-in-chief to protect the lives of those American kids. Now, with the urgent request for help from the OECS, his earlier instruction to have a naval flotilla that had just departed for Lebanon diverted to Grenada just in case had paid off. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said they could be ready to do a rescue mission and take out the Marxist government in 48 hours.

Said the President in two short words: “Do it.”

Under cloak of secrecy -- Reagan did not want any leaks--the invasion of Grenada was getting ready to roll. The President went back to bed.

An hour later, he got up to play his scheduled golf game.

Suddenly, on the 16th hole, Secret Service agents abruptly surrounded the President and his golf party, shoving them into White House limousines and raced him back to Eisenhower Cottage.

An armed gunman had smashed his pick-up truck through the entry gate of the golf course and taken control of the pro-shop, where seven White House aides had set up a very different kind of shop. He was threatening to kill them all unless Reagan agreed to meet with him. The Secret Service was apoplectic. They wanted the President out of there on the spot, on Air Force One and back to Washington. Reagan wouldn’t hear of it. Instead he picked up the phone and called the pro-shop. The gunman picked up the phone to hear the familiar voice say: “Hello, this is Ronald Reagan…”

There was silence. Then the gunman hung up and the line went dead. Reagan tried again--four more times. Each time with the same result. The armed man had sent word that he wanted to meet Reagan personally. The Secret Service said absolutely not. They were out searching the golf course and the woods around the golf course to see if there was more than just this one guy. They found no one--but kept after Reagan to go back to Washington, pronto. Knowing that he had only hours ago secretly ordered the invasion of Grenada, not wanting to raise the specter of impending crisis with the media, Reagan refused and stayed put. Eventually the gunman was persuaded to release his hostages unharmed and he was arrested. 

Reagan went on with his schedule, which by now meant dinner with friends. Then, tired from being up half the night, he went to bed.

At 2:30 in the morning, Bud McFarlane was on the phone yet again. This time it wasn’t about Grenada or the gunman.

A suicide bomber had driven into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and first reports said there were 100 dead Marines. That did it.

After another pajama and robe clad meeting with McFarlane and George Shultz, by 6:30 a.m. the President was on Air Force One headed back to Washington. The hell with the golf.

The attack in Beirut, he was learning, was more horrific than first thought. The final death toll was 241 Marines, all murdered as they slept. In a pattern that would years later become familiar to Americans in events as disparate as 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, minutes after the first attack came a second. In the case of Beirut that second attack came two minutes after the first, the second attack at a building housing the MFN peacekeeping force’s French paratroopers. Fifty-eight of the French were killed. 

The Grenada invasion was a success. Launched in secrecy, it rescued the 800 American medical students, overturned the Marxist revolutionaries, discovered thousands of Russian and Cuban-supplied weapons, plus literally a million rounds of ammunition hidden in a false floor in the now-empty Cuban Embassy. There was a treasure trove of documents that tied the Grenadian Marxists to Moscow and Castro, revealing the suspected objective of making Grenada the third Communist outpost in the Caribbean after Cuba and Nicaragua. Grenada was being designed to make of the Caribbean a Communist lake in America’s back yard.

But if Grenada was a success -- it is a peaceful democracy to this day -- what was going on in Beirut was an utter failure. Most importantly, Reagan knew it.

The Reagan administration, and the “international community” right along with it, had grossly underestimated the situation in Beirut. Reagan would later write of his mistake a recognition that only really began to sink in with Americans in the aftermath of 9/11:

…the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy…How do you deal with a people driven by such a religious zeal that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to kill an enemy simply because he doesn’t worship the same God they do? People who believe that if they do that, they’ll go instantly to heaven?

Some weeks after the bombing of Beirut, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger gave Reagan a Pentagon report not yet public that placed the blame for the Beirut massacre on “negligence by the marines’ commanding officers in Beirut.” 

Reagan wouldn’t hear of it. He told Weinberger that he, the president, would take full responsibility for the disaster. Said he: “I was the one who sent them there.”

If Reagan was the man who sent the Marines to Lebanon, he was also now to be the man who decided he would be the man to remove them. To get out. He knew that this was a bad situation. Doing this would send a signal of weakness to some (and indeed, years later Osama Bin Laden said just that.) But Reagan had no intention of committing Americans to a full-scale war in the Middle East. And the MFN peacekeeping operation with the British, French and Italians had failed abysmally. So….he pulled out the troops. And home they came.

Which prompted Reagan to eventually write out a set of four principles. Four principles, he would write in his memoirs, that were specifically designed “to guide America in the application of military force abroad, and I would recommend it to future presidents.”

Here they are:

Reagan Rule 1: The United States should not commit its forces to military actions overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest.

