Michael Doran, Ike’s Gamble:
America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East
On July 26, 1956, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser stunned the world by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, a critical conduit through Egypt for the transportation of oil between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Constructed between 1859 and 1869, the canal was owned by the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company. What followed three months later was the Suez Crisis of 1956: on October 29, Israeli brigades invaded Egypt across its Sinai Peninsula, advancing to within ten miles of the canal. Britain and France, following a scheme concocted with Israel to retake the canal and oust Nasser, demanded that both Israeli and Egyptian troops withdraw from the occupied territory. Then, on November 5th, British and French forces invaded Egypt and occupied most of the Canal Zone, the territory along the canal. The United States famously opposed the joint operation and, through the United Nations, forced Britain and France out of Egypt. Nearly simultaneously, the Soviet Union ruthlessly suppressed an uprising in Hungary.
The autumn of 1956 was thus a tumultuous time. Across the globe, it was a time when colonies were clamoring for and achieving independence from former colonizers, and the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for the allegiance of emerging states in what was coming to be known as the Third World. In the volatile and complex Middle East, it was a time of rising nationalism. Nasser, a wildly ambitious general who came to power after a 1952 military coup had deposed the King of Egypt, aspired to become not simply the leader of his country but also of the Arab speaking world, even the entire Muslim world. By 1956, Nasser had emerged as the region’s most visible nationalist. But he was far from the only voice in the Middle East seeking to speak for Middle East nationalism. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq were also imbued with the rising spirit of nationalism and saw Nasser as a rival, not a fraternal comrade-in-arms.
Michael Doran’s Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East provides background and context for the United States’ decision not to support Britain, France and Israel during the 1956 Suez crisis. As his title suggests, Doran places America’s President, war hero and father figure Dwight D. Eisenhower, known affectionately as Ike, at the middle of the complicated Middle East web (although Nasser probably merited a place in Doran’s title: “Ike’s Gamble on Nasser” would have better captured the spirit of the narrative). Behind the perpetual smile, Eisenhower was a cold-blooded realist who was “unshakably convinced” (p.214) that the best way to advance American interests in the Middle East and hold Soviet ambitions in check was for the United States to play the role of an “honest broker” in the region, sympathetic to the region’s nationalist aspirations and not too closely aligned with its traditional allies Britain and France, or with the young state of Israel.
But Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former high level official at the National Security Council and Department of Defense in the administration of George W. Bush, goes on to argue that Eisenhower’s vision of the honest broker – and his “bet” on Nasser – were undermined by the United States’ failure to recognize the “deepest drivers of the Arab and Muslim states, namely their rivalries with each other for power and authority” (p.105). Less than two years after taking Nasser’s side in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Eisenhower seemed to reverse himself. By mid-1958, Doran reveals, Eisenhower had come to regret his bet on Nasser and his refusal to back Britain, France and Israel during the crisis. Eisenhower kept this view largely to himself, however, distorting the historical picture of his Middle East policies.
Although Doran considers Eisenhower “one of the most sophisticated and experienced practitioners of international politics ever to reside in the White House,” the story of his relationship with Nasser is at bottom a lesson in the “dangers of calibrating the distinction between ally and enemy incorrectly” (p.13). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, Eisenhower’s “bet” on Nasser’s regime is a “tale of Frankenstein’s monster, with the United States as the mad scientist and the new regime as his uncontrollable creation” (p.10).
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The “honest broker” approach to the Middle East dominated the Eisenhower administration from its earliest days in 1953. Eisenhower, his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and most of their key advisors shared a common picture of the volatile region. Trying to wind down a war in Korea they had inherited from the Truman Administration, they considered the Middle East the next and most critical region of confrontation in the global Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. As they saw it, in the Middle East the United States found itself caught between Arabs and other “indigenous” nationalities on one side, and the British, French, and Israelis on the other. “Each side had hold of one arm of the United States, which they were pulling like a tug rope. The picture was so obvious to almost everyone in the Eisenhower administration that it was understood as an objective description of reality” (p.44). It is impossible, Doran writes, to exaggerate the “impact that the image of America as an honest broker had on Eisenhower’s thought . . . The notion that the top priority of the United States was to co-opt Arab nationalists by helping them extract concessions – within limits – from Britain and Israel was not open to debate. It was a view that shaped all other policy proposals” (p.10).
Alongside Ike’s “bet” on Nasser, the book’s second major theme is the deterioration of the famous “special relationship” between Britain and the United States during Eisenhower’s first term, due in large measure to differences over Egypt, the Suez Canal, and Nasser (and, to quibble further with the book’s title, “Britain’s Fall from Power in the Middle East” in my view would have captured the spirit of the narrative better than “America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East”). The Eisenhower administration viewed Britain’s once mighty empire as a relic of the past, out of place in the post World War II order. It viewed Britain’s leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in much the same way. Eisenhower entered his presidency convinced that it was time for Churchill, then approaching age 80, to exit the world stage and for Britain to relinquish control of its remaining colonial possessions – in Egypt, its military base and sizeable military presence along the Suez Canal.
