By David Fromkin
FIFTY years ago tomorrow – on Oct. 29, 1956 – Israeli paratroops were dropped deep behind Egyptian lines in the Sinai peninsula, opening the way for the ground troops that followed. In a lightning campaign lasting less than five days, the Israelis took control of the entire peninsula. The Israelis had a rendezvous at the Suez Canal with the armed forces of Britain and France. But the British and French stopped short of their goal. Like out of shape ex-champions attempting a comeback, the Europeans were unable to get past the first round in their effort to return to the Middle East.
The Suez crisis was a divide in the history of the Middle East. It was the moment when America pushed out the Europeans and then tried to take their place – and the reverberations are still felt today. The road that led to Suez began in 1947, when the British Foreign Office notified the American Department of State that Britain could no longer afford to hold its positions in Greece and Turkey against pressure from Russia. Soon the United States was engaged in an effort to hold the line against Russia – there, but also all around the world.
The Middle East was essential to this policy of containment. The Arabic-speaking Muslim world had been taken in hand by Britain and France after the First World War, and though they had since achieved independence, the countries of the Middle East remained predominantly Western-influenced.
European and American oil companies played an important role in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain retained a presence at the strategically vital Suez Canal in the form of a major military base and a garrison of more than 80,000 men. Not until the autumn of 1954 did Britain agree to withdraw from this installation.
The United States had always deplored European – especially British – imperialism. In the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson seemingly hesitated as to which side to join (or whether to at all), and in the end joined Britain and France only as an “associated power” rather than as an ally, thus making clear that our country did not share the goals of the other belligerents – goals that Wilson claimed were imperialistic.
As the United States accepted the responsibility, therefore, of defending the Middle East against possible Soviet aggression, its government was conflicted. In the interest of cold war containment, the United States should have wanted to shore up whatever remained of British and French presence and power in the Middle East, but at the same time the worry was that any association with the Europeans would drag America down.
As early as 1952, the C.I.A. was searching for an Arab leader to support, someone who would make hard, unpopular decisions. Recognizing that such a leader could be expected to have an agenda of his own, the agency needed him to take the lead in defending against Soviet expansionism. Initially Allen Dulles, director of central intelligence, proposed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the emerging Egyptian dictator. John Foster Dulles, Allen's brother and the secretary of state, agreed. But it soon became evident that Nasser had little or no interest in fighting communism or the Soviet Union. A charismatic figure, he aimed to unite the Arab peoples, and he exploited resentment of Western imperialism to win support. Secretary Dulles then turned to create an alternative anti-Soviet force: the Baghdad Pact, a northern-tier alliance of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. The only Arab state in the lot was Iraq, led by its pro-British prime minister, Nuri as-Said, who was widely perceived as the Anglo-American candidate for leadership of the Arab world, and as such the rival of Nasser.
In putting Nuri as-Said up, Secretary Dulles had in effect challenged Nasser to a duel. Nasser, a military man whose objective was to build his army, showed his independence of the West by ordering arms in large quantity from the Soviet bloc. Dulles took this at first as a bluff; then, when he could not stop it, he took it as a mortal insult – but he floundered, unable to find the right reply. He offered to finance the Egyptian leader's favorite project: the Aswan High Dam. Then, puzzlingly, he canceled the offer, apparently intending to humiliate Nasser publicly.
The Egyptian trumped that. He nationalized the Suez Canal, transferring to Egypt the shares of the company that owned it. Nasser announced that Egypt would finance the dam itself, using the income from the canal. This bold move was a public challenge to Britain, the canal's biggest user and shareholder, and to France, which had created the canal in the 19th century. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles believed that Nasser should be overthrown – some day. Repeatedly they told the British and French that it would be a mistake to use force, at least at the moment.
