Irene Gendzier, Notes from the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945-1958 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

With the February 1998 news that the Clinton administration was preparing unilateral military action against Iraq, sectors of the US public seemed shocked by this unnecessarily violent turn in foreign policy. Gendzier’s scholarly sleuthing uncovers important clues for solving this puzzle and, in company with other literature, prompts us to think about constructive alternatives.

Gendzier uses an array of declassified documents from the Defense and State Departments, CIA and embassies, as well as archival records, Congressional hearings, interviews and about 400 secondary sources, to demonstrate that the deep and long-lived US intervention in Lebanon, from encroachment on French interests after World War II through deployment of military forces in 1958, [1] was an integral part of US efforts to control the Middle East. The author keeps a clear class-analytical thread running through the welter of factual detail, without losing nuances and contradictions among the many dramatis personae.

The Eisenhower administration’s official rationale for the 1958 intervention was that President Camille Chamoun invited it in order to protect the integrity of a Lebanese nation threatened by Arab nationalism and communism smuggled in from Syria, Egypt and Iraq as well as the July 14 republican coup in Iraq. Recently declassified documents provide evidence, however, that the administration’s reason was to protect a conservative, pro-American client regime from an uprising by its own domestic opposition. Gendzier shows that the US administration and the State Department deliberately cultivated the “communist threat” rationale for public and even Congressional consumption, portraying the intervention as a moral crusade to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty, even as they violated it themselves.

Gendzier weaves together two political histories that culminate in the 1958 intervention. One is the expansion of US interests in the region. For example, Sidon served as the endpoint of Tapline, the oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia, at a time when ARAMCO was the main US corporate presence in the Middle East oil industry. Beirut’s deep-water port facilitated regional trade in commodities such as agricultural products and pharmaceuticals at a time when US multinationals were expanding into global competition with European firms. The growing role of Beirut as a faux European hub of banking, gold and foreign exchange markets, tourism and free-market culture, for instance in publishing, made Lebanon a unique entrepot in the Middle East, especially as Arab nationalist regimes reined in these activities elsewhere. Parallel to US economic interests were its political goals of superseding British and French mandatory influence, containing nationalism and Arab socialism and blocking the influence of the USSR.

The second political history is of post-war Lebanese society. Gendzier argues that the Western image of Lebanon was illusory — a mirage of a society vertically segmented by sect and a “confessional democracy” in which all citizens were equitably represented by their sectarian leaders in Parliament and the state apparatus. Gendzier argues that horizontal segmentation — the class structure — was more important than sect. The ruling elite established itself via a socioeconomic transformation centered around secondary economic activities such as oil transport, aviation, international banking and entrepot trade. The members of this multi-confessional elite were cohered as a ruling class, averse to sharing power with other social classes in a democratic structure. This non-democratic polity translated into a failure of socioeconomic development for the majority o fthe population, given the ruling elite’s aversion to investing in industry, modernizing agriculture or even allowing government to provide basic public services.

Gendzier found that Lebanon’s lack of democracy and thwarted socioeconomic development were clearly understood by the US administration, embassy, CIA and other institutions, but were written off as the price of keeping the regime in power and enhancing US influence. The invasion enabled the US, without firing a shot, not only to salvage the Lebanese ruling elite but also to strongly influence the choice of Chamoun’s successor and the shape of the new cabinet. Furthermore, while US officials recognized that political and economic inequities were the underlying causes of popular support for the Lebanese opposition movement in 1958, the intervention stifled the potential for political and social reform. Instead, Lebanon kept the status quo ante, including what Gendzier calls “the minefield,” buried just below the surface of all the political and socioeconomic ills that had driven opposition to the regime in the first place — mines waiting to explode in another civil conflict.

The US became the reigning Western power in the region, securing, for the time being, its economic and political interests. Indeed, this was just one success among many around the globe in the 1950s, as US interventions in far-flung countries such as the Congo, Indonesia, Guatemala, Iran and Vietnam helped establish pro-American regimes and quashed opposition movements. When the next Lebanese civil war began in 1975 in what had been portrayed as a stable, prosperous, pro-American “confessional democracy,” the American public was first mystified, then rudely shocked by the 1983 attack on the US Marine barracks in Beirut which killed 243 Marines and others. Gendzier’s book is an invaluable contribution to the demystification process.

