Paul Pillar

Suez and the Lessons of History

Any suggestion that the United States should exercise tough love with Israel (as distinct from the soft, unconditional, even if unrequited, variety of love that instead prevails in American politics and policy) is bound to elicit immediate and vigorous responses. It is thus no surprise that such responses were triggered by a recent column by David Ignatius that discussed how secretary of defense-designate Chuck Hagel admires Dwight Eisenhower and especially Eisenhower's firm response (as described in a well-received book by historian David Nichols) to the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 that we know as the Suez crisis. Ignatius writes:

It’s impossible to read Nichols’s book without thinking of recent tensions between the United States and Israel over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. . . . What’s interesting about Eisenhower is that, while sympathetic to Israel’s defense needs, he was also determined to maintain an independent U.S. policy and avoid a war that might involve the Soviet Union.

Given the well-deserved respect and admiration for Eisenhower, the suggestion that his strong rejection of the tripartite invasion at Suez 57 years ago holds policy lessons for today is dangerous stuff in the eyes of those who favor the unconditional, obeisant type of love. Alexander Joffe and Michael Doran are two of those quick to respond by telling us: no, no—Nichols, Ignatius, Hagel and the rest of us are drawing the wrong lesson from the Suez crisis. Actually, Joffe's and Doran's responses demonstrate some other lessons about the uses, and misuses, of history.

A rather fundamental lesson concerns the importance of getting not only the facts but the sequence of facts right. I have commented before on how failure to do so is an all-too-common characteristic of policy discourse. Joffe fails to do so when he makes a statement such as: “Egypt’s economic warfare against Israel, including closure of the Suez Canal and Straits of Tiran, went unchallenged by the United States, which was courting Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.” There certainly was U.S. courting of Nasser in the years and months preceding the summer of 1956. The biggest part of the courtship was an offer to finance the Aswan high dam. But the courtship was essentially over before Nasser's actions that triggered the Suez crisis. The United States withdrew its offer of financing the dam one week before Nasser made the speech in which he spoke the codeword that was the signal to the Egyptian military to seize the canal. It was on the day of that speech—not before—that Nasser also closed the Straits of Tiran.

A misuse of history that both Joffe and Doran exhibit is to treat large swaths of policy as an undifferentiated lump and to evaluate the entire lump as either good or—as they both treat Eisenhower's policy in the Middle East—bad. Joffe generally dumps on that policy, and Doran's main point in his piece is that Eisenhower “came to regret those policies.” Certainly there is plenty to criticize in the U.S. handling of Middle Eastern matters during that period and in the early Cold War thinking that underlay the policy. But neither Joffe or Doran zero in on Eisenhower's stern rejection of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion or why there was a problem with that particular aspect of U.S. policies in the region.

Much of what is regrettable, and has been regretted, from that swath of U.S. policy has to do with things other than Israel and Arab politics. The state of relations with the British and French were probably a more significant problem for the United States back then than relations with Israel. Relations with the Europeans were already dicey. It was just two years earlier that John Foster Dulles had spoken of an “agonizing reappraisal” of U.S. policy toward the European powers after the plan for a European Defense Community fell apart—after a French rejection, which in turn had been heavily influenced by a British decision to stay out of the proposed community.

Other motivations and miscalculations of Dulles and Eisenhower had to do with matters other than the inter-Arab dynamics that Doran in particular emphasizes. The immediate peeve with Nasser that led to withdrawing the offer about the Aswan dam was not about Arab politics or the canal but instead about Egypt's recognition of the People's Republic of China. And the main U.S. miscalculation regarding the dam project was the mistaken belief that without U.S. sponsorship the project was too big for Egypt to pull off even with Soviet aid.