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Review by William N. Dale

Cursed is the Peacemaker: The American Diplomat Versus the Israeli General, Beirut 1982. By John Boykin. (Belmont, CA: Applegate Press, 2002. Pp. xxiii, 489. $29.95 cloth.)

“Boykin’s main argument is that Ambassador Philip Habib did all that an intelligent and determined diplomat could do to end the fighting in Beirut and later remove foreign forces (Israeli and Syrian) from Lebanon. The author certainly succeeds in proving his case.”

John Boykin, a California writer and former book editor, has done an admirable job tracing the Foreign Service career of Ambassador Philip Habib, while focusing on his challenging assignment as President Ronald Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East (from 1981 to 1983) during Israel’s (1982) invasion of Lebanon. The author first interviewed Habib in 1983 and afterwards conceived the idea of this volume. After the ambassador’s death in 1992, he decided to proceed with the project. Boykin considered Reagan’ s envoy “the most interesting person” he had ever met and he describes the bloody events in Lebanon at that time from his subject’s point of view as a peacemaker trying to end the fighting. Habib’s main antagonist was General Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defense Minister (and now Israel’s Prime Minister). Boykin portrays the contest between the two as a struggle between diplomacy at its best and the use of force and deception. Habib emerges from these pages as the clear hero and Sharon the villain. Boykin’s main argument is that Ambassador Habib did all that an intelligent and determined diplomat could do to end the fighting in Beirut and later to remove foreign forces (Israeli and Syrian) from Lebanon. The author’s certainly succeeds in proving his case.

The author’s well-documented account depends almost entirely on primary sources, including declassified documents and more than 250 hours of interviews. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis and former Consul General in Jerusalem, Brandon Grove–both key actors in this dramatic story–were among the principal sources who reviewed this work for accuracy. Boykin relied largely on American sources since his stated goal is to portray events from Habib’s lenses. He did, however, ask Sharon for an interview and offered him an opportunity to review the text, but the general refused his invitation. Although it is impossible to say whether more extensive interviews with Israeli sources would have altered his conclusions, the foremost Israeli work on this subject, Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari’s Israel’s Lebanon War, provides a similar account of events. The legal proceedings against Sharon which cost him his defense portfolio also support Boykin’s version of what happened in Lebanon.Boykin begins his account describing Habib’s youth in Brooklyn, New York and goes on to detail his interest in agriculture and his brilliant career in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he attained the highest position possible for a career officer as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. The author describes at length the ambassador’s strenuous work habits and the difficulties he encountered in reporting to both President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Boykin emphasizes the problems Habib faced with Sharon, particularly when the general went way beyond his expressed intentions in attacking the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Syrian forces in Lebanon. Subsequently, the book depicts in detail the Israeli bombing and shelling of Beirut and Habib’s efforts to find a formula to stop the fighting. Eventually he did find one which ended the violence and facilitated the departure of PLO forces from Beirut and their relocation to other Arab countries. Reagan conferred the Medal of Freedom on the ambassador for his contributions to peace. Habib’s efforts notwithstanding, he failed in his next assignment–to obtain the departure of all foreign forces from Lebanon. In fact, the Syrians are still there some twenty years later.
The poor relations between the Israeli military and the U.S. Marines sent into Lebanon as the siege wound down is also described in some detail here. Incidents between the two forces almost led to violence. At one point, the Israeli soldiers became so angry at the Marines and the United States generally for preventing them from crushing the PLO that they littered the Beirut airport with their feces when the Marines arrived to assume control.
Boykin recounts briefly what has happened to the main participants since the horrific events of 1982 and concludes with an account of Habib’s subsequent assignments as Special Envoy in the Philippines and Central America. He includes a chronological list of instances in which Israeli actions failed to match their words, which illustrated the type of problem that Habib faced in Lebanon.
In his overtly sympathetic treatment of Habib’s career, Boykin stresses the ambassador’s loyalty to and affection for the Foreign Service and the tremendous work load he assumed to carry out his missions. The book makes an important contribution to the study of American diplomacy by providing a blow-by-blow description of how one brilliant diplomat carried out an extremely important mission.
Almost as important is the picture Boykin conveys of the activities and character of Sharon now that he is Prime Minister of Israel. The author mentions the general’s scorn for Washington, his hatred for Yassar Arafat, and his reliance on any ruse available to achieve the destruction of the PLO. The reader could substitute without change what Sharon now says about the Palestinian leadership for what Defense Minister Sharon said about it twenty years ago. In this regard, Boykin’s book is very helpful in gaining an understanding of Israel’s present policies in the occupied territories.

Bill Dale

William N. Dale is a World War II Navy veteran and retired senior Foreign Service Officer, whose lengthy career includes service on the staff of the National Security Council and the Department of State’s Policy Planning Council. He also served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Ankara, Turkey, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tel Aviv, and U.S. Ambassador to the Central African Republic. He is President of the Board of Directors of American Diplomacy Publishers and resides in Chapel Hill, NC.


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