- Spheres of Intervention: US Foreign Policy and the Collapse of Lebanon, 1967–1976 by James R. Stocker
James R. Stocker’s study delves into the toxic mix of political interpenetration visited on Lebanon between the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War (1975/76). Although the period covered by Spheres of Intervention has been all but forgotten in the welter of wars and conflicts that afflict the region today, the book’s subtitle, “US foreign policy and its role in the collapse of Lebanon,” is particularly instructive, as it highlights the effects of US neglect during this time.
Western historians, in general, rationalize that the US neglect of Lebanon was due to Henry Kissinger’s focus on the peace processes between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria, as well as the US administration’s preoccupation with Vietnam. Stocker, however, attributes this neglect to [End Page 159] a less high-minded reason: “Whether or not US officials consciously thought about it as such, Lebanon could still be seen as a containment pen for the Palestinian militant groups, while the United States dealt with other issues” (p. 9, emphasis added).
Containment of the Palestinians was not only US policy, but also the policy of Lebanon’s neighbors. Jordan expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1970, whereupon the PLO took up residence in Lebanon. Syria forbade the PLO to operate from the Golan Heights to strike at Israel. Whether moderate (Jordan and Saudi Arabia) or militant (Egypt, Syria, and Libya), neighboring Arab states supported Palestinian political and military actions only from a base in Lebanon — which was a fragile republic. Lebanon was divided internally between a majority of Muslims who believed that armed struggle was essential to achieve Palestinian rights, while an overwhelming majority of Christians held that the Palestinian presence was not only an infringement on the country’s sovereignty, but the cause of a cycle of Israeli reprisals and retaliatory raids that threatened the survival of the Lebanese government.
Faced with the Hobbesian choice of either cracking down on the Palestinian militias or permitting their activities and risking Israeli retaliatory raids, the Lebanese government accepted the latter option, and signed the Cairo Accords in November 1969. The accords allowed the Palestinians to legally control their refugee camps in Lebanon and to launch attacks against Israel from south Lebanon, thereby acquiescing to the creation of a “state within a state.” (This led to an exodus of Lebanese from Palestinian-controlled territory, and had long-term economic and social consequences for Beirut’s southern suburbs.) Meanwhile, sectarian forces in Lebanon formed militias with the support of Arab states, the United States, European states, Israel, and the Soviet Union — all of which funded militias in order to advance their respective interests.
Stocker’s study records in minute detail every US-Lebanese interaction of the period: the visits of the US Navy’s 6th Fleet to Beirut; repeated US urgings of Israel to refrain from retaliation through attacks on Lebanese infrastructure; back-channel US exchanges with Israel, Syria, and the Lebanese government; American ambassador McMurtie Godley’s work with Lebanese president Sulayman Frangié on internal intelligence measures to counteract Soviet activities in Lebanon. Stocker’s conscientious and meticulous description of unending governmental crises, factional threats and counterthreats, as well as numerous Palestinian raids and Israeli reprisals, can strike the reader as tedious and repetitive. Nevertheless, Stocker is correct in preserving these activities for the historical record.
One striking feature of Spheres of Intervention is a series of “what if” questions for the reader’s consideration. What if US policy-makers, who in 1975/76 considered bringing the PLO into the Arab-Israeli peace process and enlisting their help in mediating the Lebanese Civil War, had actually done so? What if Kissinger’s dual goal of shielding Israel from the claims of the Palestinians and the US from the domestic repercussions of a policy that many Americans would have perceived as hostile toward Israel, had...