President Reagan wore a grey suit, a white shirt and a blue tie. He seemed fit and well after his holiday in California. Indeed, he said that he had not felt this active or fit before. In fact, the crisis in Lebanon has not left a mark—not a single wrinkle—on his face. It is clear that he is a man who deals with crises easily, and that he felt at ease when King Hussein and President Hosni Mubarak suggested he ought to continue to pursue the peace plan developed in September 1982.
The interview with President Reagan took place at his breakfast table. He covered only two aspects of his foreign policy: the Middle East and relations with the Soviet Union.
Majalla: Mr. President, despite the legitimacy of President Jamil’s government, it has now fallen and been replaced by another legitimate government. Will you support this new government’s goals in the interest of Lebanese sovereignty, regardless of what form it takes?
President Ronald Reagan: All I want to say is that efforts are still being made tirelessly to reach a peaceful political solution to this problem. I will do everything I can to help. And I believe that other countries feel the same. We do not usually act unilaterally in such matters, we move forward based on good communication with other governments. I see no alternative to that. There is no doubting the importance of the whole Middle East to the free world—perhaps more so for our allies than [the US]. But that will never diminish its importance. If the opportunity for an alternative presents itself, for example, what would it be? A new war between Syria and Israel, such has happened so many times before? Is there anyone who thinks that an American president will stand idly by and watch Israel be destroyed? The region is vital to us.
Q: Even though the United States has resorted to using force in Lebanon, Syria seems to have resisted, and even beaten, it. My question is—would you act differently if you were given a chance to go back to the beginning? And is what happened in Lebanon a lesson on how American military force should be used?
No, I know all about the problems of the Middle East and its long history. The solution to the Lebanese problem may be in finding a government with complete sovereignty over the country, without the warlords and their militias. There hasn’t been a government like that in Lebanon. There can be no solution to the problem without a government that can stop these warlords on its borders, unite the country and give guarantees of security to Lebanon’s neighbors, especially Israel. I don’t know any other option open to us. We were trying to establish peace, and I believe what we have done is the answer. If they were not able to establish peace there, then I do not regret trying. What we did was legitimate. Entering a war with a country like Syria?! No, I don’t believe that’s the answer either. We will go ahead with the application of a comprehensive peace program in the Middle East.
Q: How would you propose to do that?
This is what I talked about yesterday and the day before with President Mubarak and King Hussein [of Jordan]. They both welcome this and believe that we must go ahead with the plan regardless of the situation in Lebanon. It has always been our belief that the peace process would succeed if some of the moderate Arab countries began to take the lead in negotiations. Remember that we started from a point where Arab countries announced first and foremost that they did not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation. So there were two camps facing each other. Sadat thawed the ice with the peace treaty with Israel. Our number one priority is to try to find other Arab countries like Egypt.
Q: The week before your announcement of the redeployment of the Marines in Lebanon, you very strongly criticized the suggestion from [Speaker of the House of Representatives] Thomas O’Neill and others that American troops should be withdrawn from Lebanon. Do you think that the statements made while you were thinking seriously about redeploying the Marines, or possibly withdrawing them, created a breakdown of trust in Washington? Second, now the Marines have been withdrawn from inside Lebanon, how long will they stay on board ships near the coast?
How long they stay will be determined by what happens and whether we are successful or not. Their movement from land to sea will have no effect on how long they stay. We are now studying the possibility of creating an international taskforce and at the same time providing further security for our forces. I think O’Neill was suggesting that we run away, but we were always thinking about the practicality of continuing our task by re-deploying our forces. And there is still an opportunity for peace, so we will stay where we are. This has been our primary objective.
Q: In other words, you expect them to stay for the 18 months you planned?
Do you mean staying onboard the ships?
Yes, but we hope it doesn’t take long. Things change, and sometimes not exactly as we want them to. But there is still reason for us to hope and we will stay as long as there is still hope.
They didn’t die in vain.
Q: In light of some of your descriptions of the matter of the Marines in Lebanon, it seems they were unsuccessful. What would your response be, in this election year, to the accusations you will face that the Marines became victims in an irrelevant, failed mission? And will you send the Marines in again?
No, they did not die in vain. If we had surrendered and then withdrawn, that would mean they had become victims of a frivolous endeavor. Remember the original situation when the war was raging in the middle of Beirut: PLO forces and terrorists were moving around unabated and even occupied parts of Lebanon. The northern borders of Israel were exposed to their attacks—launching rockets, shells and artillery against civilians. After that, Israel invaded Lebanon and its forces got 25 miles into the country. They began to retreat before them right up to Beirut. And the problem remained unresolved.
