No sooner had the American public and Congress caught one shock from the Marine tragedy in Lebanon than they had to absorb the US invasion of Grenada. Both are dramatically reported, sparing the public and political leaders no emotional jolt from the depicted violence amidst questions of what the United States government is doing there.
The Grenada adventure, involving some 2,000 US Marine and Army troops, can only heighten the perplexity of Americans about what might appear as a loose-cannon use of military might. Mr. Reagan must move quickly to reassure Americans of some consistency in the use of troops abroad.
In Grenada, the Marine mission in concert with six east Caribbean nations ostensibly was launched to evacuate some of the l,000 US citizens and other nationals who wanted to leave, to end the deterioration in civil order under the increasingly violent new Marxist rulers, and to take over until a new democratically elected government can be installed. Despite protests from Americans on the scene that a rescue adventure could run a greater risk for their safety, the mission was undertaken after the new Grenadan regime reportedly reneged on a pact to permit an exodus.
In having to make this call, that the greater risk lay in avoiding action, Mr. Reagan can likely claim the benefit of the doubt of most Americans. Rather than assume he sought to offset the image of getting caught off guard in the Middle East by launching a more tactically controllable mission on a tiny island in the Caribbean, most Americans would assume the President would have wanted to avoid a double jeopardy for the servicemen he commands. But the Grenadan adventure will only compound the President's troubles at home. At the moment, the Republican leadership on the Hill is giving him no great support. Moderate GOP senators in leadership posts seem dismayed by the turn of events and White House rationales. On the Middle East, House Speaker Tip O'Neill is standing behind the President on the Marines in Lebanon while challenging him on his approach in the Caribbean before the Grenada invasion.
The President's motives for the Grenada action are thought to be more mixed than his assertion that events forced his hand. It was a planned operation. The possible strategic risk from the two-mile-long runway under construction on the island - close to oil-producer Venezuela, and a prospect for Cuban-Soviet use - must be taken into account. So must the administration's desire to unseat a Marxist regime in the region. Mr. Reagan for some time has wanted to press his Caribbean-solidarity initiative, which he had always said would be an economic and not a military program. Ironically, its first manifestation appears to be chiefly military.
In sum, Mr. Reagan will likely gain the benefit of the doubt in the short run for the action itself. Many Americans share the President's dread of a Marxist advance in this hemisphere.
Still, the loss of more Marine lives in Grenada cannot help but now bring his Caribbean policies under the same anguished review at home as his Middle East policies. If he now topples a government in the Caribbean and replaces it, does he come out ahead or behind? There will be no neat answer to that question. Rather, it drives to the core of the debate about the use of might versus negotiation, about whether the gain from meddling in others' affairs is greater than its costs.