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The Book That Obama Won’t Read, But Hillary Clinton Should

Sixty years after the Suez Crisis, two new histories of the Egypt-Israel conflict try to garner lessons on the Mideast and American power in a changing world

Adam Kirsch
October 20, 2016
Photo credit AFP/Getty Images
Picture released on November 1956 of soldiers standing among ruins and destroyed canon, in Port Said, Egypt, during the Suez crisis.Photo credit AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit AFP/Getty Images
Picture released on November 1956 of soldiers standing among ruins and destroyed canon, in Port Said, Egypt, during the Suez crisis.Photo credit AFP/Getty Images

On a list of the most important historical episodes of the 20th century, the Suez Crisis of 1956 wouldn’t make the top 10, or even the top 20. Insofar as it was a war, it was a fizzle: Israel invaded Egypt with a small force, conquered some of the Sinai desert, and then gave it back a few months later. As a diplomatic incident, Suez was more significant, altering the balance of power between Britain, France, and the United States. But it hardly compares to a major Cold War confrontation like the Cuban Missile Crisis of a few years later, which threatened the survival of the world.

Yet the appearance of two new books on the subject of Suez—Ike’s Gamble by Michael Doran and Blood and Sand by Alex von Tunzelmann—suggests that the events of October 1956 continue to have a symbolic significance out of proportion to their actual scale. That is because Suez serves as a convenient marker for the twilight of European colonialism and the rise of American empire. At the same time, it encapsulates a number of the themes of America’s experience in the Middle East, down to the present day: the difficulty of identifying allies and enemies, the uncertainty about how deeply to get involved, and the dangerous law of unintended consequences.

Von Tunzelmann, a British popular historian and journalist, and Doran, an American Middle East specialist and occasional White House adviser, have produced very different books covering some of the same ground. Blood and Sand focuses on the two weeks of the crisis itself, from Oct. 22 to Nov. 8, with hour-by-hour updates on the action as it unfolds across several continents. (Sections are introduced by the kind of datelines familiar from Jason Bourne movies: “1500 Washington DC//2000 London//2100 Paris.”) And Von Tunzelmann interweaves the Suez affair with scenes from another crisis that, coincidentally, broke out at exactly the same time—the rebellion against Soviet rule in Hungary. The effect is a cinematic, you-are-there style of history-writing, which plunges the reader into the chaos of events, but does little to explain their deep background or ultimate consequences.

Doran, on the other hand, fits the Suez crisis into a broader argument about American policy in the Middle East during the Eisenhower administration. He draws on a wider range of primary sources, and crucially, he puts those sources themselves into question, showing how the biases and beliefs of the participants in the Suez drama shaped the way its history has been told. Indeed, Ike’s Gamble is a revisionist history, in which Doran takes issue with precisely the mainstream interpretation of Suez that is found in Blood and Sand.

To understand the lessons these writers draw from Suez, it’s necessary to recall the events themselves. The Suez Crisis lasted only about two weeks. But its roots are very deep—in the founding of Israel in 1948, the British occupation of Egypt in 1881, or even the building of the Suez Canal itself, in 1869. The canal, which connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, was from the beginning a crucial strategic asset for the British and French empires, because it greatly shortened the journey between Europe and Asia. The company that controlled the canal was jointly owned by the British and French governments, and it remained in their hands until the 1950s.

This remnant of imperialism was a sore point for Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had helped to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and became president of the country soon after. Nasser was a focal point for Arab pride and resistance to colonial rule, as well as for hatred of Israel. The presence of some 80,000 British soldiers in the Suez Canal zone was thus a standing offense to Nasser, not to mention a potential military threat. He scored a great diplomatic triumph by persuading the British to withdraw almost all of their troops. But negotiations dragged on concerning how much control the British would continue to have in Suez, including picayune matters like whether their remaining engineers would wear civilian or military uniforms.

Then, in July 1956, Nasser stunned the world, and delighted the Egyptians, by announcing that he was nationalizing the Suez Canal. He did not threaten to close it—except to Israeli shipping—but the fact that it would now be run by Egyptians, rather than Europeans, was a potential threat to what remained of the British Empire. Anthony Eden, the prime minister of the U.K., was certain that Nasser represented a second Hitler, and even contemplated having him assassinated. France, which was then engaged in a losing war against the Algerian FLN, was equally upset by Nasser’s support of the nationalist rebels. For both dwindling empires, removing Nasser seemed like a way of reasserting their authority and regaining control over a crucial region. And his seizure of the Suez Canal looked like their chance to make it happen.

Fifty years earlier, the British and French would simply have invaded the country. But in the 1950s, they were doubly constrained—by the United Nations, whose ban on the unauthorized use of force was still being taken seriously by the Allied powers; and by economics. Britain had been poor since the end of World War II, dependent on the United States for financial support. And the United States, locked in a Cold War with Russia, was eager to appear to the post-colonial world as an ally and liberator rather than an accomplice of its old imperial overlords. Indeed, there was a faction in the Eisenhower administration—particularly in the CIA—that backed Nasser, seeing him as a potential ally against Communism.

The solution Britain and France hit upon was dishonest, dangerous, and ultimately doomed. In a top-secret meeting at Sevres, outside Paris, representatives of both countries agreed to let Israel do their dirty work. The plan, agreed to by David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, was for Israel to invade the Sinai peninsula and send troops toward the Suez Canal. Britain and France would then declare that, in order to protect the canal, they were sending in their own armies to separate Israeli and Egyptian forces. But they would do this in such a way that Israel would retain almost all of the territory it conquered. In one blow, this scheme would humiliate Nasser, retrieve the canal, and strengthen Israel, which at that time was a close ally of France.

