Arthur Herman: What Nasser wrought when he seized Suez a half century ago

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Arthur Herman is the author, most recently, of To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (Harper Collins/Perennial).]

ON JULY 26, 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, at that time the most vital international waterway in the world. The Middle East, and all of us, still live under the shadow of the fateful events his decision triggered 50 years ago. Even more than the Cold War, the Suez crisis has shaped the world we live in. And at its heart was the biggest American foreign policy blunder since the War of 1812.

The socialist Proudhon said the origin of property was theft. The same could be said of the modern Middle East. By any objective standard, Nasser's seizing of the canal was theft. Until that July, it had been administered by a private company headquartered in Paris and owned by international shareholders. Nasser had even signed an agreement recognizing the Canal Zone's autonomy two years earlier, which allowed Great Britain to pull out the last troops from its bases in Suez.

That withdrawal, of course, freed the Egyptian dictator to do what he pleased. Nasser decided to grab the canal to pay for his ill-conceived dam on the Nile at Aswan. He also reasoned that the resulting international outcry would only build up his reputation in the Arab world, and that the response from a declining British Empire, and the rest of the West, would be all talk and no action--even though Suez was vital to Britain and Europe for their oil from the Persian Gulf.

This was Nasser's one miscalculation--but in the end it proved unimportant. In 1956, memories of Hitler and Mussolini were still fresh. Appeasing demagogic dictators who broke international law had few advocates. Just three years earlier, Iran's Mossadegh had tried to nationalize Iran's oil wells. The British and the CIA had kicked him out of power for his pains.

Britain's prime minister, Anthony Eden, assumed he had to respond to Nasser's move with some show of force, especially if he wanted to lay claim to being Winston Churchill's political heir. He also saw an opportunity to reassert Britain's authority on the world stage after the loss of India. But ,unlike Churchill, Eden had no understanding of history; he had, in historian Paul Johnson's words, "a fatal propensity to confuse the relative importance of events." He also never understood, as Churchill had, that to use military force, one had to be ready to use it to the hilt.

So, when the British high command informed Eden it would take six weeks to assemble enough ships, planes, and men to take back the canal and topple Nasser, Eden turned to the French for help. They in turn appealed to the Israelis. For some time the Israelis had wanted to wipe out the Palestinian guerrilla bases which had sprung up along their border with Egypt since the 1948 war, camps run by a Palestinian student-turned-Nasser flunky named Yasser Arafat. So Israel's chief of staff, the 41-year-old Moshe Dayan, drew up a plan with the help of a young paratrooper colonel named Ariel Sharon for an incursion into Gaza and Sinai in coordination with an Anglo-French landing at Suez. The Israelis assumed the West would back up bold action against hit-and-run terrorists and those who supported them.

But they, and their allies the French and British, had not reckoned on the United States. President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were preoccupied with the Cold War. Like their Democratic predecessors, they were reluctant to support any move that smacked of "colonialism," no matter how justified. And Eisenhower, in Stephen Ambrose's words, was "uncomfortable with Jews" and never understood the threat Israel faced from its Arab neighbors. So the Americans refused to endorse the Suez invasion. "We do not want to meet violence with violence," Dulles said--words that have a disturbing echo today. Then the Americans went further. If the British and French attacked Egypt, Eden was told, the United States would not back them up in the United Nations.

Finally, in late October, after weeks of hesitation and prevaricating, the British, French, and Israelis struck. The British and French Operation Musketeer was a stunning success; in the face of the Israeli attack, Nasser's army collapsed. French paratroopers and tanks were poised to roll into Cairo. But then, with American encouragement, U.N. secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld became involved....

The Suez crisis was over. But the damage it did was, and remains, incalculable. Eisenhower had wrecked the trust between the United States and its former World War II allies for a generation; in the case of France, for all time. If anyone wonders why French politicians are always willing to undermine American initiatives around the world, the answer is summed up in one word: "Suez."

Suez destroyed the United Nations as well. By handing it over to Dag Hammarskjöld and his feckless ilk, Eisenhower turned the organization from the stout voice of international law and order into at best a meaningless charade; at worst, a Machiavellian cesspool. Instead of teaching Nasser and his fellow dictators that breaking international law does not pay, Suez taught them that every transgression will be forgotten and forgiven, especially if oil is at stake.

As for Nasser, Israel moved to the top of his agenda. Attacking the Jewish state became the recognized path to leadership of the Arab world, from Nasser to Saddam Hussein to Iran's Ahmadinejad--with the U.N. and world opinion standing idly by. ...

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