David Ignatius: What Suez crisis can remind us about U.S. power

David Ignatius
Opinion writer January 25, 2013

Chuck Hagel means it when he describes himself as an “Eisenhower Republican.” He kept a bust of President Dwight Eisenhower in his Senate office for a dozen years and has a portrait of Ike on the wall of his current office at Georgetown University.

But the most compelling evidence of Hagel’s fascination is that he purchased three dozen copies of an Eisenhower biography and gave copies to President Obama, Vice President Biden and then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates, according to the book’s author, David Nichols.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

The book that so interested Hagel, “Eisenhower 1956,” examines one of the most delicate and dangerous moments of Ike’s presidency. Published in 2011, it’s basically the story of how Eisenhower forced Israel, Britain and France to withdraw from their invasion of the Suez Canal — thereby establishing the United States as the dominant, independent power in the Middle East.

It’s impossible to read Nichols’s book without thinking of recent tensions between the United States and Israel over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Just as Egypt’s mercurial leader Gamal Abdel Nasser posed the preeminent threat to Israel in the 1950s, so it is today with Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What’s interesting about Eisenhower is that, while sympathetic to Israel’s defense needs, he was also determined to maintain an independent U.S. policy and avoid a war that might involve the Soviet Union.

“We believe that the power of modern weapons makes war not only perilous — but preposterous,” Eisenhower said on Nov. 1, in his final speech before the 1956 election, which coincided with the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary to put down a revolution there. It truly was the moment that tested the old warrior’s belief that there should be no more war.

As the Senate deliberates Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary, it should consider the “Eisenhower 1956” narrative carefully. It’s a useful guide to how Hagel thinks about American power in the Middle East — and it explains ideas he has shared with the top U.S. policymakers, Obama and Biden.

Many themes came together at Suez: the falling empires of Britain and France; the rising global hegemony of the United States; the turmoil of the Arab world; and the assertive, unpredictable role of an Israel that, then as now, saw itself fighting for its life amid hostile Muslim nations.

Eisenhower had been watching the Middle East with foreboding since he became president in 1953. He said in a January 1956 news conference that the United States should pursue an Arab-Israeli policy that was “above politics” and encouraged “some kind of friendship, at least cooperation between the two sides.” This gauzy idea of evenhandedness would be severely tested.

Ike said in a March 29, 1956, letter to Winston Churchill that the Middle East was “the most important and bothersome of the problems that currently confront our nations.” His anxiety increased in July, when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.

The British, French and Israelis — unbeknown to Eisenhower and his advisers — were secretly plotting to roll back Nasser’s control of Suez. Their tripartite alliance, code-named “Operation Musketeer,” was formalized in an Oct. 24 secret protocol that specified that Israel would invade the Sinai Peninsula five days later. The three collaborators designed what Nichols calls “smoke screens” to conceal their plans from the United States.

When the Israeli invasion came on Oct. 29, a week before the U.S. election, Eisenhower was irate. He told Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: “Foster, you tell ’em, goddamn it, that we’re going to apply sanctions, we’re going to the United Nations, we’re going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing.” The United States did, indeed, win a cease-fire resolution at the United Nations, despite opposition from Britain, France and Israel.

Eisenhower took a political risk. He was blasted by his Democratic rival, Adlai Stevenson, who charged on Nov. 1 that if the United States had acted more forcefully to support Israel, it might have avoided war. But Ike prevailed, winning reelection, forcing the attackers to withdraw from the canal and enunciating a strategy for U.S.-led security in the region that came to be known as the “Eisenhower Doctrine.”

How does this story apply to modern-day Israel and America — especially for an Obama administration that, while committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, devoutly hopes to avoid military action? The parallels are impossible to draw precisely, but it matters that the cautious and fiercely independent Eisenhower is a role model for the prospective future defense secretary.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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