Lessons of Suez
Geoffrey Wheatcroft/Boston Globe, September 17, 2006
Fifty years ago, two western powers conspired to invade an Arab country--in defiance of international law and world opinion. Guess which side the United States was on.
AN OLD SAW HOLDS that British elections aren't won or lost on foreign affairs, but prime ministerial careers have sometimes been ended by distant adventures. As his own prime ministership peters out lamentably, Tony Blair has quite enough worries. But he might still find time to reflect on the events of 50 years ago, when an attack on an Arab country-involving a conspiracy to misrepresent the real reasons-brought a dismal end to the career of Sir Anthony Eden.
In November 1956, British and French troops tried to regain control of the Suez Canal, which had been seized by the Egyptian leader, Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser. There are all too many painful similarities between the Suez operation and Iraq, although there is also one crucial difference: Far from leading the attack (or orchestrating the deception), the White House was enraged, with President Eisenhower asking Eden, ``Anthony, have you gone out of your mind?" But then those were the far-off days when even a conservative secretary of state could see his task as gaining ``the friendship and understanding of the newly independent countries who have escaped from colonialism."
Since then, there has been a startling role reversal. In 1956, not only did London and Paris act in secret collusion with Tel Aviv, the United States was almost hostile to Israel-and toward ill-considered Western adventures in the Middle East. Today, Blair might ponder whether he should have acted as President Bush's candid friend, in the way that Eisenhower did with Eden, counseling the president against a rash enterprise rather than grandiosely supporting him ``to the last."
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Once the Suez Canal opened in 1869 (after it had been dug at the cost of at least 100,000 Egyptian lives), it became the lifeline of the British Empire. That was even before it acquired a huge new importance in the 20th century, unforeseen when the canal was planned, as the shipping lane bringing oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe. Even so, and not least during the Second World War, when the British Army fought from Egyptian bases, Egypt was technically independent, under the sybaritic Anglophile King Farouk. But deep nationalist resentment led to an officers' coup under Nasser that overthrew Farouk, and in 1954 the British withdrew from the Canal Zone.
On the principle of ``my enemy's enemy" France and Israel were bound to the British through common hatred of Nasser. The Egyptian leader encouraged the Palestinian resistance, which raided across the border from Egyptian territory, and fomented the nationalist rising in French Algeria. Although the Americans didn't much care for Nasser either, Eisenhower treated him with caution while Nasser, at the height of the Cold War, adroitly played Washington off against Moscow.
After Nasser concluded an arms deal with Russia in 1955, Washington tried to woo him back with a loan for building the Aswan High Dam, but the deal withered. In response, Nasser announced, on July 26, 1956, that he was nationalizing the canal. For London and Paris this was a disaster, much as it might have seemed at the time seem to Washington if the Panama Canal had been seized by a hostile local regime.
Events now moved inexorably. In mid-August a conference was held in London to find a compromise, but the British and French had privately decided that force would likely be necessary, despite Eisenhower, who said (rather like Jacques Chirac on a later occasion) that he was ``determined to exhaust every feasible method of a peaceful settlement."
In London, outrage at Nasser was widely shared during the summer, by the opposition Labor Party and most of the press. Even John Foster Dulles, the American secretary of state, thought that international law had been broken and that, while staying within that law, ``a way had to be found to make Nasser disgorge." For the clever, vain, and impetuous Eden, national interest-or his own amour-propre-was more important than legal niceties, and he decided to take the law into his own hands.
It was still difficult for Eden to say that he was doing so simply to regain the canal for the sake of oil (or regime change). And so the plot was hatched, at Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, and then finalized at a highly secret meeting among British, French, and Israeli representatives in a villa at Sevres near Paris. Israel would attack Egypt, and then the French and British-seemingly quite innocent of any foreknowledge of that attack-would arrive at Suez to interpose themselves between the warring parties, and thus take control of the canal.
But the plan fouled up. The Europeans were too slow and the Israelis too fast, striking on Oct. 29 and going through the Egyptian forces like a fist through wet paper. They reached the canal well before Nov. 5, when Anglo-French paratroops landed at Port Said.
That delay undid Eden. By the time British troops arrived, London was in uproar as more and more people guessed the nature of the imposture. ``We had not realised", wrote David Astor, the rich owner-editor of the liberal Observer, in a famous editorial published even before the landings, ``that our government was capable of such folly and crookedness."
Eisenhower was also appalled, both by the Anglo-French action and by the fact that he hadn't been told-and now it was the brute force of American financial intervention that pulled the rug from under the conspirators. The Treasury Department threatened a run on sterling reserves, obliging Eden to beat an ignominious retreat.