But Britain and France were already planning how they might use force. Frenchmen imagined that Algeria's revolt against them, launched in 1954, was inspired by Nasser, and that without him it would collapse. Britons found themselves losing control of Jordan because of Nasser, and believed that without him they could regain control. There was more to it. The Western leaders had irrationally come to regard Nasser as dangerous, a Hitler or a Mussolini. Prime Minister Anthony Eden of Britain was typical: a Foreign Office Arabist by background who moved in circles where it was felt that Arabs loved Englishmen, Eden believed that Nasser had somehow stolen that love. It was Nasser, he thought, who had taken away Jordan's famed Arab Legion from its British officers. “I want him killed,” Eden said. So for months the allies had been conspiring. They would return to the Middle East, and they would invade Egypt. The confiscation of the canal company spurred them into action.
Eden, Prime Minister Guy Mollet of France and his foreign secretary, Christian Pineau, joined by a number of colleagues, hatched a plot based on an earlier plan for France and Israel to act together, and in which Britain now joined. In October 1956, Israel attacked Egypt through Sinai and drove to Suez. Britain and France then invaded, occupying the canal and claiming to be separating the Egyptian and Israeli Armies. The British, French and Israelis stuck to their prefabricated story, but their collusion was evident; soon they had to admit the truth.
The Americans had been kept in the dark, and they took it personally. Eisenhower in particular was angered by British wartime colleagues who had lied and deceived him. “What does Anthony think he is doing?” Eisenhower demanded. “Why is he doing this to me?” He refused to listen to excuses, claiming that “nothing justified double-crossing the United States.”
The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, grandstanded, threatening the Western imperialists. That enabled him to take credit for stopping the Europeans – even though it really was America that did it. The United States acted quietly but effectively. The Treasury Department threatened to withdraw support of the British currency unless the British Army left Egypt. Within 10 days, England would have collapsed financially. The British – and the invasion – stopped. To keep from being thought imperialists, the Eisenhower administration saved Nasser. The Suez crisis was over.
Britain and France had gone to war in order to keep their empires; instead, they lost them. The United States had aimed to keep Russia out of the Middle East, but the Suez crisis, and Khrushchev's rhetoric, brought the Russians in. Eisenhower and Dulles believed that by their actions at Suez they were showing the nonaligned nations that, unlike the British and French, Americans were not imperialists – but the third world remained unconvinced. And in Europe, skeptics claimed the episode showed that the Americans intended to steal the empires of Britain and France.
Britain and France drew opposite conclusions from the Suez experience. Britain noted that it was dependent on the United States and would, for the most part, have to act accordingly and follow wherever America led. France decided that the United States would not protect France's interests, and immediately, under Guy Mollet, began to build the atomic bomb – the result of American policy.
Israel compromised itself through its partnership with European imperialism – providing evidence to enemies who had asserted all along that Israel was no more than a European imperialist itself. And its victory in the Sinai campaign – one of many dazzling triumphs – illustrated the paradox that the more Israel won on the battlefield, the further it got from achieving the peace that it sought.
The undoing of the British-French-Israeli alliance was that it rested on a lie. It is difficult to re-create the shock felt around the world when it became apparent that these supposedly honorable countries, and the principled statesmen who led them, would stoop to such a ridiculous fabrication. It was disgraceful: that they lied, and that the lie was so childish.
Scenarios had been prepared at various levels of the American government in the event that the Europeans acted against the Nasser regime. So far as I know, none of them envisaged the United States intervening to stop them.
Had the allies fully and honestly informed Washington of their intentions, either the Eisenhower administration would have persuaded them to adopt an alternative strategy, or the allies would have convinced Washington to let them go ahead, or the United States would have explained to London how America's control of the British currency gave it a veto power over British policy. One way or another, America's angry reaction would have been avoided. Though it cannot be proved, the lies of the allies weakened their cause in another important way. It outraged public opinion in France and, especially, Britain. A message was delivered: decision-makers in European governments were on notice that they no longer were free to initiate colonial wars.
The Europeans, to their credit, understood the message. Within years of the Suez crisis, Britain and France began decolonization programs in which they released territories they had held around the world. The winds of change had begun to blow – and they had come from Suez.
David Fromkin, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the author of “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.”
Source: The New York Times, 28 October 2006