We agreed—ourselves and our allies—to send a multi-national force in an attempt to convince foreign forces to leave the country. We have achieved that with the PLO. After that the Israelis agreed to withdraw, and began that process in stages. As for the Syrians, who had agreed previously, they have consolidated their position and said, ‘No, we won’t go.’ I believe this is the biggest obstacle facing us. The thought was that the multi-national force would provide some stability after the formation of the government and that the armed forces would take control of the areas occupied by the Syrians, the Israelis and the PLO. At the same time, we trained the Lebanese armed forces and provided them with weapons. Their combat skills are better than they showed in recent clashes. The problem is that Muslim soldiers have deserted—meaning that these forces are reduced in sized and number.
I have to say that I have contacted the families who lost their sons in Lebanon. I have been deeply affected by the fathers, mothers and widows who told me of their belief in the mission on which their sons and husbands were deployed. They told me many times that their sons and husbands had written to them constantly about their faith in the goal for which they were sent to Lebanon. And before the start of terrorist attacks against them, I also heard speeches from Lebanese citizens thanking us and saying that they did not know what their fate would be without the presence of American forces there.
Q: Will you send [the Marines] back to Lebanon, Mr. President?
If it would help to establish peace, then yes. I have to tell you that I have learned that the hardest decision I can make in this job of mine is to send those brave young men to places where their lives are in danger.
Q: Mr. President, are you prepared to replace the Marines with a UN force? And if so, would you withdraw the American fleet from the Lebanese coast to get the Soviets to agree to this force?
I will not respond to the last part of the question. In fact, I don’t want to think about it now. But as far as a UN force is concerned, that has been my preference from the start. The veto and Russian opposition are what has forced me to consider something other than a UN force.
Q: How quickly would you like to see this force in Lebanon? And what would the role of the Marines be far from the coast, especially as they weren’t able to protect the Lebanese government while they were on the ground?
It was not a question of protecting the Lebanese government. They were there to help the government with stability. With regards to the UN force, I had hoped to see it there—not just yesterday, but the day before as well. As president, I say that the multinational force is still there and that they can land on the beach in no time if that is required.
Q: If the Marines move offshore, how can they achieve this goal in that situation, when they failed while they were onshore?
I admit that the people I described as warlords control the region more than ever. At the same time, the government is trying to negotiate with these same people to involve them in government. It has not been announced that this is out of the question yet. Until this is done, we need to keep trying.
Q: You mentioned a few minutes ago that you wanted to work together with President Hosni Mubarak to put together a peace plan for the Middle East. But only yesterday, both here and in Washington, Hosni Mubarak made statements directly opposed to your policy and your views. In one of them, President Mubarak suggested that the United States should enter into direct talks with the PLO. In the second, he mentioned that the withdrawal of the Marines was a disaster that will cost America the confidence of its friends in the region. In the light of statements like these from the president of an Arab country that you rely on, can I ask what the basis of your cooperation with President Mubarak is regarding the peace plan for the Middle East?
President Mubarak made the statements you mentioned in his farewell speech. But I also remember what he said in our discussions, the three of us together, that lasted many hours. It is true that perhaps he was convinced, more so than us, that Arafat is the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. We agree that the Palestinian problem is crucial to the peace program and that there must be a fair resolution to this problem. President Mubarak was expressing his view in opposition to those who propose the return of the Marines to the United States. He sees that as a disaster, and King Hussein shares that view. But when he learned that we would redeploy them he showed he was pleased with our presence in that part of the Mediterranean.
Q: This is an election year, and not necessarily the year of establishing peace in the Middle East, which particularly concerns moderate Arab countries. They know that Israel rejected the initiative of September 1, 1982. They rejected it on September 2, because they said it was a threat to Israeli security and a violation of the Camp David Accords. At that time, and a year later, you described Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace. Israel ignored the comments on both occasions. What can you present to moderate Arab countries so you can move forward with the initiative, especially if these countries see no sign that you have any influence over Israel, which is opposing your plan?
