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When the Marines Came to Lebanon

Sixty years later, a classic Middle Eastern intervention under Eisenhower now looks like a symbol of a dysfunctional relationship.

Ron Gerelli/Express/Getty Images

The Marines landed in Lebanon. Shirts off, rifles held high, they waded through the water and startled sunbathers on the beaches near Beirut. Boys helped them pull their gear ashore, trying to sell them ice-cream and drinks for their troubles. “Hey Jack, you want a Coke?

Within days, tens of thousands of American servicemembers had joined them north and south of the city. By the time they’d left the land of milk and honey, the Marines had ended a civil war, stopped the Soviets, and saved an American ally.

So goes the story of July 15, 1958: President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “finest hour,” as some saw it. But the American apex was sandwiched by years of failure and patterns of policy that would lead officials toward disappointment and disaster in the decades to come.

Still settling into office in 1953, the Eisenhower administration identified the Middle East as an area “of great strategic, political, and economic interest to the free world.” Eisenhower soon sent new Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on a tour of the region. Never the sort to just drink the tea, Secretary Dulles reported that American interests “would be critically endangered if the [Middle East] should fall under Soviet influence or control.”

As American officials entered the region, Lebanese leaders invited them into their intricate political drama. Lebanese President Camille Chamoun and foreign policy czar Dr. Charles Malek, two avid apostles of Americanism, were eager to do business with the United States.

“If it ever came to war with the Soviets,” Chamoun assured Secretary Dulles during his visit to Beirut, “Lebanon would be 100 per cent on the side of the West, our harbors would be open to your ships, our airfields to your planes.” Malek declared that the Middle East was “psychologically ready for leadership from the United States” and that the Lebanese were eager to reprise their roles as “cultural and political bridge[s] between East and West.”

Although they were as sincere as statesmen could be, Chamoun and Malek didn’t represent all Lebanese. They couldn’t even forge consensus among elites. Yet Chamoun aligned with the United States anyway. He helped create a regional coalition of conservatives, who saw the Americans as potential protectors against internal dissent and external aggression. He allowed U.S. naval vessels to dock in Lebanese ports; relied on U.S. assistance to improve the international airport, roads, and commercial facilities; and enabled American intelligence to run far-flung networks from his capital.

Wanting more, Chamoun clamored for a NATO-style alliance in the Middle East: a U.S.-led, treaty-based defense organization that he calculated would survive changes in administrations or political winds. Eisenhower initially favored similar schemes, too, but Secretary Dulles believed that an alliance would be too “complicated” and “grandiose” for the restless region. Instead, American officials prodded “northern tier” leaders—in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan—to form a front against the Soviet Union. When those leaders formed the “Baghdad Pact” with Britain, Eisenhower declined to join the alliance. In turn, Chamoun became skittish and stopped short of steps—opening a U.S. base in Beirut, granting aerial access, or sabotaging Syrian leaders—that might’ve helped him turn his nascent partnership with the United States into a lasting alliance.

Against that backdrop, American and Lebanese leaders spent the 1950s locked in a diplomatic dance—becoming the first in a long line of leaders to, in Lebanon, invite intervention on uncertain terms and, in the United States, struggle to balance interests and ideals. Chamoun and Malek would beg for more assistance, stronger support, or clearer guarantees; the Americans would decline, demur, or delay. American officials didn’t want to commit fully to a man who couldn’t deliver. And Chamoun wouldn’t, or couldn’t, deliver without full commitment.

In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser seized the Suez Canal, becoming a symbol for Middle Eastern resistance to Western power. As Britain, Israel, France, and the United States entangled themselves in grand designs, Chamoun pestered Nasser regionally and hounded leftists locally. He refused to cut ties with Western states, appointed a conservative cabinet, and kept Beirut open as a Western presence post. When Eisenhower declared in 1957 that the United States would “protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism,” the two tangled again: Nasser rejected the new Eisenhower Doctrine as an imperialist “device,” while Chamoun endorsed it enthusiastically as a symbol of an overdue American awakening.

As Nasser and Chamoun clashed in the region, Lebanese leftist leaders attacked Chamoun at home. Chamoun began gunning for a supermajority in parliament, so he could engineer an extension of his presidential term. Although American officials were torn, they decided to back their man in Lebanon’s 1957 parliamentary elections before worrying about whether he’d try to stay in power after 1958.

