Paul Pillar

The Twin Crises of 1956 and 2014

At or near the top of the list of foreign policy challenges that U.S. and European statesmen have had to handle the past couple of months are the escalation of tensions with Russia over events in eastern Ukraine and the war in the Gaza Strip. These two problems clamoring for attention at the same time bring to mind one of the most memorable pairs of simultaneous crises, which occurred in October and November of 1956: the Hungarian revolt and crushing of it by Soviet military force, and the Suez crisis brought on by an Israeli-French-British scheme to invade Egypt and seize the Suez Canal.

The crises of 1956 had some obvious parallels with those of 2014, besides the simultaneity factor. In each case one of the problems involved questions of the extent to which Soviet or Russian power would hold sway over an East European state and the extent to which Moscow would act forcefully to prevent rollback of its sphere of influence. In each case the other problem involved an Israeli military assault against neighboring Arabs. (The tripartite plan that precipitated the Suez crisis involved Israel beginning the war with an invasion and then France and Britain intervening under the guise of separating Israeli and Egyptian forces and protecting the canal.) There were important differences, too. The sort of neutrality that would make for a stable solution in Ukraine today is nothing like the domination the Soviets were enforcing over Hungary and other Warsaw Pact states in the 1950s. In the Middle East, Arab postures toward Israel have changed significantly from where they were in 1956, while Israeli military power relative to that of the Arabs has grown significantly, as has the amount of land Israel has seized and occupied through military force.

Facing two major crises simultaneously makes it harder to respond effectively to either one. This was generally seen to be the case in the autumn of 1956. One problem concerns consistency of standards of international behavior and the difficulty of mustering international support for enforcement of a standard if one appears to be flouting it elsewhere. This was a source of anguish for many in Britain who wanted to stand up to the Soviets for what they were doing in Hungary but recognized the difficulty of doing so while Britain was participating in what was being done to Egypt. A prominent member of the Liberal Party, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, said, “We cannot order Soviet Russia to obey the edict of the United Nations which we ourselves have defied, nor to withdraw her tanks and guns from Hungary while we are bombing and invading Egypt. Today we are standing in the dock with Russia.”

In the same vein, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon later observed, “We couldn't on one hand complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.” It was partly for that reason that President Eisenhower did not approve of what Britain, France, and Israel were doing but instead called for an immediate withdrawal of Israel's forces from Egyptian territory and for United Nations-approved economic sanctions against it if it did not comply. Eisenhower encountered Congressional opposition to pressuring Israel, and in the U.N. Security Council Britain and France vetoed resolutions calling for withdrawal.

A few echoes of this can be discerned in this year's crises. The European economic interests that matter most today involve not the Suez canal but rather trade and energy relationships with Russia. Possibly those interests made sanctions against Russia weaker and slower in coming than they otherwise would have been. In the same respect and bearing in mind the role of consistency, there was less of a constituency for sanctioning Israel than there might otherwise have been.

Although this year Britain has not had a direct military role in connivance with Israel as it did with the Suez affair, there are similarly disturbed consciences within Britain about what Israel was doing and whether the British government had done enough to stop it. A Conservative member of the cabinet (and the only Muslim member), Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, resigned over the issue. Now the Liberal Democrats are calling for suspension of all British arms sales to Israel.

Simultaneous crises also may be difficult to deal with because of the limits of time, attention, and priorities. Statesmen, including those of 1956, usually would say that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. But bandwidth in policy-making has been a problem since before the term bandwidth existed. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has said that insufficient attention by senior Carter administration policy-makers to the Iranian revolution during its early stages was partly due to their circuits being overloaded at the time by other matters, including the Camp David negotiations and some U.S.-Soviet arms control issues.

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