In siding with his enemies against his allies in the Suez crisis, Dwight D. Eisenhower committed (in his own words) his “major foreign-policy mistake.” Obama seems bent on repeating it.
Israel’s primary adversary is acquiring powerful new weapons that will overturn the military balance in the Middle East. But it needs at least a year before its weapons will be fully functional. In the meantime, the Israelis are signaling that they are contemplating a preemptive war. In Washington, however, the president does not share Israel’s sense of alarm. The fears of the Jewish state, he believes, are exaggerated. Its preparations are a tool for goading the United States into a policy that is more attentive to Israeli interests.
EGYPTIAN TANKS ENTER PORT SAID AFTER BRITISH AND FRENCH TROOPS EVACUATE, DECEMBER 23, 1956.
While arguing strenuously against the use of force, the president launches a series of diplomatic initiatives designed to reduce regional tensions. The negotiations, however, produce no tangible results, and the Israelis grow increasingly disaffected with Washington. They are, however, by no means alone. The French also regard American policy as starry eyed. Paris and Jerusalem grow closer. Before long, they begin clandestine security cooperation, which quickly turns into joint planning for war—behind the back of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The scenario in question is, of course, the prelude to the Suez war of 1956. Israel’s adversary at the time was not Iran, but Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. In September 1955, Nasser signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, which provided him with sophisticated arms in unprecedented quantities. The new weapons, however, were unfamiliar to the Egyptian military, which needed time to absorb them into the ranks. Meanwhile, Nasser organized terror attacks against the Israelis while sponsoring revolutionary movements aimed at driving Britain and France from the Middle East. Eventually, the British also despaired of American policies. They fell into direct alignment with the French.
The situation that President Obama now confronts is uncannily similar. There are enduring patterns to American relations with the Middle East, and President Obama would be well advised to study the war that erupted on Eisenhower’s watch. He should treat it as a cautionary tale—not least because the two European powers and Israel launched parallel invasions of Egypt in October 1956.
Eisenhower was taken totally by surprise, and he felt betrayed. He took the extraordinary step of voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations against his own allies. Imposing severe sanctions on the Europeans, he brought the British to the brink of economic collapse. He demanded, with near-total success, that all invading forces evacuate Egypt unconditionally.