All three powers buckled under the pressure, which was particularly damaging to Britain. Although Prime Minister Anthony Eden was America’s closest ally, Eisenhower brought his economy to the verge of collapse. The pressure destroyed Eden’s career and drove the final nail in the coffin of the British empire.
Realists in the Hagel mold find this episode exhilarating. Eisenhower, they say, pursued the national interest without concern for “sentimental” attachments, to say nothing of domestic lobbies. When applied to the present, the analogy calls for dealing sharply with Israel. The United States, the implication goes, must not allow its client to drag it into conflict with Iran. Instead, Obama must treat Benjamin Netanyahu with the same grit that Ike flashed at Eden.
But this analogy omits a key fact: Ike came to regret those policies. “Years later,” Richard Nixon wrote in the 1980s, “I talked to Eisenhower about Suez; he told me it was his major foreign policy mistake.” By 1958, Ike himself had realized his error and reversed course.
Two primary considerations prompted Eisenhower’s reevaluation. First, the Suez policy simply did not work. By distancing the United States from Israel and the Europeans, Eisenhower believed he was stabilizing the region and laying the foundation for a strategic accommodation between the Arabs, as a bloc, and the United States.
But the anticipated benefit never materialized. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged from the conflict much stronger and more adversarial to U.S. interests. The Soviet penetration of the Middle East deepened considerably. These trends had catastrophic consequences, chief among them the 1958 revolution in Iraq, which replaced the most pro-Western Arab government with a junta that migrated into the Soviet orbit.
The United States, Ike realized, was paying a heavy price for having broken the only immutable rule of a realist foreign policy: Support your friends and punish your enemies. It would continue to pay for years, and not just in the Middle East. When the United States became mired in Vietnam, Britain and France refused to help. Why should they? Eisenhower had taught them that membership in the NATO alliance imposed no binding obligations outside Europe.