During a period of geopolitical instability, a new president comes into office proclaiming a restrained, cost-cutting foreign policy. However, once in office he takes aggressive covert action, overthrowing unfriendly governments and propping up others, while his speeches and addresses mask his intentions, misleading his audience at home and his allies abroad. Eventually, the allies take him at his word, invade a hostile power, and create a diplomatic crisis. The president condemns his allies and forces them to withdraw, but his regional strategy collapses so that he is forced to explain to the country why he’s deploying US troops to rescue a tottering ally. A new, Clancy-esque thriller? No, it’s Randy Fowler’s excellent More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East.
Fowler’s central argument is that Eisenhower’s speeches are his greatest legacy in the Middle East. He contends that, after misleadingly claiming to follow Britain’s lead in the region, Ike announced a new regional strategy based on US preeminence, the Eisenhower Doctrine, by showing the American people the Middle East’s strategic importance, depicting the interregional conflict as part of the Cold War, and arguing that the United States was the only country capable of protecting freedom and US interests in the region. In doing so, he established precedents for presidential decision making in foreign policy, unilateral American intervention, and covert action that his successors continue to use. Even though he didn’t have a reputation for being a powerful orator, Eisenhower’s speeches had a profound effect.
Despite taking an active role in the Middle East, Eisenhower attempted to disguise the extent of US involvement until events forced his hand at the end of his first term. The NSC 155/1 review argued that long-term trends in the Middle East were harmful to US interests and required greater US engagement to keep the Soviets from gaining influence in the region. In order to reverse these trends without upsetting the British and French, who had governed the Middle East, Eisenhower implied in his public statements that he deferred to his European allies. But all the while he quietly developed the Baghdad Pact, provided aid to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, and participated in overthrowing Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran. This strategy, which Fowler calls “rhetorical surreption,” was ineffective: Nasser used his new, CIA-provided propaganda machine to relentlessly denounce the United States and its allies, and the Baghdad Pact never cohered into an effective bulwark against the Soviets, although its members happily accepted US aid to divert for their own purposes. Quietly wielding influence without engaging the American people was not working.
Moreover, Eisenhower’s misleading rhetoric opened a fissure between the United States and its European allies that widened into a chasm during the Suez Crisis. After Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Britain and France decided to overthrow him and enlisted Israeli help to do so. Instead of warning his allies not to attack, Eisenhower chose imprecise and misleading language that persuaded the British and French he approved. Their invasion succeeded until Ike, hoping to curry favor in the Arab world, condemned the allies, arguing that the region’s instability demanded intervention but the imperial powers were morally unfit and the United Nations impotent. The United States was thus the only effective stand-in for the international community.
Immediately before his second inaugural, the president expanded on these themes in the Eisenhower Doctrine speech: the United States would intervene, militarily if necessary, to support the “freedom-loving nations” of the Middle East against communist aggression. This doctrine marked a radical shift in US foreign policy. Instead of supporting the discredited British and French, the United States assumed responsibility for the region. He requested—and Congress granted—new authorities to dispense aid and deploy US troops in the region. To engender public support, Eisenhower argued that intervention in the region was consistent with American identity, American threats would suffice to keep the communists out, and the region’s inhabitants welcomed the United States as a friend. The restrained, behind-the-scenes activity of the first term disappeared from view.
By 1958, the region became even more unstable, and instead of criticizing his allies like before, the president partnered with Britain, sent troops to Lebanon, and justified his intervention with classic imperialist rhetoric. During the previous two years, Nasser rocketed to fame because of his supposed victory in the Suez Crisis, and he used his new cachet to advance his pan-Arabist ideology and undermine US allies. A coup in Iraq overthrew a key US ally, and Eisenhower, alarmed by the setback, intervened in Lebanon to support its president against domestic unrest while Britain deployed troops to protect Jordan’s monarch. When Eisenhower announced the operation—the only time during his presidency that he sent US troops into potential combat—he argued that the Soviets and Nasser were already meddling in Lebanese affairs, the US intervention protected Lebanon and international law, and America needed to take the side of freedom in this conflict between liberty and tyranny.
More Than a Doctrine‘s analysis of Eisenhower’s rhetoric presents two lessons that policymakers, Christian or not, would benefit from studying. The first reminds his readers of the necessity of discernment and wisdom when presented with sweeping appeals to principles. Fowler writes that, during the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower “chose to uphold American dedication to the rule of law in international affairs over partiality to Britain, Israel or France,” by siding with Egypt. He later notes that, after the Suez Crisis, Israel won access to the Red Sea, but a glance at the map shows that Israel already had a port that reached it. How, then, could it not have access? Because of Nasser’s blockade, which defied UN Security Council Resolution 95. Blockades have been recognized as an act of war for centuries, so Israel arguably engaged in a war that Egypt had already started. Egypt also protected Fedayeen terrorist organizations that had repeatedly attacked Israelis. Far from upholding international law, Eisenhower intervened on behalf of the aggressor. The acclaim that this decision engenders to this day reminds readers that appeals to higher principles can hide other considerations—in Eisenhower’s case, a desire to avoid appearing to back colonialism and thus hand the Soviets a propaganda coup—and that a detailed understanding of the facts is vital before passing judgment.
The second is the age-old cynicism vs. idealism debate about lying, which is often presented as the do-gooders wringing their hands while the wily operators lie and cajole their way from triumph to triumph, all for the glory of country if not God. Fowler neatly flips this argument on its head by pointing out that, far from furthering US interests, Eisenhower’s half-truths and omissions harmed the United States frequently and led to the Suez catastrophe. It is surely naïve to demand full transparency in foreign affairs (The Federalist Papers approvingly note the executive branch’s ability to act with secrecy, when necessary), but Ike’s untruthfulness misled his allies into war, emboldened his enemies, and prevented the American public from having a full and honest debate about a large new commitment.
More Than a Doctrine is an excellent study of the effects and impact of presidential rhetoric. It uses Eisenhower’s presidency to demonstrate the value of truthfulness in international affairs, and the necessity of not being swept away by an orator. As George Orwell reminds us, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
Mike Watson is a research associate at Hudson Institute.
Photo Credit: National Archives.