Increasingly “insecure” in early 1958, Malek—now foreign minister—requested some kind of larger commitment from the United States. But having tired of what he called the “Pirandello characters” in Beirut, the American ambassador tersely told the Lebanese that the “Lord helps those that help themselves.”

On cue, Nasser struck again, establishing the United Arab Republic (UAR) by merging  Egypt and Syria under his command in Cairo. Tens of thousands of Lebanese and others went to Damascus to celebrate the new state in the heart of the Levant and clamor to join it. Leftist Lebanese leaders called for Chamoun to move away from the West and declare that he wouldn’t try to perpetuate his presidency. Chamoun instead moved to amend the constitution to remain in office, leading the leftists to call for him to resign immediately.

In May 1958, factions began to fight. The military secured important infrastructure but otherwise stayed out of the fray. During an especially fierce skirmish, Chamoun donned a yellow shirt, paced around the palace roof, and shot at rebels with his old hunting rifle.

American decisionmakers kept wavering. Chamoun and Malek kept trying to trigger an American intervention under the Eisenhower Doctrine. Despite emphasizing that the doctrine was a “standing offer,” American officials evaded Chamoun for months, referred him to the United Nations, and tried to negotiate a way out with Nasser in Cairo.

Ultimately, suddenly, the Americans went to Beirut because of Baghdad. On July 14, 1958, self-styled Free Officers imitating Nasser’s earlier revolt in Egypt strung up King Faisal II and dragged the pro-Western premier through the streets. Full of fear and fury, Chamoun requested an American intervention “within 48 hours” without “inquiries or specifications or conditions.”

Eisenhower sent the Marines. They landed the next day.

Although they’d been considering an intervention for years, the Americans landed in Lebanon without a comprehensive strategy or even a limited political plan to complement military action.

As Chamoun’s term wound down and factions skirmished, Eisenhower’s envoy Robert Murphy decided that Lebanese army commander Fouad Chehab, who  until then the Americans had thought rather feckless and unreliable, should succeed Chamoun. During the crisis, Chehab had done his best to do nothing. Chamoun and other American allies initially blasted him as weak or indecisive, before wondering whether he was making a passive play for power. Meanwhile, Lebanese leftists and moderates branded Chehab as prudent and perhaps presidential. Nasser himself first proposed, to the Americans negotiating with him in Cairo, that Chehab could play a role in a transition away from Chamoun.

American officials agreed with their allies, until they agreed with their rivals. For weeks, they urged Chamoun to fire Chehab and whip the military into action. After that, they landed tens of thousands of servicemembers to support Chamoun, and to stop the Soviets or Nasser from installing a friendly face. Then, at their apex in Lebanon, the Americans instructed their ally to step aside in favor of the very man Nasser had wanted all along.

American officials tried to do militarily what they’d failed to do politically. They spent enormous amounts of time, money, and energy to achieve some successes: allowing Chamoun to complete his existing term, restoring credibility lost in preceding years, and repairing a transatlantic relationship that had suffered during Suez. But they did not secure, let alone sustain, their success by investing in American allies during and after the intervention. After the landings, American officials cut financial and military assistance, declined to provide multiyear support, and didn’t craft a post-conflict political plan to support pro-American leaders in Lebanon.

Even Eisenhower couldn’t find clarity. Despite insisting on “long-range” planning and on elevating the important over the urgent, he spent five years lurching from one approach to another: alliances, pacts, covert campaigns, propaganda pushes, invasions. On the eve of the landings, he rejected the British premier’s veiled suggestions to launch wider, long-lasting operations in the Levant and Persian Gulf—not just hold the line. And, yet, he saw Lebanon as his “last chance to do something in the area”—believing that the United States “must act, or get out […] entirely.”

American officials ended up acting—and then getting out anyway. In the long sweep, they fell back into patterns of policy that had thrust them into their absurd adventure in Lebanon. They misconceived and miscommunicated actions and inactions—even before, inevitably, being misunderstood by others.

Landing in Lebanon sixty years ago, they stumbled into success and inadvertently set themselves up for disappointments to come. Decades later, Marines would again visit Beirut in the Lebanese Civil War—for a moment, as peacekeepers, trying to save militarily what was lost politically, and with dreams of a day at the beach dancing in their heads. They met with disaster: the Beirut Barracks Bombing and yet another struggle in the Levant.