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.

In 1956, problem number one for the US in the Middle East was Nasser, the charismatic, capricious and very ambitious Arab nationalist. There were plenty of other concerns too – among them, oil, Israel, European colonialism and the Soviet Union. With regard to oil, the policy imperative was clear: keep it flowing. A comparable imperative applied to the Soviets: keep them out. When it came to Israel and the vestiges of European imperialism, things were more complicated. In Washington’s eyes, the Jewish state was a loose cannon; acute Israeli sensitivity to its own security fostered a tendency to shoot first and worry about the consequences later. Restraining Israel without either delivering it into the clutches of those committed to its destruction or provoking its impassioned supporters within the US posed a challenge. Britain and France were also problematic. Key allies though they were in the larger struggle against Soviet communism, Eisenhower wanted to ease them out of the empire business. Yet even as the very concept of empire was rapidly becoming obsolete, these declining powers were determined to preserve the imperial privileges to which they had become accustomed. In particular, they had no intention of forfeiting their joint ownership of the Suez Canal, the highly profitable conduit through which oil from the Gulf passed en route to Western Europe.

Standing at the centre of this complex of issues, Nasser had attracted considerable attention from Eisenhower’s foreign policy team. In the spring of 1953, during the first ever visit by an American secretary of state to the Middle East, John Foster Dulles made a point of including Cairo on his itinerary. Eisenhower and Dulles wanted Egypt to meet the Europeans halfway, i.e. to settle for something less than full sovereignty; to give Russia the cold shoulder, i.e. to side with the West in the Cold War; and to make peace with Israel, i.e. to lead the way to a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nasser’s aims were very different. He sought to end the decades-long British military presence in Egypt; to build a powerful army; and to avoid becoming a pawn of either superpower. Achieving these goals would project him into a position of dominance throughout the Arab world. So at least he expected. In 1954, he cut a deal with Britain, securing a gradual pull-out of its forces, while conceding its right to intervene to defend the canal, thereby winning points with Washington. Yet his appeals for American arms went nowhere. Eisenhower was determined to avoid arming either side in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Already hard-pressed to beat back insistent demands from Congress to give Israel whatever it wanted, he knew that giving weapons to Egypt would unleash a political firestorm at home.

If the US refused to satisfy Egypt’s military needs, Nasser could always turn to the Kremlin. To forestall this, Dulles concocted the Alpha peace plan, with the US as an impartial third party (‘friends with both sides’, in Eisenhower’s words) attempting to broker a deal between Egypt and Israel. Although the president dispatched various envoys, secret and otherwise, to lay the groundwork for negotiations, the effort came to nothing.

In one respect only did Alpha yield anything of substance. Dulles had signalled that the US might be willing to finance the Aswan Dam, centrepiece of Nasser’s grandiose vision for Egypt’s economic development. By helping to underwrite the dam’s construction, the US could lure Egypt into its orbit while inducing Nasser to prioritise butter over guns. Dulles, Nichols writes, ‘believed that the Egyptians would be incapable of financing the project while simultaneously preparing for war with Israel’. An Egypt preoccupied with its own internal development might remove a leading stimulus to Israeli bellicosity.

The initiative came under immediate fire from several directions. Ben-Gurion found little solace in the prospect of American dollars going to Egypt: he wanted American weapons coming to Israel. If Eisenhower continued to deny Israeli arms requests, Ben-Gurion told one American diplomat, the US would be ‘guilty of the greatest crime in our history’. Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson and other leading Democrats, along with Republicans such as the New York Congressman Jacob Javits, concurred, denouncing Eisenhower for his refusal to supply Israel’s army. Other members of Congress questioned the deal for more parochial reasons: why support the expansion of Egyptian agriculture if it would hurt American farmers, especially cotton growers in the South?

For his part, Nasser was happy to accept US economic aid, but only if it came without strings. He had no intention of choosing between guns and butter. In September 1955, as if flaunting his rejection of anything smacking of subservience, Nasser signed an agreement to buy weapons from Czechoslovakia. Then, in May 1956, he defied Washington by establishing diplomatic relations with China.