Anthony Eden replaced Churchill as prime minister in 1955. A leading anti-appeasement ally of Churchill in the 1930s, by the 1950s Eden shared Eisenhower’s view that Churchill had become a “wondrous relic” who was “stubbornly clinging to outmoded ideas” (p.20) about Britain’s empire and its place in the world. Although interested in aligning Britain’s policies with the realities of the post World War II era, Eden led the British assault on Suez in 1956. With “his career destroyed” (p.202), Eden was forced to resign early in 1957.
If the United States today also has a “special relationship” with Israel, that relationship had yet to emerge during the first Eisenhower term. Israel’s circumstances were of course entirely different from those of Britain and France, a young country surrounded by Arab-speaking states implacably hostile to its very existence. President Truman had formally recognized Israel less than a decade earlier, in 1948. But substantial segments of America’s foreign policy establishment in the 1950s continued to believe that such recognition had been in error. Not least among them was John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State. There seemed to be more than a whiff of anti-Semitism in Dulles’ antagonism toward Israel.
Describing Israel as the “darling of Jewry throughout the world” (p.98), Dulles decried the “potency of international Jewry” (p.98) and warned that the United States should not be seen as a “backer of expansionist Zionism” (p.77). For the first two years of the Eisenhower administration, Dulles followed a policy designed to “’deflate the Jews’ . . . by refusing to sell arms to Israel, rebuffing Israeli requests for security guarantees, and diminishing the level of financial assistance to the Jewish state” (p.99). Dulles’ views were far from idiosyncratic. Israel “stirred up deep hostility among the Arabs” and many of America’s foreign policy elites in the 1950s ”saw Israel as a liability” (p.9). Without success, the United States sought Nasser’s agreement to an Arab-Israeli accord which would have required limited territorial concessions from Israel.
Behind the scenes, however, the United States brokered a 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement, by which Britain would withdraw from its military base in the Canal Zone over an 18-month period, with Egypt agreeing that Britain could return to its base in the event of a major war. Doran terms this Eisenhower’s “first bet” on Nasser. Ike “wagered that the evacuation of the British from Egypt would sate Nasser’s nationalist appetite. The Egyptian leader, having learned that the United States was willing and able to act as a strategic partner, would now keep Egypt solidly within the Western security system. It would not take long before Eisenhower would come to realize that Nasser’s appetite only increased with eating” (p.67-68).
As the United States courted Nasser as a voice of Arab nationalism and a bulwark against Soviet expansion into the region, it also encouraged other Arab voices. In what the United States imprecisely termed the “Northern Tier,” it supported security pacts between Turkey and Iraq and made overtures to Egypt’s neighbors Syria and Jordan. Nasser adamantly opposed these measures, considering them a means of constraining his own regional aspirations and preserving Western influence through the back door. The “fatal intellectual flaw” of the United States’ honest broker strategy, Doran argues, was that it “imagined the Arabs and Muslims as a unified bloc. It paid no attention whatsoever to all of the bitter rivalries in the Middle East that had no connection to the British and Israeli millstones. Consequently, Nasser’s disputes with his rivals simply did not register in Washington as factors of strategic significance” (p.78).
In September 1955, Nasser shocked the United States by concluding an agreement to buy arms from the Soviet Union, through Czechoslovakia, one of several indications that he was at best playing the West against the Soviet Union, at worst tilting toward the Soviet side. Another came in May 1956, when Egypt formally recognized Communist China. In July 1956, partially in reaction to Nasser’s pro-Soviet dalliances, Dulles informed the Egyptian leader that the United States was pulling out of a project to provide funding for a dam across the Nile River at Aswan, Nasser’s “flagship development project . . . [which was] expected to bring under cultivation hundreds of thousands of acres of arid land and to generate millions of watts of electricity” (p.167).
Days later, Nasser countered by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, predicting that the tolls collected from ships passing through the canal would pay for the dam’s construction within five years. Doran characterizes Nasser’s decision to nationalize the canal as the “single greatest move of his career.” It is impossible to exaggerate, he contends, the “power of the emotions that the canal takeover stirred in ordinary Egyptians. If Europeans claimed that the company was a private concern, Egyptians saw it as an instrument of imperial exploitation – ‘a state within a state’. . . [that was] plundering a national asset for the benefit of France and Britain” (p.171).
