The catastrophic collapse of Afghanistan is the latest chapter in the devastating U.S. presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. But while the U.S.’s military impact on the region long has been impossible to miss, how we got here — in “forever wars,” a term unwittingly apt because the reverberation of U.S. military interventions will long outlast a physical presence — is more obscure.
While President Biden defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by noting that “nation building” was never on the U.S. agenda for the region, the genesis of U.S. military invasions in the Middle East demonstrates that empire building was part of U.S. campaigns from the very beginning.
These campaigns did not begin with Afghanistan, Iraq or Kuwait. Instead, the era launched on July 14, 1958, when 2,000 U.S. Marines landed in coastal Lebanon. Authorized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Operation Blue Bat brought 14,000 U.S. forces to Lebanon to support pro-Western President Camille Chamoun amid civil unrest that imperiled his reelection (a reelection unconstitutional under Lebanese law). While the CIA had long interfered in regional politics and the United States held several air bases in the Middle East, the invasion marked the first time that U.S. forces were openly deployed for combat there. As historian Bruce Riedel suggests, this mission set out a pattern for interventionism that the United States would repeat again and again in the decades to come.
In 1957, Eisenhower had laid out a new Cold War doctrine, which aimed to keep communism out of the strategically crucial Middle East. The president noted that if the region’s oil supply fell into Soviet hands, this would “strangulate” the economies of Europe and Asia. Moreover, the “national integrity of other free nations” was “directly related to our own security.” These imperatives justified U.S. intervention should nations in the Middle East request American assistance. The president also secured $200 million per fiscal year for discretionary use in the region.
Eisenhower sent James Richards, special envoy to the Middle East, to sell his doctrine around the region, but Richards had little success. By October 1957, the London Times noted that Lebanon was now “the only Arab country to support” the Eisenhower Doctrine — and even that was a stretch. Only Chamoun’s unpopular pro-American government was on board, with Pan-Arabists and Muslim groups backed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser vehemently opposed.
Despite this internal division, when clashes erupted in Lebanon in the spring of 1958, Eisenhower saw an ideal venue for spotlighting his faltering doctrine and displaying just how far the United States was willing to go to preserve its stake in the region.
In justifying his action to Congress, which happened only after troops had disembarked on Khalde’s beaches, Eisenhower listed three motives: “to protect American lives,” to preserve Lebanon’s “territorial integrity and independence” and, in doing so, to secure a site vital to “U.S. national interests and world peace.” In other words, the United States wanted to keep the Middle East — and its oil — under Western influence. Ensuring this outcome was crucial to “American security,” a term conceived broadly enough that in practice, it justified U.S. intervention anywhere in the region to support allied regimes.
This set of underlying assumptions led to wars and other significant U.S. military action in the Middle East and Central Asia over the next six decades.
While the Cold War climate helped Eisenhower to frame military action as a rebuke to “international communism,” between the lines, it was clear that it was Arab nationalism — and the increasing influence of Nasser, who had joined forces with Syria in the newly established United Arab Republic — that the United States feared. Nasser had been a powerful anti-imperialist voice in the region, demanding the end of British and French rule of the Suez Canal, and U.S. intelligence suspected he was working with the Soviets to achieve his increasingly popular mission to rid the region of old colonial and imperial powers. When Iraq’s pro-American regime fell in July 1958, the White House became concerned that soon it would lose its footing in the region altogether.
The “anti-Americanism” that swept Lebanon, however, had less to do with Soviet brainwashing than with Chamoun’s scandalous dealings with the United States, which provided both CIA support and millions of dollars to keep him in place. Lebanon’s ruling class had enriched itself with American money in exchange for adopting a pro-U.S. agenda — espousing anti-communist rhetoric, appointing a Western-oriented foreign minister and resisting Pan-Arab and Muslim organizing. Many Lebanese wanted a new government free from Western meddling, even if the U.S. maintained its Cold War-motivated facade of neutrality in the dispute between the Arab nations and their foe Israel.
Although the episode is now little more than a historical footnote, the situation that July was grave. Eisenhower instructed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Nathan Twining, to be prepared to employ “whatever means necessary” to ensure a favorable outcome to the crisis — and according to Riedel, that included preparing nuclear weapons for deployment.
The United States’ adversaries read the situation correctly: Chinese newspaper PLA cautioned that “the U.S. openly threatened to carry out atomic warfare in Lebanon,” while Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev declined a call for aid from anti-government factions because the Soviet Union was “not ready for World War III.”
The U.S. military presence in Lebanon lasted only three months. Nevertheless, the precedent had been set: The United States would use its military might in the Middle East when it saw fit — despite questions about the legality, both at home and abroad. Lebanese parliament Speaker Adel Osseiran called it “an act of aggression,” and several U.S. congressmen concluded that it was a “tragic historic mistake” to intervene against the wishes of many Lebanese. To them, assuming the role of “global policeman” repeated the imperialist mistakes of Britain and France, both despised entities in the region. But these policymakers were in the minority.
The United States had charted a path of military intervention.
And while the specific origin and outcome of today’s situation in Afghanistan are vastly different — the decision to invade the Central Asian country was directly tied to 9/11 and the Taliban harboring al-Qaeda — Washington’s long-term agenda is surprisingly similar to that of 60 years ago. In each case, the United States installed a corrupt, pro-Western regime before abandoning its support when the cost was deemed to outweigh the benefit. In practice, just as the decision to enter was regarded as a unilateral right by the United States, articulated in policy like the Eisenhower doctrine, so was the decision to withdraw — even if that left Afghanistan to the brutal Taliban. The decisions make painfully clear that in this American calculus, it is not the integrity and safety of the nations’ citizens that is paramount, no matter how noble or lofty documents such as the Eisenhower doctrine frame the U.S. interest in intervention.
Meanwhile, back in Lebanon, in the place where the story of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia started, the contours of a new geopolitical stalemate are becoming visible. The economy has collapsed, giving way to hyperinflation. All essential infrastructure is in decay: Last week, the American University of Beirut — chartered in New York — announced that its medical center could not sustain operations amid a crippling fuel crisis. And again, a proxy war is taking place. After Hezbollah announced on Aug. 19 that Iran was sending tankers full of diesel, the U.S. ambassador swiftly responded that the United States was working to secure electricity for Lebanon via Jordan.
In the Middle East, geopolitical history continues to repeat itself, and it is civilians who continue to pay the price.