Faced with these complications, Dulles reversed course, casting Nasser as the villain. Yet, according to Nichols, his motives had less to do with Nasser’s behaviour than with partisan political calculation – above all the desire to help Eisenhower win a second term. Eisenhower’s medical problems provided Dulles with his opening. After suffering a serious heart attack in September 1955, the president underwent surgery the following June to remove an obstruction in his small intestine. On both occasions, White House staff conspired (with considerable success) to conceal the severity of the president’s condition. In fact, each time he was largely unable to fulfil the functions of his office.

By the time of the second medical crisis, Dulles had persuaded the president to abandon Alpha for a new plan, codename Omega. Rather than expend political capital on attempting to satisfy Egypt, the US would tilt towards Saudi Arabia. Egypt possessed next to no oil; Saudi Arabia had oil in abundance. Egypt appeared to threaten Israel’s existence; the militarily weak Saudis did not. Omega aimed at ensuring US access to oil, the lifeblood of Western prosperity, while insulating Eisenhower from election-year attacks by the domestic pro-Israel lobby. ‘We must find some way to be friends with King Saud,’ the president now concluded.

Rather than court Nasser, the US now played him, though in Nichols’s estimation Eisenhower himself, unwell and preoccupied with the upcoming presidential campaign, failed to grasp the significance of the turn from Alpha to Omega. While negotiations over US support for the Aswan Dam continued, State Department officials discovered or invented complications to avoid closing the deal. Meanwhile, Egyptian efforts to attract Russian support misfired and by the early summer of 1956, Washington’s procrastination had the unintended effect of persuading a desperate Egyptian government to accept whatever terms the Americans imposed. This was not what Dulles wanted. So on 19 July, cynically professing his concern for the sacrifices that Aswan would exact from the average Egyptian, he announced that US finance would not be forthcoming.

The secretary of state fancied that he had manoeuvred Nasser into ‘a hell of a spot’. He miscalculated. A week later, to cheering crowds in Alexandria, the Egyptian president announced his intention to nationalise the Suez Canal, with construction of the Aswan Dam to be financed by profits from the canal’s operation. ‘The money is ours and the Suez Canal belongs to us,’ he declared. ‘We shall build the High Dam our own way.’ This caught Washington totally by surprise. Yet it was Britain and France, not the United States, that were most affected by Dulles’s failed gambit. In Israel, meanwhile, opportunists glimpsed an opening.

London and Paris viewed seizure of the canal as cause for war. Anthony Eden, another ailing politician, saw it as 1938 all over again: a new Hitler was on the march. This time, though, there would be no appeasement. Preserving Britain’s claim to Great Power status required Nasser’s elimination, even if that meant using force. An Anglo-French invasion force assembled in the Mediterranean, disregarding concerns expressed by Eisenhower, who was now back in command of US policy. Judging the Egyptian action to be perfectly legal, the president chided Eden for ‘making of Nasser a much more important figure than he is’. Eden was undeterred. Although professing that he was willing to resolve the crisis peacefully, he remained adamant for war.

Military intervention in Egypt would constitute an act of naked aggression, violating the United Nations Charter and recalling the worst days of 19th-century European imperialism. It would also hand a propaganda victory to the Soviet Union, self-professed supporter of Third World countries aspiring to throw off the yoke of colonialism. To create a veneer of legitimacy for the planned invasion, Britain and France invited Israel to join their conspiracy. The proposition was audacious: in return for the promise of French armaments and while claiming to act in self-defence, Israel would launch a surprise attack against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula and punch through towards the canal. Under the pretext of defending a waterway of crucial importance to the international community, British and French forces would then enter Egypt proper. Once established on the ground, the invaders would accomplish the operation’s real purpose, which Eden privately described as ‘the removal of Nasser and the installation in Egypt of a regime less hostile to the West’. Within a day of receiving this proposal on 1 September, Ben-Gurion accepted it enthusiastically. The countdown to war had begun.

