How Ronald Reagan Did a Basic Foreign Policy Thing That Biden Struggled to Do

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How Ronald Reagan Did a Basic Foreign Policy Thing That Biden Struggled to Do

“These are American planes and American bombs, for people who have no relation with this dirty war,” a hospital official in Lebanon told the Washington Post in June 1982

The official was describing a nearby air raid by Israeli forces during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, an operation intended to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon that became a brutal siege of Beirut. 

The hospital official claimed to the Post that Israel had dropped cluster munitions, explosives that, when fired, release dozens and dozens of tiny bomblets in air that can spread out over hundreds of feet. Those bomblets don’t always detonate immediately, leaving a lingering threat to civilians in areas where they’re deployed.

The Post did not find evidence of that during their hospital visit, though the reporter documented remnants of cluster munitions at a resort south of Beirut the week prior. 

But allegations of Israel’s use of American-made cluster munitions in Lebanon mounted, and it forced the U.S. to act. Congress held hearings. In July 1982, President Ronald Reagan halted a shipment of 4,000 rounds of cluster munitions for use in 155-millimeter howitzers as the administration reviewed whether Israel had violated its agreements with the United States about the use of these weapons. 

Before the end of the month, the Reagan administration made that an indefinite suspension. The prohibition on cluster munitions transfers lasted six years, until 1988. 

That decision is being compared to President Joe Biden’s decision to quietly hold back the delivery of about 3,500 bombs, and his threat to withhold more offensive weapons if Israel invades Rafah. If you’re in favor of Biden’s move, then the argument is basically: if other presidents – especially Republican ones! – can do it, so can Biden. If you’re against the administration’s decision, it’s something along the lines of ‘this is a totally different thing, how dare you take Reagan’s name in vain.’

There is actually quite a long tradition of U.S. presidents threatening to withhold or rethink aid in order to pressure Israel. In 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened sanctions against Israel to try to force it to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon delayed ordering jets for Israel. Gerald Ford wanted to reassess the entire United States-Israel relationship, and he once reportedly sent them a written warning. George H. W. Bush promised to block loans to Israel if it continued their settlement expansion

Besides cluster munitions, Reagan halted the transfer of some fighter jets to Israel in 1981 after Israel destroyed an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq. Though Reagan released the hold a few weeks later, in 1982, after Israel had launched its invasion of Lebanon, the administration held up the transfer of 75 F-16s. ”We are forbidden by law to release those planes,” Reagan said in the spring of 1983, when asked about the still-in-effect suspension. As the New York Times reported at the time, Reagan was accusing Israel without actually saying that it had violated a U.S. arms agreement which ruled that American weapons could only be used for defensive purposes. He indicated the transfers wouldn’t happen until Israel withdrew from Lebanon.

There was a feeling among some of the president’s advisors that we just can’t give Israel a blank check,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former defense official during the Reagan administration.

Korb said that there was a sense in parts of the Pentagon that Israel shouldn’t be treated differently than other countries. “If you’re going to give arms to a country and they use them inappropriately, quote unquote, even if it’s Israel, you’re gonna say no,” he said. 

The U.S. has an interest in ensuring its weapons aren’t used to harm civilians or violate international law. And because the United States transfers a lot of weapons, it has the leverage to enforce that interest – which both Democratic and Republican administrations have done. “It’s a tool in the toolbox,” said Brian Finucane, a senior advisor on the U.S. at the International Crisis Group. 

Some experts pointed out that Reagan’s decision to ban cluster munitions seemed pretty clear cut at the time, as the U.S. had a series of agreements with Israel outlining explicit rules for their use. Though the full details were classified, Reagan officials indicated Israel was prohibited from using them near civilians, and directed to deploy them only against organized armies, as in those of other countries. 

But on F-16s, Reagan was sending a bit more of a political message, one that does echo Biden’s present-day announcement to put a pause on sending bombs. “In both cases, the withholding of the weapons aimed to serve a message rather than an actual act that aimed to prevent Israel from taking concrete action,” said David Tal, the Yossi Harel Chair in Modern Israel Studies at the University of Sussex, who wrote a book on the US-Israel relationship.  

Reagan was clearly pissed off by Israel’s all-out assault on Beirut, including a barrage in August that killed hundreds of civilians. “I told him it had to stop or our entire future relationship was endangered,” President Ronald Reagan said he told Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin, according to his diary entry on August 12, 1982. “I used the word holocaust deliberately & said the symbol of his war was becoming a picture of a 7-month-old baby with it’s [sic] arms blown off,” he wrote. Reagan denied he threatened to pull weapons or support in that call with Begin, but the F-16s were held up around that time. 

“It was not about operations carried out right now, that should be stopped now,” Tal added. “But it was a message of ‘look, don’t take the next step that we suspect that you might take.”

This is true in the current case of Gaza. The Biden administration has been warning Israel for months not to invade Rafah without a plan to ensure civilian safety, with more than a million Palestinians, many displaced from elsewhere and crowded into tents. Israel never presented such a plan, and was readying for an attack. Pausing a future shipment of bombs won’t undermine Israel’s ability to wage war, but it was an unmistakable warning shot.

What is different, though, are the politics. Reagan enforced arms transfer rules with Israel stringently. Congress also investigated, and senators reportedly grilled the Israeli Prime Minister about the use of cluster munitions, too. (Then a senator, Biden reportedly defended Israel’s 1982 invasion.) The ban on cluster munitions transfers ultimately did not stop Israel from carrying out its Lebanon invasion, and if it was a source of tension, it did not take the whole relationship down with it.

But some of Israel’s supporters, and Israel itself, has treated Biden’s decision to withhold some future bombs from Israel as the ultimate abandonment of an ally, accusing Biden of caving to domestic political pressure and in doing so, undermining Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of Hamas’s unquestionably horrific October 7th attack. 

But, again, Biden’s decision won’t materially affect Israel’s capabilities in the near term – and the potential withholding of more aid is still just a possibility. The State Department concluded in a recent report that it is “reasonable to assess” that Israel has violated international law in Gaza, but did not reach any conclusions that would jeopardize future military support. Nothing yet hints at a significant shift in U.S. policy toward Israel. The Biden administration just took one batch of weapons — one with a high risk of causing indiscriminate death — off the table for now.

And why, exactly, does Israel need 2,000-pound bombs, weapons that can level an apartment block, to defend itself from Hamas? In November, Israel may have used one such bomb in a strike that killed more than a hundred in a Jabilya refugee camp. The Israel Defense Forces are now back in that area, fighting a re-emergent Hamas.

On August 12th, Israeli Prime Minister Begin called the U.S. president back about 20 minutes after their first heated exchange.  “He called to tell me he’d ordered an end to the barrage and plead [sic] for our continued friendship,” Reagan wrote of Israel’s operations in Lebanon. 

As Finucane said, the United States has a lot of tools at its disposal. Picking up the phone and just saying enough is enough. “And,” and he added, “enforcing U.S. laws, as it pertains to arms transfers, is one of those tools.”

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