The Gathering Middle Eastern Storm: Enduring History Lessons — Part One – The American

Editor’s Note: This is the first of what will be four articles covering the interlinked topics of Israel’s relations with the U.S. and the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Part One focuses on the Suez Crisis of 1956, which reshaped the Middle East and influenced U.S. relations with key powers from then to the present, albeit in changing ways. Part Two will cover U.S–Israel relations from the 1967 Six-Day War through the 2007 Israeli bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor. Parts Three and Four will cover U.S. and Israeli relations with Iran, focusing on Iran’s nuclear program.

As Israel turns 75, it faces an acute existential crisis in the form of an Iran bent on joining the nuclear-weapon-state club. Compounding Israel’s peril is the fact that its primary ally, the United States, sports an administration openly hostile to the Jewish state. Team Biden is obsessed with the desire to make a new accord with Iran akin to that made by former President Barack Obama; it is equally obsessed with pressuring Israel to withdraw fully to its pre-1967 boundaries, which former Foreign Affairs Minister Abba Eban famously called “Auschwitz lines.” And with incredibly foolish perversity, it is intent on prioritizing its twin obsessions over the historic Trump-brokered Abraham Accords, which made for the first “warm” peace between Arab and Jew in the 14 centuries since Islam first appeared on the world scene.

To better grasp the dynamic of the U.S.–Israel relationship in this context, it is useful to examine six elevated use-of-force crises that confronted Israel: the 1956 Suez Crisis; the 1967 Six-Day War; the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the 1981 Israeli airstrike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor; the 1991 Gulf War; and the 2007 Israeli airstrike on Syria’s nuclear reactor. In each crisis, in different ways and at different levels of nuclear risk, the prospect of possible use of nuclear weapons played a role in crisis resolution, Iran’s nuclear quest, and alliance relations. The prospective consequences of choices made by the players ranged from crisis resolved to calamitous conflict. Lessons that can be learned — albeit so far decidedly not learned by key players — may pave the way for ultimate adoption of a better strategy to prevent Iran from crossing the military nuclear threshold.

The Suez Crisis in the Middle East, 1956

The run-up to the pivotal events of late 1956 began with the 1952 overthrow of Egyptian King Farouk I by a group of Army officers in what became known as the Free Officers Coup. (A brief digression: Two leaders of that group later became president of the nascent Egyptian republic and world famous — Gamal Abdel Nasser, who dominated the Middle East from 1952 to his death in late 1970, mainly due to his triumph during the Suez Crisis; and Anwar el-Sadat, who altered the Middle Eastern diplomatic landscape during his ascendancy, from 1972 until his assassination in 1981.)

A landmark, extraordinary book by Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran, Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (2016), provides a detailed narrative of the key events, players, and geopolitics surrounding Suez. Doran’s narrative contradicts on many points the conventional wisdom of six decades on Suez, i.e., that it was an American triumph that stood for international law and against arch-colonial powers.

In 1954, Nasser began negotiating for transfer of control over the Suez Canal, the major international waterway linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Arabian Sea; the former gave access to the Atlantic Ocean, the latter, to the Indian Ocean. Opened by France in 1869, it fell under British control when Britain assumed imperial rule over Egypt in 1882. British rule began to unravel in 1945, after the end of World War II; postwar idealism gave birth to decolonization movements in countries that had been colonized in the immediately preceding centuries by the great European powers, thus unleashing what British Prime Minster Harold Macmillan (1957–63) called the “winds of change.” A seminal event was the conference of 29 “non-aligned” Asian and African nations — ostensibly diplomatically neutral but mostly tilting toward the Soviet Union — held in April 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia. Nasser emerged from the conference as the leading Middle Eastern figure.

The United States was a staunch proponent of postwar decolonization under three presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower saw a geopolitical opportunity to win friends and influence people in the post-colonial era. In part they were motivated by principled opposition arising from America’s own break with colonial Britain. FDR also met with Saudi Arabian King Ibn Saud in 1945, seeking access to petroleum. Though Truman had been persuaded to recognize Israel upon its declaring independence in 1948, virtually the entire foreign policy establishment in both parties strongly opposed the decision and saw America’s future interests in the Middle East aligned with the Arab nations. In 1954, Winston Churchill, midway through his final tenure as prime minister, warned Anthony Eden, who was to succeed him in 1955, about American power:

Up to July 1944, England had a considerable say in things; after that I was conscious that it was America who made the big decisions. She will make the big decisions now…. We do not yet realize her immeasurable power.

The Eisenhower administration ardently courted Nasser, believing that he could be coaxed into joining the Western alliance. The centerpiece of the Eisenhower plan for the Middle East was to create an alliance akin to NATO, based upon what was called the Northern Tier; thus, they created the Baghdad Pact, centered upon French Syria and British Iraq. Ike’s minions even fantasized that Egypt would join the new alliance. To the contrary, it was anathema to Nasser’s pan-Arabist ambition to become the leader of the entire Arab Middle East.

Nasser dangled possible cooperation with the U.S. in constructing the Aswan High Dam, while getting to U.S. to press Britain for concessions over basing rights after conclusion of a Suez agreement. In 1955, Nasser made a massive arms deal with Czechoslovakia, a member of the Warsaw Pact; the U.S. risibly assumed that because the Czechs had supplied Israel with arms in 1948 and Israel remained in the Western orbit, Nasser’s Egypt would follow suit. Nasser also made a deal for the construction of Aswan, ostensibly offered by the Soviets purely for commercial purposes. The U.S. had attached alliance and security goals to its proposal. Nasser persuaded the Americans that he was in a contest between hard-liners and moderates, with himself supporting the moderate faction. This ruse worked perfectly (as it did decades later, when Americans sought “moderates” inside the Islamic Republic of Iran to curb the regime’s revolutionary goals).

When concessions over British basing in the area did not materialize, on June 13, 1956, under pressure from Nasser, British troops ignominiously departed the canal zone, thus freeing Nasser to make his move. In July 1956, Nasser nationalized the canal, triggering the three-month Suez Crisis.

Eisenhower was mesmerized by the Tripartite Declaration of 1950, under which the U.S., the U.K., and France guaranteed to come to the aid of nations who they saw as victims of aggression. Said Ike, “We must honor our pledge … we cannot be bound by our traditional alliances.” Ike saw the UN coming front and center to enforce world peace. Thus, he withheld economic aid to our allies while Nasser sank ships in the canal and Syria cut a British oil pipeline. On Oct. 30, Ike said that his allies would “boil in their own oil.” This decision predated the1957 Eisenhower Doctrine, under which the U.S. would defend its Middle Eastern allies from (outside) Soviet and (local) Arab aggression.

Israel saw the Nasser arms deal as prelude to an eventual invasion of an Israel, then confined by the 1949 Armistice Agreements, which confined Israel to the “Green” ceasefire lines reached after the 1947–48 War of Independence — during which Israel gained land beyond the 1947 Partition Plan limits but lost access to its most sacred sites in Jerusalem.

With a tiny population compared to Egypt, Israel decided to wage preventive war before a strike became imminent. But Israel needed help, and it was clear that the U.S. would not provide it. So Israel approached Britain and France; the colonial powers hoped that toppling Nasser would possibly check the wave of anti-colonial sentiment. Nasser intensified his use of the Middle East’s most formidable radio broadcast network, built by the U.S. and aided by the CIA. He proved a charismatic propagandist. In this he benefitted from America’s ardently Arabist secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who, driven by an obsession with Palestine, incredibly…

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