Mounting the actual operation would take weeks. During the intervening period, British, French and Israeli officials blatantly lied to their gullible American counterparts in the best diplomatic tradition. As a result, the beginning of hostilities on 29 October – one week before the American elections – again caught the administration completely by surprise. Eisenhower was outraged and directed particular anger at Eden, now castigated as a feckless double-crosser. Britain and France were trying to ‘present us with a fait accompli, then expecting us to foot the bill’, the president complained. Making matters worse was the simultaneous Hungarian Revolution, which the Red Army was in the process of crushing. Although Eisenhower had no intention of coming to the aid of Hungarian freedom fighters, he was keen on exploiting their plight to bolster the West’s portrayal of the Cold War as a contest pitting freedom against oppression. Anglo-French-Israeli neocolonial adventurism made that line hard to sustain.

Wasting no time, the president impressed on his former allies the price to be paid for acting without Washington’s assent, even when trying to solve problems created by Washington’s own folly. To block the canal, Nasser had ordered the sinking of ships filled with rock and cement, thereby cutting Europe’s oil lifeline. Eisenhower now refused to draw on (then plentiful) US domestic reserves to make up the difference. He also put the squeeze on the British economy, declining to prop up the pound, which had come under assault. And when France and Britain vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning their actions, the president threatened to take the issue to the General Assembly.

In the midst of this commotion, Eisenhower angrily declared his intention to do the right thing, the implications for his re-election be damned – a claim Nichols takes at face value. In public, the president repeatedly asserted his commitment to equality before the law as the basis of peace. ‘We cannot,’ he insisted, ‘subscribe to one law for the weak, another law for the strong; one law for those opposing us, another for those allied with us’ – noble sentiments that had not stayed Eisenhower’s hand when dealing with matters in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam and elsewhere. With the Kremlin blustering about rocket attacks – ‘the Arabs will not stand alone,’ Khrushchev vowed – the world seemed to be edging towards a nuclear conflagration. But appearances were deceptive: much as Nichols wants to credit his hero with averting World War Three, it was never really in the offing. The president himself was aware of this. ‘Look at the map,’ he told an aide. Geography alone posed nearly insuperable obstacles to Soviet intervention.

Faced with American displeasure, the British and French quickly caved in. Declaring a ceasefire and promising to withdraw their forces, they effectively brought down the curtain on the age when a European power could pursue an independent foreign policy. Although France, especially after de Gaulle’s return to power, tried to pretend otherwise, Britain didn’t bother. The process of transforming lion into poodle had begun.

When their partners in crime folded, the Israelis had little choice but to do the same. Yet even as they pulled their troops from Sinai, the Israeli conviction that preventive war was essential for dealing with the likes of Nasser remained. Round Two awaited. With the inadequacy of Britain and France as patrons now evident, Israel turned again to courting the Americans, an effort that paid off handsomely in the following decade, when the Democrats regained control of the White House. Meanwhile Nasser was able to claim he had won a great victory. His stock in the non-aligned, anti-imperialist camp soared. So too did his opinion of himself as a Man of Destiny. For his part, having handily won a second term, Eisenhower set about mending fences with Britain and France, a process helped along by Eden’s resignation. The president even had another go at offering a deal on Aswan, which Nasser rejected out of hand.

Of greater importance was the impact of the episode on America’s role in the Middle East. The United States, Nichols writes approvingly, ‘was taking over from the British’. In January 1957, a new Eisenhower Doctrine promised assistance to Middle Eastern nations threatened by communism. That assistance included, if necessary, ‘the employment of the armed forces of the United States to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations’. The next year American soldiers and marines were splashing ashore in Lebanon. This first US military intervention in the region was brief and bloodless. Not so with the many that were to come after it. ‘Eisenhower’s historic contribution following the Suez crisis,’ Nichols concludes, ‘was the commitment of the United States to maintaining the stability and security of the Middle East.’ What stability? What security? What historic contribution?