In July 1956, Egypt, caught up in nationalistic fervor led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal. The ensuing events would strain alliances and reshape the Middle East. In November of the same year, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt in response to Nasser’s provocation. Confounding all expectations, the United States not only opposed its traditional allies but also placed economic sanctions on the United Kingdom. Traditionally, the US response during the Suez Crisis has been presented as one of Dwight Eisenhower’s wisest decisions as president. Even Sen. Chuck Hagel reportedly cited this case before becoming secretary of defense as an alternative example to interventionism.
While many have lauded Eisenhower for his restraint and leadership during the crisis, Michael Doran recounts in Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East how the president’s early Middle East policy leading up to and including the crisis was one of his greatest strategic blunders.
Before 1956, the president and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, believed that goodwill toward Arab countries and assisting them against imperialists would benefit the US in the Cold War. They boosted Nasser in his negotiations with the UK as British troops were stationed around the canal. But when Britain withdrew, the Eisenhower administration became unreasonably harsh on Egypt, according to other historians, and this hostility caused Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal and lead the Arab world toward the Soviet Union.
Doran convincingly argues that this popular perspective about Eisenhower “losing” Nasser relies too much on writings and interviews from Henry Byroade, a brigadier general who became assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, and Kermit Roosevelt, a senior CIA official responsible for the region. Both believed Nasser was honest and wanted an alliance with the West, but US antagonism forced him to side with the Soviets. Ike’s Gamble demonstrates that Nasser conned both men and through them essentially wrote his own history. Meanwhile, Dulles died in 1959 and never had a chance to defend his policies. Doran’s book helps rectify this problem.
In contrast to the popular narrative, Ike’s Gamble explains that Nasser was never interested in an alliance with the West. He also didn’t care much about the Arab-Israel conflict or US attempts to resolve it, even if he did use the conflict as a distraction while he eliminated Arab rivals in places like Iraq and Lebanon. Instead, Nasser feared Eisenhower and Dulles’ “Northern Tier” strategy, later named the Baghdad Pact. This military alliance would eventually include Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran, and Washington hoped the arrangement would halt Soviet expansion into the Middle East. Strengthening his Arab rivals, the pact undermined Nasser’s interests and plans for pan-Arab nationalism. According to Doran, Cairo betrayed the US before and after the Suez Crisis not because of imperialism or Israel but because of the Northern Tier.
While its regional strategy gave Nasser sufficient motive to betray the US, the Eisenhower administration did much to help him gain power. Beyond Washington’s diplomatic moves to force British troops to leave the Suez Canal, the CIA quietly gave Nasser’s regime equipment and training to launch a propaganda machine that promoted pro-Egyptian messages to Arabs across the region. Radio Cairo could therefore more effectively undermine America’s allies and spread anti-Americanism. Still, the State Department, Defense Department, and CIA were so confident in Nasser’s loyalty that officials and analysts ignored the contradiction.
Once British troops left the canal and the West lost its leverage, Egypt continued to move against US interests. It recognized communist China, helped Algerian rebels against France, increased cooperation with Eastern Bloc countries, and so on. Ike’s Gamble shows how Eisenhower was justified to try to force Cairo to change behavior. Contrary to Byroade and Roosevelt’s narrative, this antagonism did not cause the US to lose Nasser because it never had him. However, during this time he did cleverly use America’s refusal to fund the Aswan High Dam’s construction as an excuse to nationalize the Suez Canal.
While coverage of the Suez Crisis itself is relatively brief, Doran makes a good case that American sanctions against the UK, not Soviet threats of nuclear war, saved Nasser’s regime. Yet Eisenhower did not win the Arab world in exchange for his gamble to show benevolence in 1956, which is unsurprising given the preceding events. Appearing invincible and thanking the USSR, the Egyptian president extended his regional reach and worked against the US. America almost lost all its influence in the region, but Eisenhower soon realized his blunder and changed course.
When Egypt threatened pro-Western regimes in Lebanon and Jordan in 1958, Eisenhower’s strategy was completely different than it was in 1956. Though Dulles and the president recognized they may anger the Arab world, the US sent Marines into Lebanon as the UK deployed troops to Jordan. According to State Department records, Dulles argued that without this intervention the Soviets would gain more influence in the Middle East. Records also show Eisenhower believed losing this strategic region would be worse than losing China. In comparison, global public opinion and soft power weren’t as important. Ironically, Britain tried to make a similar argument to the US administration before the Suez Crisis.
After his presidency, Eisenhower would not publicly express misgivings over his decisions during the Suez Crisis, and this silence has encouraged some to say this strategy should be repeated. But Doran demonstrates that the president did indeed have serious regrets. For instance, in private conversation he told Richard Nixon that the crisis was “his major foreign policy mistake.” The best evidence for Eisenhower’s regret, however, is how his administration’s actions changed so dramatically between 1956 and 1958.
Doran offers several policy recommendations after reviewing Eisenhower’s gambles and blunders. For instance, each president should reassess who is friend and foe, monitor inter-Arab rivalries, understand the US can rarely solve the Middle East’s problems, and realize that how he or she sees the world may not be true. The US should also reject the idea that the Middle East’s central problem is the Arab-Israel conflict. I’m reminded of when I heard a Christian leader say that the Syrian Civil War would end if the Israel-Palestine conflict was resolved. That’s bonkers, and Ike’s Gamble demonstrates why. Even if peace occurred here tomorrow, many problems stemming from regional rivalries would remain.
For me, one question isn’t sufficiently answered: If expert analysis from the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA could be so wrong when assessing Nasser, how exactly can the US avoid similar mistakes in the future?
The most obvious answer is that government departments and intelligence agencies should consider ideas that contradict their own assumptions. As Ike’s Gamble argues, evidence of Nasser’s true intentions was plentiful if it wasn’t ignored. Perhaps better red-team analysis (looking at a situation from an adversary’s perspective) would help.
But this seems too simple for a complex problem. As Doran says in his conclusion, in the Middle East those who appear to be friendly can turn antagonistic, while foes can offer support. Ike’s Gamble shows that Nasser was a brilliant geopolitical con-man, so a key problem is distinguishing between a future con-man and a trustworthy friend. Future presidents may not make the right call every time, especially since administrations change regularly and address a wide range of domestic and foreign issues simultaneously.
A recent War on the Rocks series changed my perspective, though. Mark Cancian, a senior advisor with the CSIS International Security Program, says surprises are a fact of life for militaries and governments. They can include unexpected attacks, such as the one on Pearl Harbor. Diplomatically, he points to Italy betraying the Axis Powers in World War I. Evidence always existed that could have predicted surprises, but governments failed to anticipate them.
Cancian and the CSIS report he oversaw originally focused on how to avoid surprises, but the authors decided they are inevitable and cannot be avoided. Instead, governments must learn how to cope with them.
In this light, Ike’s Gamble can serve at least two lessons for foreign policy practitioners, including Christians who are called to serve in government. First, it is a cautionary tale. Byroade from State, Roosevelt from the CIA, and many others across government were dead wrong about Nasser. Reading how others have failed can help practitioners avoid future catastrophes.
Second, because surprises cannot be avoided, Doran’s book shows how one administration successfully coped and preserved American influence in a strategic region.
For the sake of America’s national interest, we should pray that those in government are able to cope again when the time comes.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews.
Photo Credit: Damaged tank and vehicles during the Suez Crisis. United States Army Heritage and Education Center, via Wikimedia Commons.