In July 1958, U.S. Marines stormed the beach in Beirut, Lebanon, ready for combat. Farcically. they were greeted by vendors and sunbathers. Fortunately, the rest of their mission—helping to end Lebanon’s first civil war—went nearly as smoothly and successfully, thanks in large part to the skillful work of American diplomats on site, who helped arrange a compromise solution. Future American interventions in the region would not work out quite as well.
’s new book Beirut 1958: How America's Wars in the Middle East Began
(Brookings, 2019), tells the now-forgotten story (forgotten, that is, in the United States) of the first U.S. combat operation in the Middle East. President Eisenhower sent the Marines in the wake of a bloody coup in Iraq, a seismic event that altered politics not only of that country but eventually of the entire region. Eisenhower feared that the coup, along with other conspiracies and events that seemed mysterious back in Washington, threatened American interests in the Middle East. His action, and those of others, were driven in large part by a cast of fascinating characters whose espionage and covert actions could be grist for a movie.
Although Eisenhower’s intervention in Lebanon was unique, certainly in its relatively benign outcome, it does hold important lessons for today’s policymakers as they seek to deal with the always unexpected challenges in the Middle East. Veteran CIA analyst, National Security Council Staff member and Assistant Secretary of Defence Bruce Riedel describes the scene as it emerged six decades ago, and he suggests that some of the lessons learned then are still valid today. A key lesson? Not to rush to judgment when surprised by the unexpected. And don’t assume the worst.
Charles Coutinho has a doctorate in history from New York University. Where he studied with Tony Judt, Stewart Stehlin and McGeorge Bundy. His Ph. D. dissertation was on Anglo-American relations in the run-up to the Suez Crisis of 1956. His area of specialization is 19th and 20th-century European, American diplomatic and political history. He has written recently for the Journal of Intelligence History and Chatham House’s International Affairs. It you have a recent title to suggest for a podcast, please send an e-mail to Charlescoutinho@aol.com.