Companion Literature

David W. Lesch’s edited volume, The Middle East and the United States, A Historical and Political Reassessment (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996), provides a variety of interpretations of US foreign policy in the Middle East during the Cold War era. Views range from those closer to the State Department (Robert Satloff, Bernard Reich), to those from the region itself (Sussan Siavoshi from Iran, Mohamed Sid-Ahmed from Egypt), to revisionist US authors, including Lesch himself and Erika Alin, whose work on the political history of Lebanon overlaps with, yet differs from, Gendzier’s. Where Gendzier sees a distinct class structure, Alin recognizes that “social and economic differences” intersect with sectarian identity in Lebanese politics and in the regime’s relationship with the US. Further, while Gendzier is unforgiving of US policy in manipulating the post-intervention political and economic shape of the country, Alin sees modest virtue in the US’ support of “a compromise political settlement” in 1958 and US contributions to “an economic development fund for the Arab World”.

Andrew Rathmell’s Secret War in the Middle East: The Covert Struggle for Syria, 1949-1961 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995) details how covert action is an institutionalized feature of Middle East politics; a game which Western powers, including the US, play along with local powers. Rathmell provides little analysis of the social basis for political contestation, mentioning the ethnic factor only sporadically. He judges the communist threat however, to have been overblown by US policy makers and suggests it was largely “the unpopularity of Western policies that fueled the growth in communist influence”.

William Blum’s work, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995) documents case after case of US foreign adventures over a 50-year period. Blum’s description of the 1958 intervention in Lebanon, and the reasons for it, parallel Gendzier’s:

This was to put the world…on notice that the United States had virtually unlimited power, that this power could be transported to any corner of the world with great speed, that it could and would be used to deal decisively with any situation with which the United States was dissatisfied for whatever reason.

This statement could easily have been written of US threats to bomb Iraq in February 1998, almost 40 years later. Can there be an alternative to this violent, unilateral, interventionist foreign policy? James A. Bill’s George Ball: Behind the Scenes in US Foreign Policy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997) offers some ideas. George Ball, a foreign policy insider in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, opposed US interventions in the Congo, Vietnam and other places. In the 1970s, he proposed multilateral peace negotiations and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967. [2]

Ball’s stance kept Jimmy Carter from naming him to the job of secretary of state in his administration. Carter adopted a process of bilateral Arab-Israeli negotiations, a la Camp David, which dealt with the Arab countries one by one and postponed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations indefinitely. When Ball then criticized the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, citing it as evidence of failed US foreign policy, he was vilified as an anti-Semite and began a slide into relative obscurity.

Ball paid a high price for his positions. His example, however, offers some discussion points for an alternative foreign policy: (1) the US should avoid both isolationism and unilateral interventions, engaging in world affairs via multilateral activities with universal membership organizations (such as the UN, not NATO); (2) the US should act only on the basis of objective principles such as national self-determination and the preservation of human rights, resolving conflict through peaceful, multilateral negotiations. If such principles were paired with a commitment to provide aid only to genuinely democratic regimes, defined by consistently applied criteria such as popular political participation and bottom-up economic development, US foreign policy might finally make a critical, positive difference in this brave new globally integrated world. Imagine.


[1] Between mid-July and mid-August, 14,000 US troops were deployed in Lebanon, while hundreds of aircraft and 70 naval vessels, some anchored just offshore and some carrying nuclear weapons, waited nearby. These forces departed in October without engaging in action. Blum, pp. 97-98.
[2] In part, this resolution called upon Israel to withdraw from all territories occupied in the June 1967 war, namely the West Bank and Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, in exchange for recognition by all Arab countries, including the Palestinians.

How to cite this article:

Karen Pfeifer "To Clear the Minefield," Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).

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