The problem, which emerged as soon as Israeli troops crossed the border Oct. 29, was that Britain and France were totally unprepared for such an undertaking. On paper, they were much more powerful than Egypt; Nasser’s army couldn’t even stand up to the small IDF. But they lacked the financial resources, the political will, and the international support to carry out a war against Egypt, even a short one. Matters were enormously complicated by the fact that, just at the same time the Suez war began, the world was transfixed by an anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. Moscow sent tanks to crush the rebellion, demonstrating that the ostensibly anti-imperialist USSR was itself a brutal imperial power. But whatever moral advantage the West could have derived from this event was lost, because at the same moment Britain and France were invading Egypt for their own purposes.

When a furious Eisenhower sent his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, to the United Nations to denounce his own NATO allies, it became clear that the Suez adventure was doomed. (Matters weren’t helped when the Soviets, in an ambiguously worded statement, seemed to be threatening Britain with nuclear war.) The British and French aborted their limited invasion, Israeli troops withdrew, and Anthony Eden resigned from office in disgrace. It was an unmistakable lesson in Cold War geopolitics: The old empires were impotent, and the new superpowers were in charge.

What lessons can we take from the Suez Crisis, six decades later? Von Tunzelmann and Doran offer contrasting answers; the major difference between them has to do with their assessments of Eisenhower, the key decision-maker in the crisis. Von Tunzelmann’s view is captured in the subtitle of Blood and Sand: “Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower’s Campaign for Peace.” In her view, Eisenhower is to be praised for stopping the invasion of Egypt: “He had publicly taken a stand in favor of what was right, though that meant opposing two major NATO allies, Britain and France, as well as the United States’ best friend and protégé in the Middle East, Israel.”

Eisenhower, on this view, recognized the legitimacy of Egypt’s claim to the Suez Canal, and of Nasser’s claim to embody the spirit of Arab independence. He was true to the United Nations and its principles, which he himself had done so much to establish in the Second World War. There is a strong suggestion in the book that, if America had kept on the course Eisenhower set in 1956, the rest of the world—especially the Arab world—would be better off today. In particular, Von Tunzelmann admires Eisenhower for distancing America from Israel: “Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles were unusual in the 20th century: an American president and secretary of state who were able and willing to say no to Israel.”

Yet as she observes in the last pages of her book, it was Eisenhower himself who abandoned the neutralist position America adopted in Suez. Just one year later, he announced the “Eisenhower Doctrine,” which committed the U.S. to intervene in defense of any Middle Eastern government threatened by communism. For Von Tunzelmann, this was the beginning of a disastrous period in American Middle East policy that continues today: “Nations and peoples were used as assets or weapons. The enemies of enemies were falsely considered to be friends. Lines were drawn in the sand, blown away, drawn again. All of this was done with precious little foresight about where it might lead.”

Blood and Sand, with its narrow focus on Suez, can do little to explain why Eisenhower’s “campaign for peace” took this turn. But that is Doran’s whole purpose in Ike’s Gamble, whose title turns out to bear a surprising implication. If Eisenhower took a gamble for peace in 1956, Doran believes that it was ultimately a losing one. Ike may have thought he was affirming the power of the United Nations and the independence of the postcolonial world. But, in fact, by empowering Nasser, he ended up damaging both the Middle East and American interests.

The root of Eisenhower’s mistake, Doran argues, was to see the Arab world as a monolithic entity, with Nasser at its helm. In order to appear as an “honest broker” in the Middle East, Eisenhower distanced the U.S. from its traditional allies in order to accommodate Nasser, which he believed would win America the affection of the Arabs at large. What this failed to account for, Doran believes, is that the Arab world was itself riven by national enmities, power struggles, and ideological disagreements. As it turned out, boosting Egypt meant that, less than two years after Suez, the governments of Iraq and Syria were overthrown by Nasserist, pan-Arab movements. (Syria was briefly merged with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic.) Egypt’s rise meant trouble for Saudi Arabia, which since the days of FDR had been America’s most important Arab ally (and oil supplier). And it spelled disaster for Israel, which was forced to fight much more serious wars against Egypt in 1967 and 1973. Neither the U.S. nor the region reaped any benefits from the Nasserist order that Eisenhower helped to sponsor.

Doran spends some time at the end of the book arguing that Eisenhower himself came to regret his position over Suez. He speaks of a notional “Ike of 1958,” whose views had become more realistic about American interests than the Ike of 1956. This idea rests on fairly slim evidence, however, and Doran seems to invest it with more importance than it requires. Really, it is Doran, not Eisenhower himself, who is making the argument that Ike’s gamble was a losing one.

In doing so, he is also making an implicit but unmistakable argument about America’s Middle East policy today. Any reader of Ike’s Gamble who is even a little familiar with the current situation will be able to draw the lines connecting Ike with Obama, and Egypt with Iran. Once again, Doran implies, an American president has fallen prey to the delusion that favoring one particular Muslim state is the same thing as being honest broker with the Muslim world. And once again, this approach has succeeded only in emboldening America’s enemies and endangering its friends, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel. This makes Ike’s Gamble a timely intervention into current debates. Obama won’t read it, but Hillary Clinton should.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.