The American experience in Lebanon underscores a lesson which has been demonstrated many times but which policymakers never learn. This is that actions undertaken with the best of motives frequently have unintended and even counterproductive results.
The most glaring example is military assistance and arms sales. The United States began equipping and training the Lebanese Army so that the Army could enforce the authority of the Lebanese government. But the Army, like everything else in Lebanon, has split into factions. It has abandoned large quantities of American equipment, which is now being used by the rebel groups that the equipment was intended to suppress. And this is not the only case in which this has happened.
Vast quantities of arms were sent to Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1940s - and were used by the communists to drive Chiang from mainland China to Taiwan.
American equipment supplied both sides in the Indo-Pakistani war in the 1960 s.
Arms which American forces left behind in Vietnam are now used by guerrillas in El Salvador - and the US is supplying more arms to the Salvadorean government so that it can suppress the guerrillas.
The US poured billions of dollars worth of arms into Iran, in part to assure the stability of the Persian Gulf. These arms are now the principal threat to stability in the Gulf. They are being used to fight the war with Iraq - a war, if won by Iran, not in US interests.
The US poured arms into Turkey to contain the Soviet Union - but Turkey used them to invade Cyprus and came to the brink of war with its NATO ally Greece.
There have been successes with military assistance and sales, but the list is short. Most prominent are Western Europe and South Korea. Taiwan and Israel could be called success stories in that the assistance did achieve the purpose for which it was given - to preserve the independence of the recipient countries. But with respect to Taiwan, the US cannot continue military supplies without jeopardizing its relations with Peking, and it cannot stop without abandoning old friends. In the case of Israel, it was American equipment that was used to invade Lebanon - leading to the present difficulties.
The prolific scattering of American arms abroad especially in the third world , has had three main objectives:
1. To contain the communist bloc. This has been accomplished, but there is serious question as to how much American military assistance has contributed to it.
2. To preserve internal stability. This has occasionally been accomplished, as in Greece, but more often the result has been the strengthening of a repressive government, as in the Philippines or Argentina.
3. To relieve the US of the burden of regional defense. This has rarely been accomplished. On the contrary, American military resources are spread more thinly now than at any time since the Vietnam war.
Nor is it only American arms that are turned around to cause more trouble for the US. We started training foreign police forces so they could do a better job of law enforcement and discovered that what some of them were doing was suppressing the opposition. In the 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency taught many techniques of dirty tricks to anti-Castro exiles, and it was from this pool of skills that the Nixon plumbers recruited the people who burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist and bugged offices of the Democratic National Committee. Even after the Johnson administration ended CIA harassment of Cuba, various groups of exiles who had been taught how kept right on doing it.
The US is arming and training anti-Sandinista rebels in Central America. These rebels may, or may not, do what the US wants them to. It will be a long time before the last shot is fired from the American guns being supplied to the rebels. Worse, nobody has the slightest idea of who will be the target of that shot.
Programs of this kind rarely achieve their intended purposes. Over the last 35 years the US has scattered too many weapons around the third world, and many are being used in ways which are at best an embarrassment and at worst a threat. Despite this dismal record, there seems to be little prospect of a change in course.