Beirut 1958

Bruce Riedel
Brookings Institution Press
A Review by Hassan Siddiq

NEW HAVEN: Given contemporary misadventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, it may be hard to believe that the United States once carried out a successful military operation in the Middle East. Bruce Riedel’s Beirut 1958 is a suspenseful examination of the first US military intervention in the Middle East, with pointed, riveting analysis.  

Lebanon gained independence from France as the Second World War closed. Beirut soon became known as the Paris of the Middle East, one of the most progressive cities in the region and “the intellectual capital of the region, home of the prestigious American University of Beirut.” The city was also where the Palestinian nationalist movement was born. “France had imposed a national charter on the small country’s politics,” Riedel explains. This required that the nation’s president be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister be a Sunni and the speaker of the parliament be a Shia.

Lebanon’s Muslim leaders called for a break in ties with Britain and France after the two nations invaded Egypt in November 1956 over rights to the Suez Canal. By May 1958, rebellion broke out in Lebanon. The United States intervened at the behest of an unpopular President Camille Chamoun.

The Marines landed at a beach in Lebanon's capital of on a hot sunny July day as tourists were sunbathing. To defuse tensions, the commander-in-chief of Lebanon’s army, Fuad Chehab,  escorted the US Marines into Beirut “by driving in a civilian car at the head of the Marine column” – a feat accomplished by deft diplomacy. Chehab replaced Chamoun – an unpopular leader whose term ended in September – as president and the intervention ended the following month. Although Chamoun felt betrayed by the Americans, US “diplomacy had recognized reality, dealt with it effectively and prevented what could have been a disaster,” asserts Riedel.

One recurring theme that runs through the book highlights why the Middle East nation states are inherently unstable and why the US finds itself repeatedly embroiled in the region’s affairs – the arbitrary ways in which European powers drew borders and constructed artificial states in the region. The British wanted to reward the Arab tribe of Hashemite that had supported them in the First World War. To do so, Britain installed a king from the loyal tribe in Iraq and “took Trans Jordan out of Palestine mandate and gave it to Abdullah [of the same tribe] as the Emirate of Trans Jordan.” The French deprived Syria of “most of its coastline on the Mediterranean Sea,” despite protests from the Arabs. After the decline of the European powers, the quarrels continued and power vacuums repeatedly emerged in Middle Eastern politics, and the US repeatedly rushed to the region to ensure that US-friendly rulers continued to reign, allowing oil to flow and authoritarianism to prevail.

In an attempt to keep cooperative rulers in power, US leaders repeatedly ended up invading the Middle East under false pretenses – and 1958 was no different. After a bloody military coup in Iraq in July, President Dwight Eisenhower was restless and of the opinion that the US must act decisively or leave the region altogether. In a rush to act, he turned an issue that centered around the struggle of Pan Arabism into one that orbited around the rise of communist forces in the Middle East. Riedel does not mince words:  “Instead of referring to...pursuit of Arab unity, the president turned the issue into avoiding another Munich-appeasing communist aggression and preventing World War III.” The strong statement resonates with the arguments of opposition Democratic senators at that moment in history. John F. Kennedy, Democratic senator from Massachusetts already contemplating the 1960 presidential race, wanted the administration to stop viewing the Middle East from the prism of the East-West struggle and instead recognize the rising tide of homegrown Arab nationalism.

Riedel’s book also makes it clear that the United States must recognize that its allies in the region have their own interests and cannot always be relied on for unbiased advice and support. For instance, the 1956 Suez Crisis was hatched by Israel, France and the United Kingdom without consulting the United States. Similarly, US allies did not intervene in Amman, Jordan, where a coup seemed imminent in 1958. The Israelis denied clearance initially and fired on aircraft entering its airspace, and Saudi Arabia refused to give overflight clearance.

Success in dealing with friends and foes in the international arena depends on a group of seasoned diplomats – a factor overlooked by the United States in recent years. As Riedel points out, “American diplomacy and cool heads prevented disaster that July [of 1958].” Ambassador to Lebanon Robert M. McClintock played a critical role in convincing the commander-in-chief of Lebanon’s army not to resist US Marines. Later, diplomats were instrumental in assessing on-the-ground sentiments of the Lebanese people, discouraging Chamoun from seeking another term.  

In relying on the lens of 1958 to tell the story of US interventions in the Middle East, Riedel demonstrates an uncanny ability to weave together a plethora of disparate political, geographic and demographic factors that define the Middle East. Although Riedel is silent on how he sees the future of Lebanon and Middle East, he expresses pride that the first American intervention in 1958 was swift and inexpensive and resulted in just one casualty, and he draws broad lessons that can serve as a guidebook for policymakers contemplating American interventions abroad in the future: Be truthful to American people, apprehend the limits of alliances and listen to diplomats – all vital lessons from the author who spent his childhood in the Middle East and expects the Middle East to remain “full of surprises for decades to come.”

In addition to identifying such over-arching themes, Riedel might have found it worthwhile to emphasize how each new crisis in international relations varies, not necessarily lending itself to cookie-cutter solutions. He could also make his lessons more concrete by showcasing how they might be applied in dealing with a contemporary crisis such as the failure to reach nuclear agreement with Iran. The book is fast-paced and reads much like a thriller – hardly surprising given Riedel’s background in the Central Intelligence Agency. Yet average readers who are not familiar with the region would benefit from a reference list of names of people and places that make regular appearances in the book.

The book is a must read for US policymakers who want to make sense of the root causes of the Middle Eastern chaos and prevent misadventures in the region. But if history is a guide, Riedel’s lesson of “don’t panic” is likely to give into more knee-jerk reactions as soon as the next crisis emerges from the Middle East.

Hassan Siddiq studied Grand Strategy at Yale College and is a MacMillan Fellow with YaleGlobal Online at Yale University.

© 2019 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center