That may sound like a scenario President Obama could face later this year, as Israeli-Iranian tensions mount and embroil him deeper in an election-year crisis. But it is actually what happened to President Dwight Eisenhower back in 1956. Nine days before that year’s election—which also landed on November 6—Israel began a ferocious attack across the Sinai Peninsula, joined by its allies in Britain and France. The attack was in response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, through which two-thirds of the oil for Western Europe moved. Days later, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene in Egypt, too, posing a threat of nuclear war.
Eisenhower managed to diffuse the situation before it reached a catastrophic conclusion. Through a rich mix of rigorous planning, commitment to the future, and stubborn resistance to political pressure, he was able to engineer a cease fire, prevent nuclear action, and pressure European and, ultimately, Israeli forces to withdraw from Egypt. As President Obama faces his own election-year crisis in the Middle East, Eisenhower’s tactics provide a timeless—and timely—prescription for effective presidential leadership.
Eisenhower, the World War II general-turned-president, liked to preach that “plans are worthless – but planning is everything.” The goal, Eisenhower would say, was to be prepared for absolutely anything and to “do the normal thing when everybody else is going nuts.” At no point in his presidency did this maxim help him more than in the Suez crisis. Eisenhower was able to walk through that strategic minefield with extraordinary composure, despite attacks being launched just days before his re-election; despite Secretary of State John Foster Dulles undergoing cancer surgery just six days after the attacks began; and despite everything imaginable going wrong.
Eisenhower’s leadership was so successful because, even before 1956, he had defined his core principles and contingencies in Middle East policy through his management of the National Security Council. Unlike President Truman, from whom he inherited the NSC, Ike personally chaired weekly planning meetings. By 1954, the NSC had defined specific Middle East policies for managing a post-colonial future, promoting an Arab-Israeli peace plan, and deploying American power to thwart Soviet designs on the region.
Ike could not know that his World War II allies would secretly conspire with Israel to invade Egypt. But the Suez War highlighted the strength of his forethought and planning as president. By New Year’s Day 1957, not long after the Israeli attack, Eisenhower unveiled to congressional leaders a plan for economic and military aid to the Middle East, including the option of military intervention to prevent a communist takeover. The president’s vision was so compelling that the Republican Eisenhower and his team were able to persuade a Democratic Congress to pass the Eisenhower Doctrine in a breathtaking two months.