This situation resembles, somewhat, the times I was negotiating with management for the union. You try as much as you can to strengthen your position before entering negotiations so that you can negotiate from a position of strength. For this reason, you see that each side is trying to strengthen their position as much as possible. I have to tell you that I have found King Hussein and President Mubarak to be completely faithful to the Camp David Accords and Resolution 242 and other UN resolutions, and they believe that negotiations must take place in this framework. I believe that Israel will greatly benefit from this process, as after practicing peace and getting secure borders, it will not be forced to destroy its economy by remaining a nation at arms.
Q: When [Secretary-general of the Soviet Politburo] Chernenko gave his recent speech, he mentioned that he wanted to maintain the balance between East and West. What does that balance mean to you? Is there a fair balance now? Does Chernenko mean they have to become stronger?
I believe we have made great progress in redressing the balance with the Soviets. But we are not yet at the point where we will stop. We still have to deploy the MX missiles and B1 bombers on the border. In my opinion this is of the utmost importance as it will serve as a sufficient deterrent. I do not believe that will make us equal with them. I am still determined that the ideal solution would be the two superpowers reaching an agreement that would lead to a real reduction in the stockpile of nuclear weapons. I hope that if we start on that road we will finish with a result that completely rids us of these weapons.
Q: Why have you become more optimistic? Has something happened between Chernenko and the vice president?
I listened to what happened in the meetings. And while Mr. Chernenko did not back down from the Soviets’ key positions, he expressed his desire to establish better relations. He felt that we both have to do something to prevent regional conflicts from spreading to a wider arena and that there must be a means of preventing any reckless use of nuclear weapons. In other words, what he said and how he said it show his belief that we can reach an agreement together.
Q: Mr. President, as a show of goodwill towards the new leadership in the Soviet Union and a thawing of relations in the nuclear weapons negotiations, could you stop the further deployment of American Pershing II and Cruise missiles in Western Europe for a time, perhaps until the end of this year?
No. I do not believe we should do that. The Soviet Union has more than 1,000 mid-range missiles and the NATO countries have no deterrent that can stand up to these missiles. Our allies asked us to deploy the missiles in 1979 and the American administration agreed. This situation has come to us, and we agree there must be a deterrent. I believe that the Soviet Union has made it perfectly clear during these negotiations that its goal is to prevent us from deploying those missiles.
Q: Do you see any possible benefit in widening the scope of negotiations now to include a diverse range of nuclear weapons that both sides have, not just European missiles but also strategic weapons—and possibly bombers—so that negotiations can proceed on a wider and more comprehensive basis, and possibly lead to more comprehensive results?
We already suggested that, but the Soviets did not respond. We originally believed at the beginning of the talks that the weapons that most caused instability and panic among people are the ones where you press a button and then the world ends. And if the button were ever pressed there would be no going back. We thought that the bombs and missiles launched from submarines caused less unrest because they are carried by a traditional weapon. We made our position very clear and told the Soviets that we wanted to discuss all types of weapons but they did not respond.
Q: Did Mr. Chernenko say anything about Vice President George Bush?
As I said, he spoke about his anxiety over nuclear weapons, and the need to find a solution to this threat.
Q: Mr. President, are you a reckless cowboy?
Yes. I feel like one, yes!
Q: Former President Nixon said that you have to get together with the Soviet leadership to show them that you are not a “reckless cowboy,” as he says. You mentioned yourself that you are not sure of the Russians, and that it would be foolish to say you know them. So why don’t you try to meet and get to know them at a summit to confirm, to them at least, that you are not, as Nixon described you, “a reckless cowboy,” and get to know them better? What’s the harm in that?
There is one American president who had a meeting like that. And straight away, rumors flew all around the world about a healing of the rift between the two great powers. The two leaders got to know each other and the meeting ended. And after that there was a complete deterioration in relations because he came up with nothing practical. I don’t know if they really think I’m a cowboy or not—I only played that role in two films. But I believe that they must know, and as soon as possible, that I mean what I say about disarmament and peace.
Q: Mr. President, could you tell us as accurately as possible what you think of the new Soviet leadership? Do you expect them pursue a more lenient or strict line, or will they simply be a continuation of the previous leadership?
A few years ago, one of our ambassadors to the Soviet Union said that the second most foolish thing is to say you understand the Russians. Ever since then, I have been curious to find out what the most foolish thing is. There is one truth, and that is that there is one leadership and that there is a person who has not announced a retreat from a certain position or a change in the situation or moderation. But before us are also Mr. Chernenko’s first comments, in which he announced that he will work for better relations.
Q: Are you taking that at face value?
Yes. Until they prove otherwise.