France, otherwise largely missing in Doran’s detailed account, concocted the scheme that led to the October 1956 crisis. Concerned that Nasser was providing arms to anti-French rebels in Algeria, France proposed to Israel what Doran terms a “stranger than fiction” (p.189) plot by which the Israelis would invade Egypt. Then, in order to protect shipping through the canal, France and Britain would:
issue an ultimatum demanding that the belligerents withdraw to a position of ten miles on either side of the canal, or face severe consequences. The Israelis, by prior arrangement, would comply. Nasser, however, would inevitably reject the ultimatum, because it would leave Israeli forces inside Egypt while simultaneously compelling Egyptian forces to withdraw from their own sovereign territory. An Anglo-French force would then intervene to punish Egypt for noncompliance. It would take over the canal and, in the process, topple Nasser (p.189).
The crisis unfolded more or less according to this script when Israeli brigades invaded Egypt on October 29th and Britain and France launched their joint invasion on November 5th. Nasser sunk ships in the canal and blocked oil tankers headed through the canal to Europe.
Convinced that acquiescence in the invasion would drive the entire Arab world to the Soviet side in the global Cold War, the United States issued measured warnings to Britain and France to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. If Nasser was by then a disappointment to the United States, Doran writes, the “smart money was still on an alliance with moderate nationalism, not with dying empires” (p.178). But when Eden telephoned the White House on November 7, 1956, largely to protest the United States’ refusal to sell oil to Britain, Ike went further. In that phone call, Eisenhower as honest broker “decided that Nasser must win the war, and that he must be seen to win” (p.249). Eisenhower’s hardening toward his traditional allies a week into the crisis, Doran contends, constituted his “most fateful decision of the Suez Crisis: to stand against the British, French, and Israelis in [a] manner that was relentless, ruthless, and uncompromising . . . [Eisenhower] demanded, with single-minded purpose, the total and unconditional British, French, and Israeli evacuation from Egypt. These steps, not the original decision to oppose the war, were the key factors that gave Nasser the triumph of his life” (p.248-49).
When the financial markets caught wind of the blocked oil supplies, the value of the British pound plummeted and a run on sterling reserves ensued. “With his currency in free fall, Eden became ever more vulnerable to pressure from Eisenhower. Stabilizing the markets required the cooperation of the United States, which the Americans refused to give until the British accepted a complete, immediate, and unconditional withdrawal from Egypt” (p.196). At almost the same time, Soviet tanks poured into Budapest to suppress a burgeoning Hungarian pro-democracy movement. The crisis in Eastern Europe had the effect of “intensifying Eisenhower’s and Dulles’s frustration with the British and the French. As they saw it, Soviet repression in Hungary offered the West a prime opportunity to capture the moral high ground in international politics – an opportunity that the gunboat diplomacy in Egypt was destroying” (p.197). The United States supported a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of invading troops. Britain, France and Israel had little choice bu to accept these terms in December 1956.
In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, the emboldened Nasser continued his quest to become the region’s dominant leader. In February 1958, he engineered the formation of the United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria that he envisioned as the first step toward a broader pan-Arab state (in fact, the union lasted only until 1961). He orchestrated a coup in Iraq in July 1958. Later that month, Eisenhower sent American troops into Lebanon to avert an Egyptian-led uprising against the pro-western government of Christian president Camille Chamoun. Sometime in the period between the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the intervention in Lebanon in 1958, Doran argues, Eisenhower withdrew his bet on Nasser, coming to the view that his support of Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis had been a mistake.
The Eisenhower of 1958 “consistently and clearly argued against embracing Nasser” (p.231). He now viewed Nasser as a hardline opponent of any reconciliation between Arabs and Israel, squarely in the Soviet camp. Eisenhower, a “true realist with no ideological ax to grind,” came to recognize that his Suez policy of “sidelining the Israelis and the Europeans simply did not produce the promised results. The policy was . . . a blunder” (p.255). Unfortunately, Doran argues, Eisenhower kept his views to himself until well into the 1960s and few historians picked up on his change of mind. This allowed those who sought to distance United States policy from Israel to cite Eisenhower’s stance in the 1956 Suez Crisis, without taking account of Eisenhower’s later reconsideration of that stance.
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Doran relies upon an extensive mining of diplomatic archival sources, especially those of the United States and Great Britain, to piece together this intricate depiction of the Eisenhower-Nasser relationship and the 1956 Suez Crisis. These sources allow Doran to emphasize the interactions of the key actors in the Middle East throughout the 1950s, including personal animosities and rivalries, and intra-governmental turf wars. He writes in a straightforward, unembellished style. Helpful subheadings within each chapter make his detailed and sometimes dense narrative easier to follow. His work will appeal to anyone who has worked in an Embassy overseas, to Middle East and foreign policy wonks, and to general readers with an interest in the 1950s.
Thomas H. Peebles
June 19, 2017