Reagan Rule 2: If the decision is made to commit our forces to combat abroad, it must be done with the clear intent and support to win. It should not be a halfway or tentative commitment, and there must be clearly defined and realistic objectives.

Reagan Rule 3: Before we commit our troops to combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress. (We felt that the Vietnam War had turned into such a tragedy because military action had been undertaken without sufficient assurances that the American people were behind it.)

Reagan Rule 4: Even after all these other tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.

Now.

As of this moment, President Obama is confronted -- in precisely the same area of the world that bedeviled Reagan -- with the use of chemical weapons in Syria. He is even dealing with exactly the problem Reagan had -- the Syrians now as then are backed by the Russians. 

One can spend much time and space -- and undoubtedly that time and space will be spent -- discussing how in the world we have gotten to this point.

Be that as it may: here we are. So as America and the world awaits the return of Congress on September 9, let’s employ Reagan’s Rules to today’s situation.

Reagan Rule 1: The United States should not commit its forces to military actions overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest.

Is the use of chemical weapons in Syria “vital to our national interest”? 

The question is not, as Secretary of State Kerry says, whether the use of chemical weapons is “immoral.” It is immoral. So too was blowing up a barracks full of 241 sleeping Marine peacekeepers in Beirut.

The hard fact is that there have been, according to most news reports, some 100,000 people killed in this Syrian civil war. Killed by conventional means -- guns and bombs. To be shot dead by a gun, to be killed dead because one is in the way of a bomb makes no one less dead than if killed by a chemical weapon. All are horrible. All leave behind gruesome pictures. (As here, with a victim being carried from the site of a car bombing in Damascus, no chemical weapons involved.) It is a very tough question to ask, perhaps to some a callous question. But it is a needed question in any event. Why is death by chemical weapon any more “vital to our national interest” than death by gun or bomb?

Reagan Rule 2: If the decision is made to commit our forces to combat abroad, it must be done with the clear intent and support to win. It should not be a halfway or tentative commitment, and there must be clearly defined and realistic objectives.

Every indication from President Obama and his team indicates they have every intention of violating Reagan Rule 2. What is apparently in store is launching cruise missiles to “degrade” Syria’s military capacity. This precisely meets Reagan’s definition of “a halfway or tentative commitment.” There is quite clearly no “clear intent…to win.” Sending these missiles is the equivalent of sending those Marines to Beirut. Absent an intention to win -- which is to say -- unhorse Bashar al-Assad as Reagan did with those Grenada Marxists -- this is going to be seen by the world, by America’s enemies -- as a “halfway or tentative commitment.” Thereby making an already bad situation worse.

Reagan Rule 3: Before we commit our troops to combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress. (We felt that the Vietnam War had turned into such a tragedy because military action had been undertaken without sufficient assurances that the American people were behind it.) 

Reagan finally made up his mind about Grenada in the dead of night, although he had in fact discussed the situation in public a number of times. On his return to Washington that October Monday, Reagan made a point of summoning congressional leaders for consultation -- yet made it plain that he not only had the authority as commander-in-chief to rescue those 800 American medical students but that the Communist control of a small island was decidedly an American national security interest.

Liberals of the day, beginning with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, were furious. Steven F. Hayward’s The Age of Reagan documents the typical liberal fury beginning with O’Neill and one liberal politician after another and running on through the editorial page of the New York Times. Then, lo and behold, in addition to the findings of the American troops -- Hayward documents the presence of 800 Cubans along with contingents of Russians, North Koreans, Bulgarians, East Germans and even Gaddafi's Libyans plus enough arms for a ten-thousand man military along with a million rounds of ammunition “found in a false floor of the vacated Cuban embassy” -- there came an unexpected something else.

The television cameras were on hand to record the return of the 800 rescued American students to the United States. The first student, thrilled to be safely home, bounded down the steps of the plane, stepped onto the tarmac -- and knelt and kissed the ground.

By day's end, liberals were in full retreat, with Speaker O’Neill saying grudgingly that Reagan was “justified” in his actions. The American people, in poll after poll, overwhelmingly agreed.

But importantly, when Reagan made his decision to pull the Marines out of Lebanon -- they agreed as well. Reagan couldn’t justify an American war in Lebanon -- and, he knew, the American people wouldn’t support it either. So….there wasn’t one.

Reagan Rule 4: Even after all these other tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat only as a last resort, when no other choice is available. 

There is no present plan to send American troops to Syria. But what will happen as a result of any American missile attack on Syria? In fact, no one knows. So the question must be -- if the Obama Administration generates a situation that does in fact call for committing combat troops as a “last result” -- will they be prepared? And will they have the courage to do it if “no other choice is available”?

