Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, as well as a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy. He retired in 2006 after 30 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency. He was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council. He was also deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Near East and South Asia at the Pentagon and a senior advisor at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels. Diwan interviewed Riedel on his most recent book, Beirut 1958, published late last year to explain how the U.S. intervention in 1958 might inform U.S. behavior in the Middle East today.
Michael Young: Why publish a book in 2019 on the long-forgotten U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958?
Bruce Riedel: The United States’ intervention in Lebanon in 1958 was the first combat operation by U.S. forces in the Middle East. Today Americans are engaged in dangerous combat operations across the region, the so called “endless wars.” The operation in 1958 was massive—three aircraft carrier battle groups were offshore in the Mediterranean Sea, troops in Europe and America were on alert to go to the landing zone, and nuclear weapons were en route to Lebanon. British paratroopers landed in Jordan in a closely coordinated operation. It was a prototype for later operations such as Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.
President Dwight Eisenhower was the first U.S. president to identify the Middle East as vital to the interests of the United States, citing its vast oil resources and role as the birthplace of three religions (though he did not cite Israel’s survival as one such vital interest). So Beirut in 1958 is the place to understand why Washington has become entangled in the Middle East and perhaps how to get out.
MY: You derive lessons from the intervention in Lebanon, some of which can be applied today to the Trump administration. Could you outline which ones?
BR: The first lesson is don’t panic. In 1958, the Eisenhower administration was surprised by a bloody coup in Baghdad that decimated the Iraqi Hashemite royal family. The president’s senior advisers, including his secretary of state and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, warned that the coup would lead to the collapse of all pro-Western governments in the region and a communist takeover. Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser was the Soviet Union’s stalking horse, they wrongly claimed. The next day the Marines landed to prop up a Christian president in Lebanon who was facing a civil war. The Middle East is full of surprises, but all but a few are not harbingers of the apocalypse for the United States. Await further developments before rushing to use force.
Second, engage your opponents and look for compromise. The Beirut operation was short-lived because the Americans quickly accepted an outcome to the Lebanese civil war that satisfied the Muslim opposition without jeopardizing the Christian minority. Only one American died in combat in 1958, largely because the Marines agreed to partner with the Lebanese armed forces and avoided patrolling rebel-held parts of Beirut. In the end Eisenhower abandoned the Maronite Christian president Camille Chamoun, who had invited the Marines into country, in favor of Fouad Chehab, the Maronite army commander who was the Muslims’ and Nasser’s choice.
MY: The U.S. Marines returned to Beirut in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In what way might the lessons of 1958 have prevented the problems associated with that second intervention?
BR: In 1982, the U.S. intervention was widely seen in the region as supportive of Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon and its war to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The U.S. claimed that it had sent a peace-keeping force but was perceived as siding with the Israelis, and for good reason. The PLO was still an organization with which the United States refused to deal and Syria was considered a Soviet client state. Therefore, engagement was all but impossible for the Reagan administration in 1982.
Belatedly president Ronald Reagan understood that he needed to address the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Reagan Plan, which he presented at the time, promoted the Jordanian option—whereby the West Bank and Gaza would be joined in a confederation with Jordan—which proved unacceptable to all the parties, including Jordan’s King Hussein. The Iranians created a new proxy using the neglected Shi‘a community to drive American forces out. To his credit, Reagan had the good sense to quit after the Marine barracks bombing in October 1983.
MY: The two U.S. military deployments in Lebanon, a country the United States has never really considered of vital interest, appear to show that despite Washington’s uncertainty about military involvement in the Middle East, the region almost naturally provokes outside intervention. What’s the message here?
BR: The Middle East has become progressively more divided and violent since 1958. Today there are more than 50,000 U.S. troops in the area. President Donald Trump has increased the troop numbers, including in Iraq, despite his promise to end the endless wars. After more than a decade U.S. combat troops have also returned to Saudi Arabia, this despite America’s energy independence and Israel’s unchallenged military dominance over the region.
America does have interests in the area, but much less so than in previous years. Engagement and negotiations are much better suited for protecting both U.S. interests and values. The diplomats who kept the Marines out of a quagmire in 1958 should be the role models for more successful U.S. engagement in the future.