The reaction in Washington was conditioned by domestic political considerations: The Anglo-French landings took place on the day before the presidential election, with Eisenhower running for a second term. To complicate matters further, the Hungarian rising erupted, and was savagely suppressed by the Soviets. Eisenhower didn't need one international crisis on his hands come Election Day, let alone two. He was embarrassed by the British and French who were, after all, NATO allies, and he thought that the moral authority of the West to condemn the action in Budapest was compromised by the sheer recklessness of an operation that would have disastrous effects throughout the Middle East and beyond.
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For his part, Eden was convinced he was doing the right thing in defying a dangerous tyrant, and here he could claim some personal standing. Donald Rumsfeld likes to compare critics of the Iraq war with those who appeased Hitler, and the language of the 1930s has been echoed by many others, from President Bush and his ``Islamic fascism" to Madeleine Albright, who 10 years ago said that ``my mind-set is Munich."
Rumsfeld may not recall that such language was also continually invoked 50 years ago. ``It is all very familiar," the House of Commons was told in August by Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the opposition Labor Party. ``It is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war." There was even a Jewish wisecrack at the time: ``What happened to Hitler? He crossed the water and became Nasser" (``nasser" being ``more wet" in Yiddish).
But if anyone's mind-set was Munich, it was Anthony Eden's, a man who, apart from having served bravely as an infantry officer in the First World War, had resigned as foreign secretary in 1938 to protest appeasement. He was more entitled than most to use that rhetoric. He just drew the wrong analogy, rightly thinking Nasser a dangerous demagogue, wrongly seeing him as another Hitler.
Although Suez violently divided opinion, it wasn't along party or even national lines. Some Americans believed that Eden was right. We should let the British and French know ``they have our moral support to go in," Eisenhower was told at the time by the Senate majority leader. But then 10 years later he-Lyndon Johnson-would learn the hard way in Vietnam that ``resisting aggression" isn't so simple, and that ``going in" can be easier than getting out.
In England the operation was mostly opposed by the left, but also by some Tories, in Parliament and out. One of the best short analyses of the adventure, which has further echoes now, was written that November by Evelyn Waugh in a letter to his friend Anne Fleming (wife of the author Ian).
``These are the important facts (a) it cannot be justified on moral or legal grounds (b) practically no recent action of any British government can be justified morally...(c) Any troup of Boy Scouts can defeat the Egyptian army (d) No one can govern Egypt now that Nasser has armed the schoolchildren..." (The last being Waugh's way of saying that Nasser had encouraged Egyptian youth to take up arms).
That novelist's insight would have been useful at the Pentagon four years ago. Once again, the problem wasn't the immediate military operation against the Iraqi Army but the sequel, when ``the schoolchildren," or young zealots, were still armed and the country proved to be ungovernable.
Other witnesses from 1956 might also have been studied with profit at the White House. The commander-in-chief of the allied forces was General Sir Charles Keightley, who said afterwards, ``The one overriding lesson of the Suez operations is that world opinion is now an absolute principle of war and must be treated as such." However successful in ``pure military" terms, the venture will fail without the support of international opinion.
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After the debacle came the bitter consequences. One minister resigned from the British government to protest what he called ``a sordid manoeuvre...morally indefensible and politically suicidal." Early in 1957 poor Eden himself stepped down, ostensibly because of ill health, to be succeeded by Harold Macmillan, and in 1958 Charles de Gaulle returned from internal exile to become president, and extricate his country from an unwinnable Algerian war.
Those two leaders drew different conclusions from Suez. For Macmillan the moral was that his country should never again act except in close consort with Washington; for de Gaulle, the contrary moral was that the Americans could not be relied upon and that France, and Europe, must find another path. Today de Gaulle's shade might ask Macmillan's which of them was right.
We have just seen the logical conclusion of that Anglo-American ``special relationship" of which Macmillan liked to boast-and its bankruptcy. By unconditionally supporting an American invasion of another Arab country-by way of another imposture-Blair has ended his career disastrously. He has now been forced to promise that he will resign shortly, with his reputation, like Eden's, in tatters. Not that Blair could say he wasn't warned.
Nor could Eden. On the contrary, he was reminded in friendly but forceful terms of the sheer unwisdom of ``the use of force" against an Arab country-which would, ``it seems to me, vastly increase the area of jeopardy." The ``appeaser" in this case was General Dwight David Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, in the day when things were different in the White House and the Republican Party. If Eden persevered in his folly, Ike wrote to the prime minister on Sept. 3, 1956, in words just as chilling today, not only the peoples of the Middle East but ``all of Asia and Africa, would be consolidated against the West to a degree which, I fear, could not be overcome in a generation."
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author whose books include ``The Controversy of Zion" and ``The Strange Death of Tory England."