It should be pointed out here that in spite of all the criticism from all sides of President George W. Bush, in fact he followed Reagan’s Rules in dealing with both Afghanistan and Iraq. He made the Reagan Rule 1 case that each instance involved the vital “national interest” of the United States. He followed the Reagan Rule 2 and went all-in to win -- while it was Obama who eventually got Osama it was the infrastructure set up by Bush that made it possible, and Bush himself was responsible for getting Saddam literally out of his hiding hole.

As recommended by Reagan Rule 3 Bush went out and sold the Congress and the majority of the American people on the need to go into both Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically getting congressional authorization. And after repeatedly working through the UN to get Saddam Hussein to open up and come clean -- and failing repeatedly -- it’s very safe to say Bush and company saw the invasion of Iraq as Reagan Rule 4’s “last resort.” 

America is now in a very difficult spot -- precisely because in the Obama era it has abandoned Reagan’s mantra of Peace through Strength.

What we now have -- what liberalism in foreign policy always produces from Vietnam to Syria -- is War through Weakness.

The so-called “re-set” of American relations with Russia proclaimed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has resulted in Vladimir Putin having nothing but disdain for the American president and his country. Whether the issue is the return of Edward Snowden or blocking action on Syria in the United Nations Security Council, bluntly speaking Putin has given a scornful diplomatic obscene gesture to Obama and Clinton and now John Kerry’s foreign policy.

Going to Congress is the exactly right thing to do. It is no small thing. It is the Constitutional thing to do. Ted Cruz sending out a tweet that showed the British Parliament in full session discussing Syria while the floor of the U.S. Senate was empty was exactly right. Cruz, Rand Paul, and others are to be applauded -- and yes so too the President.

But unfortunately doing the right thing so late -- and worse complicating the issue immeasurably by blurting out off-prompter talk of a “red line” and giving the impression of great urgency--then befuddling the whole issue by holding off until the scheduled return of Congress on September 9 is precisely the wrong image to be sending abroad. 

If Syria is as urgent an issue as Secretary of State Kerry insisted it is, the President should have forthwith stepped in front of the cameras and stated that he was using his authority as provided by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, which reads in part that the president "may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses."

One of Reagan’s heroes was his old friend Harry Truman, whom the young actor and then-Democrat had supported for re-election to the White House in 1948. It was Truman who recalled Congress in a special session not over an issue of war or peace but for a political confrontation with Republicans over his 1948 election agenda. If Truman can do it to make a mere point in a political campaign, Obama should certainly be doing it in a situation which is infinitely of more moment -- an actual question of war or peace.

This is a turning point in modern American history.

It is as much about Iran as it is Syria. It is about the American role in the world. It is about the Constitution of the United States. It is about understanding that peace comes through strength and war comes from the perception of weakness.

Ronald Reagan’s success as president came about not in spite of his failure in Beirut but because he learned from that mistake. He made a point of rebuilding the American military that had been so terribly weakened by his predecessor -- but he also learned the hard way that real military strength is not simply about “sending in the Marines.” Real military strength comes rather from first, having the military strength -- and then knowing when not to send in the Marines -- or for that matter cruise missiles either.

Reagan understood the importance of the Constitution. He well understood his authority as commander-in-chief to protect the vital national security interests of the country. Failing to get those 800 American medical students out of Grenada peacefully, Reagan knew what he had the authority to do. Getting the urgent plea from governments in America’s back yard to stop a Communist revolution bristling with arms, ammunition as well as Cubans, Russians and all manner of Soviet allies dedicating themselves to Communizing said American back yard -- Reagan knew he had the constitutional authority to go into Grenada.

He never hesitated. Saying simply: “Do it.”

But after Beirut, Reagan made sure he was not turning the United States into some globe-straddling empire. He concentrated on defeating the premiere American enemy of the day -- the “Evil Empire” that was the Communist Soviet Union. His philosophy, as he said at the time, was clear: “We win, they lose.”

What we have today is a president who has, in the style of liberalism everywhere, induced the weakness that invites war. All of five years of repeatedly sending a message of weakness by bowing to this or that foreign potentate, trying to make friends with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood while happily sending video greetings to the Imams of Iran and more has now resulted in chemical weapons being loosed upon the people of Syria. Not to be forgotten either is the fact that, as Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) has sharply reminded:

Even Gen. [Martin] Dempsey (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) said we are putting our military on a path where the 'force is so degraded and so unready' that it would be 'immoral to use the force…'

In short?

The Obama foreign policy has served up a mess. A lethal mess.

How to get out of this mess? Where to begin this discussion in the Congress on September 9?

Recalling Reagan’s Rules for Military Action would be a good place to start the debate.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.