McCain’s answer: “I’d probably have to say that one of the times that probably was one of the most trying was, when I was first a member of Congress, and I’m a new freshman in the House of Representatives and very loyal and dedicated to President Reagan. […] He wanted to send troops to Beirut for a peacekeeping mission. My knowledge and my background told me that a few hundred Marines in a situation like that could not successfully carry out any kind of peacekeeping mission. And I thought they were going into harm’s way.”
McCain is being deceitful, self-aggrandizing and just plain dishonest.
McCain’s Vote, one of 161
On Sept. 28, 1983, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 270-161 to invoke the War Powers Act and authorize the deployment of U.S. Marines in Lebanon for an additional 18 months.
By then the Marines had been in Lebanon exactly one year. They had been taking fire, and casualties, for six months. They were no longer in a peacekeeping operation. They’d taken sides in the civil war, explicitly backing the minority government of Christian strongman Amin Gemeyel against a rising Druze and Shiite insurgency while the Israeli army occupied the southern half of the country.
Why the Marines Were in Beirut
The Druze and Shiites had initially thrown welcoming rice at the Americans, as they had at the Israelis, for ridding them of the Palestine Liberation Organization. For more than a decade, the PLO had built a state-within-a-state in Lebanon, using it to lord over the local population and hide within it while attacking Israel across the border. Druze and Shiites were not expecting the Americans to side with Gemeyel’s government, but to press for unity and Israel’s exit. That did not happen. When it became apparent that American troops weren’t there to keep the peace but to prop up Gemeyel and press his advantages against the Muslim population, Druze and Shiites turned against the American presence (and, to a lesser extent, against French soldiers also deployed in Beirut and supporting Gemeyel).
Not McCain’s Insight, but What Every American Saw and Heard
McCain at Saddleback said that his “knowledge” and “background” told him that the Marines’ mission could not succeed. In fact, since March 1983, Americans saw almost daily reports on the evening news and on their newspapers’ front pages of mounting and bloody hostilities involving American troops in Beirut. It took little original knowledge or background to understand the no-win situation into which Reagan had thrown the Marines, as reports unfolding day after day made clear.
By the time McCain voted against the War Powers Resolution, Marine positions near Beirut International Airport were being shelled daily. Five American soldiers had been killed in action in various battles and 49 wounded; 17 Americans were among the 61 people killed in a car-bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy on April 18, 1983. The residence of the American ambassador had been shelled. The Pentagon, for the first time since the Vietnam War, had deployed the battleship New Jersey and was firing its 16-inch guns against Druze and Shiite positions. The Pentagon also approved hostile-theater pay supplements for troops in Beirut one month prior to McCain’s vote.
McCain Voted in Line with Opinion Polls at the Time
McCain suggests that his foresight and independence on Lebanon was going against the current. In fact, a New York Times-CBS news pollreleased the day of after the War Powers vote showed 47 percent of Americans opposed to Reagan’s foreign policy in general, and Americans by a 2-1 margin fearing that the involvement in Lebanon was beginning to resemble the Vietnam quagmire. (McCain had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam 10 years earlier.)
Nor was McCain a lone voice in the vote itself. In addition to McCain, 25 other Republicans and 134 Democrats voted against the War Powers authorization. What McCain didn’t say at Saddleback is that most congressional Democrats had voted “for the good of America.” (In fairness to McCain, at least the McCain of the 1980s, he also opposed American intervention in Central America.)
McCain’s Opposition to the War Powers Act
There was another reason McCain voted in the minority. He opposes the War Powers Act, seeing it as illegitimately interfering with presidential authority to wage war. His vote was as much against endorsing the War Powers Act as against Reagan’s Lebanon policy.
241 Marines Killed, Not “Well Over 100”
Finally, in the Saddleback interview, McCain noted of the Beirut deployment how, “tragically, as many of you recall, there was a bombing in the Marine barracks and well over 100 brave Marines gave their lives.” In fact, 241 Marines were killed in that one bombing, on Oct. 23, 1983—one of the earliest attacks that bore the suicide-bombing signature of Hezbollah and many similar attacks to come. Simultaneously, a suicide bomber blew himself up against French barracks elsewhere in Beirut, killing 57 French paratroopers.
On Feb. 7, 1984, Reagan announced the Marines’ withdrawal from Beirut. He called it a “redeployment” to ships in the Mediterranean. The Marines completed their withdrawal on Feb. 26.