Even in 1958, now-familiar patterns of military intervention in the Middle East were evident. Though he advocated for a troop deployment to Lebanon, for example, Dulles warned that the United States was entering a situation in which “it will be easy to get ourselves involved, and very hard to get out.” Then, as now, military inaction was equated with the United States renouncing its interests in the region. “We must act [in Lebanon], or get out of the Middle East entirely,” Eisenhower told his aides, presenting a stark choice that Trump is surely acquainted with. Then, as now, the White House debated whether it needed congressional authorization for its combat operations. Then, as now, U.S. leaders offered the public misleading justifications for their use of force; Eisenhower greatly inflated the situation in Lebanon to be about avoiding another world war by refusing to appease the Soviet Union, when it mostly had to do with internal Lebanese politics.
Despite Eisenhower’s soaring rhetoric, the actual U.S. objective was narrow in scope: to prop up a friendly government. And that goal was achieved with surprising ease. Dulles had predicted that the military intervention would generate blowback, such as an oil crisis as Egypt and its ally Syria retaliated against commercial infrastructure, or “a wave of anti-Western feeling in the Arab world.” Yet when hundreds of U.S. marines came ashore in Beirut on July 15, 1958—backed up by three aircraft carriers and dozens of warships in the Mediterranean Sea, plus the threat of the U.S. deploying nuclear weapons from Germany—they were greeted merely by sunbathers and vendors on the beach. U.S. diplomats soon negotiated a political settlement that eased Chamoun out of power. American forces, eventually numbering in the thousands, left the country in October after suffering only one fatality, from sniper fire, during the three-month deployment. They got in easily, they stabilized the situation, and they got out easily.
More than half a century later, the future of the United States’ military presence in the Middle East is once again up for discussion, as Iraq calls on the U.S. to end its roughly 5,000-strong troop presence in the country and Trump struggles to remove American forces from Syria and Afghanistan as well. U.S. politicians are now grappling with the possibility of a post-American period in the region.
Though Eisenhower and his advisers couldn’t have known it at the time, their swift, successful operation would prove the exception rather than the rule. “Subsequent American combat missions in the Middle East would not be so lucky or so cost-free,” Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, has written. “The wars in Iraq have now seemingly become endless.”
In the years following the campaign in Lebanon, Iran underwent an Islamic revolution, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and violent Sunni Islamist movements rose up—all seismic developments that encouraged the United States to double down on its investments in the Middle East. By the ’80s, Washington had created a combatant command for the greater region and unveiled the Carter doctrine to defend Persian Gulf partners. The U.S. came to view Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq as its top threat after the Soviet Union collapsed, and George H. W. Bush’s carefully calibrated multinational military operations to reverse Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait arguably represented the height of U.S. military competence in the Middle East.