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We Are Still Living With Eisenhower’s Biggest Mistake

The Tower magazine just published my latest long-form piece. Here's the first part.

American presidents make the same foreign policy mistakes over and over again. Intervening when they should not. Sitting on the sidelines when it’s the worst possible choice. Treating friends and allies like dirt while trusting duplicitous hostiles. If, as Karl Marx said, history repeats itself first as tragedy and a second time as farce, what are we supposed to say when history repeats itself decade after decade ad infinitum?

Historians are tasked with delivering us from George Santayana’s curse, where those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but historians can only save those who take the time to study the historical record, and even then it only works if the historical record is accurate.

Thank goodness, then, for Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran’s valiant attempt to save us from ignorance and bad history in his bracing new book, Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East. He expertly walks us through the Suez Crisis of 1956 and its ghastly aftermath when Republican President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower learned the hard way that Israel, not Egypt or any other Arab state, should be the foundation of America’s security architecture in the Middle East.

When Eisenhower began his first term in 1953, the Cold War was just six years old. Not every country had chosen a side yet. The Middle East and North Africa were for the most part non-aligned, and Eisenhower hoped to bring the Arab world into the American camp.

Great Britain and France were still the predominant Western powers in the region, yet a nationalist anti-colonial wind was blowing—especially in Egypt, where the self-styled Free Officers, led by Mohammed Naguib and the charismatic young Gamal Abdel Nasser, had overthrown King Farouk the previous year. At the time, Nasser and other nationalists in the Arab world seemed to be the vanguard for an entire region, and if Eisenhower wanted the Arabs to stand with Washington against Moscow, he’d have to get on their good side.

Ike was in a tough spot, though, since America’s traditional allies were still colonial powers. Britain and France had drawn most of the Middle East’s borders after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the waning days of World War I, and they’d installed and continued to maintain several governments in that part of the world. In Egypt’s case, Britain garrisoned troops in the Suez Canal, and both British and French investors owned the Suez Canal Company, which kept almost all the profits from ships transiting to and from the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Hostility to the new state of Israel was also rampant from Baghdad to Rabat, especially in Israel’s borderland countries like Egypt.

So Ike and his foreign policy team felt compelled to distance themselves from Britain, France, and Israel to prevent the Arab states from aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. Nasser was fast becoming a leader in region-wide Arab politics, and he wanted what remained of the British Empire out of Egypt entirely. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—both natural anti-imperialists—decided to act as an honest broker, as they put it, between Cairo, London, Paris, and Jerusalem.

The U.S. hosted talks between the British and the Egyptians over the status of Britain’s military base in the canal zone, and the Americans effectively took Egypt’s side and strong-armed Britain into signing an agreement mandating a withdraw of all of its soldiers within 20 months. With one victory under his belt, Nasser went after the next. He nationalized the Suez Canal Company, even though it wasn’t supposed to be under Egyptian control until 1968 per the treaty, and he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

On October 29, 1956, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt simultaneously and left Eisenhower holding the bag. Ike thought military action was the worst possible response, but at the same time he hoped for a quick Western victory, and he was exasperated with British delays and incompetence. Even so, he reluctantly took Egypt’s side and imposed crippling economic sanctions that effectively deprived Europe of imported energy. “Those who began this operation,” he told his aides, “should be left to work out their own oil problems—to boil in their own oil, so to speak.”

Britain had no choice but to withdraw, followed by France and Israel.

Ike didn’t feel comfortable doing any of this. Britain and France were American allies, after all, even though they behaved recklessly. He simply felt that he had little choice. “How could we possibly support Britain and France,” he said, “if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”

Nasser had conned Eisenhower, however, and he had done it masterfully.

One of Nasser’s deceptions should be familiar to anyone who has followed the painful ins and outs of botched Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Over and over again, Nasser used a strategy Doran calls “dangle and delay.” He repeatedly dangled the tantalizing idea of peace between Egypt and Israel in front of Eisenhower’s eyes, only to delay moving forward for one bogus reason after another. He never planned to make peace with Israel or even to engage in serious talks.

Nasser did, however, participate in theatrical arms negotiations with Washington that he knew would never go anywhere.

Eisenhower wanted to equip the Egyptian army. Nasser wasn’t stupid, though. He knew that Ike would attach strings to the deal. Egypt’s soldiers would need to be trained by Americans, and they’d be reliant on Americans for spare and replacement parts. Nasser really wanted to be armed by and tied to the Soviet Union, but had to pretend otherwise lest Eisenhower side with Britain, France, and Israel. So Nasser slowly sabotaged talks with the United States in such a way that made Washington seem unreasonable. That way, when he turned to the Soviet Union for weapons, he could half-plausibly say he had no choice.

Nasser did such a good job pretending to be pro-American that he convinced the United States to give him a world-class broadcasting network that allowed him to speak to the entire Arab world over the radio. Washington expected him to use his radio addresses to rally the Arab world behind America against the Russians. Instead, he used it to blast the United States with virulently anti-American propaganda and to undermine the West’s Arab allies. “Nasser,” Doran writes, “was the first revolutionary leader in the postwar Middle East to exploit the technology in order to call over the heads of the monarchs to the man on the street. Suddenly the Hashemite monarchy [in Iraq and Jordan] found itself sitting atop volcanoes.”

Nasser strode the Arab world like a colossus after his American-made victory in the Suez Crisis, and he became more brazenly anti-American as he gathered strength. Conning Ike was no longer possible, but Nasser didn’t need the United States anymore anyway.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.


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