A Hell of a Spot

Andrew Bacevich

  • Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis: Suez and the Brink of War by David Nichols
    Simon and Schuster, 346 pp, £21.00, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 4391 3933 2

For the United States, what was once the strategic periphery has become the centre. On the short list of places deemed worth fighting for in the mid-20th century, Americans included Western Europe and East Asia. Any hostile power looking to control those critical regions sooner or later met with firm US resistance. In contrast, nations in the Near East or Central Asia were not worth fighting for. In Washington’s eyes, they were sideshows, to be, if not ignored outright, then allocated to diplomats or purveyors of dirty tricks rather than to soldiers. That somewhere like Afghanistan might be worth the life of even a single American would have struck residents of Des Moines in the 1950s as preposterous. That American taxpayers might one day spend trillions to topple an Iraqi dictator and install a government more to Washington’s liking in Baghdad would have seemed bizarre.

What seemed unimaginable has become unremarkable. The vast region commonly referred to as the Greater Middle East now ranks at the top of US strategic priorities. Rather than hesitating to use force in this region, the United States does so reflexively – almost compulsively. A daring raid by American commandos, disregarding the sovereignty of an ostensibly valued ally, has killed Osama bin Laden. Throughout the frontier regions of Pakistan, missile-firing drones, operated by the US intelligence agencies, routinely launch strikes against suspected Taliban and al-Qaida militants. In Afghanistan, 100,000 US troops prosecute the longest war in American history. In Iraq, a dwindling but still substantial military contingent is engaged in winding down another war comparable to Afghanistan in length and frustration, and even more costly. Rounding out this inventory of military campaigns are Libya and Yemen. In the former, US combat aircraft drop bombs as part of Nato’s as yet unsuccessful effort to oust Gaddafi from power. In the latter, drones have begun to make their deadly appearance.

The results of all this furious activity have been less than definitive, if not downright disappointing. Yet rather than pausing to reconsider means or ends, Washington bears down harder. Over time, habits become ingrained and the collective consciousness is reshaped: just as Americans of an earlier generation saw nothing odd about risking World War Three in order to defend the Fulda Gap against the Russians, so Americans today take it for granted that pacifying Kandahar or pummelling Gaddafi is somehow essential to preserving their way of life.

David Nichols has written a slight, narrowly focused book that provides modest but not inconsequential insight into the origins of America’s involvement in the Greater Middle East. His focus is the Suez Crisis, or more specifically, the way Eisenhower’s administration first contributed to and then helped resolve that crisis. Its value lies not in its intended purpose – Nichols is an Eisenhower fan, taken by what he calls ‘a virtuoso presidential performance’ that ‘averted global war’ – but in its illustration of the hallmarks of US policy in the Middle East since World War Two: naivety compounded by miscalculation and domestic self-interest, creating situations that Washington attempts to redeem by plunging deeper into only dimly understood conflicts.

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