U.S. Intervention in Lebanon: 1958 and 1982

During the 1950’s, Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, continued to grow as one of the primary commercial centers in the Middle East. The benefits of this wealth served more than economic purposes, however; it imparted discipline on increasingly dangerous internal strains in Lebanon, for fear of losing these financial gains. The combination of sectarian differences and a vulnerability to inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli conflicts put immense pressure on an already weak central government.

In response to what appeared like an attempt to overthrow the government by Nasserist forces, President Eisenhower decided in 1958 to send in U.S. troops at the request of Camille Chamoun, President of Lebanon. The U.S. presence lasted four months, during which order was restored, and the Lebanese population elected General Fuad Shehab as their President. Officials viewed the intervention as highly successful- the government averted an overthrow, and stability was restored for several years, supported by the knowledge that U.S. strength backed the Lebanese government.

The lack of a national political consensus in Lebanon, especially among sectarian local power brokers, hampered the central government’s ability to regulate internal events. This inability led to the use of Lebanese territory by Palestinian forces to launch maneuvers against Israel in the early 1970’s. Like a spark, the intensified PLO-Israeli conflict ignited many internal problems in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon.

On one side, political leaders, mostly Maronite Christians, blamed the PLO presence in Lebanon as the cause of destabilization. Disillusioned by what they perceived as a lopsided concentration of power and wealth in the Maronites, Lebanese Muslims in response sided with PLO factions, using the criticism as a base for attacking the Christians.

The result became a Lebanese civil war, fueled by Syria and Israel in a high-stakes game of regional influence and power. At first Syria aided the PLO, but in 1976 they intervened against the PLO, following a strategy that prevented any single group from achieving dominant influence in Lebanon. Firmly believing that hegemony over Lebanese affairs was crucial, Syria began maintaining tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon from 1976 onward. Israel, sensitive to potential raids on its border, joined forces with the Maronites, and occupied much of the south of Lebanon in 1978.

When they withdrew, they kept a strip of land, a “security belt,” as a buffer zone against Palestinian threats. In the midst of this, however, lay the growing frustration and anger of Lebanon’s largest and most impoverished community, the Shi’ite Muslims. They trusted no one, and their demands for a more significant role in Lebanese politics went largely unheeded.

Tensions continued to mount from 1981 into the spring of 1982. Diplomatic efforts by U.S. Ambassador Philip Habib managed to secure a tenuous cease-fire, until misperceptions of U.S. approval prompted the Israelis to launch a massive attack against the PLO in June of 1982. The war dragged on, as the PLO remained intact and Israel fought to the outskirts of Beirut. At this point, U.S. foreign policy officials began to design a plan to evacuate the PLO from Beirut under the protection of a multi-national force (MNF I), comprised of U.S., French, and Italian forces. U.S. officials promised Lebanese President Elias Sarkis that foreign armies would be removed by Christmas.

In late August, the MNF I successfully led PLO forces from the war-torn city, and quickly withdrew. The benefits of this successful operation were short-lived, however. On September 14, the newly elected Lebanese President, Bashir Gemayal, was assassinated. Israel immediately occupied West Beirut, and two days later Gemayal’s Christian militia slaughtered somewhere between two and eight hundred Palestinian refugees, many of them women and children. Tragic television images of the rampage raised international ire, and within days another MNF entered Lebanon.

The initial mission of the MNF II was to establish a “presence,” while negotiators worked out a plan to withdraw Israeli, PLO, and Syrian forces. U.S. officials, however, never fully clarified the purpose of the MNF II’s presence, nor provided a timetable for how long they would stay.

Resentment of the U.S.-led MNF grew among Shiite Muslims and Syrian forces, supported by efforts by the USSR and Iran to defeat U.S. initiatives. In April 1983, terrorists bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing over 17 Americans and 63 people in total. Soon the MNF II role evolved into guarding the Beirut airport, in close proximity to U.S. Marine headquarters. It was here that trucks filled with TNT exploded in October, resulting in the deaths of over 240 U.S. servicemen.

Suddenly American foreign policy resembled the smoldering ruins of the headquarters. President Reagan tried to hold firm, insisting that U.S. forces not pull out. In February of 1984, however, the last vestiges of Lebanon’s legitimate government collapsed, leading to even more chaotic activity in Beirut. Congress prepared a resolution demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and forced to comply, the President ordered the removal of forces from Lebanon to positions offshore by winter.


Having provided a limited background on the events leading to the tragedies in Iran and Lebanon, I now will introduce the framework through which to present my findings. I continue to have serious reservations about the overabundance of convenient ‘models’ to describe political phenomena in modern academia- some processes cannot, and should not, be reduced to simplified models to explain what is occurring.

What I have found, however, is that the utility of models for the sake of clarification, and to keep thoughts straight, provides a powerful argument in their favor. In order to present my findings in an organized manner, then, I developed a framework based upon a simple pyramid of triangles. Three primary lessons from both the Iran and Lebanon experiences form two-thirds of the ‘base’ of my framework, with the specific manifestations of these lessons in the Somalia mission providing the third base triangle.

The nine base points in each triangle lead to the three top points, each representing a general caution for future foreign policy efforts. The next logical step, then, is the merging of these new base points into a final top point, a possible suggestion for the future direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Before I begin, it is important to note the realization that the lessons I offer below do not represent the only ones to come out of the Iran and Lebanon experiences, nor do they serve by themselves to explain what happened in Iran, Lebanon, or even Somalia. Materials concerning these areas are extensive and varied, and to try and cover all theories posed goes beyond my limited timeframe and abilities. Therefore, I have chosen the points I have found to be relevant to the current direction, or lack thereof, in U.S. foreign policy.

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