Skip to comments.A Man, A Plan, A Canal [Suez, 1956]
Posted on 08/04/2006 11:08:04 AM PDT by Fiji Hill
A Man, A Plan, A Canal
What Nasser wrought when he seized Suez a half century ago.
By Arthur Herman
ON JULY 26, 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, at that time the most vital international waterway in the world. The Middle East, and all of us, still live under the shadow of the fateful events his decision triggered 50 years ago. Even more than the Cold War, the Suez crisis has shaped the world we live in. And at its heart was the biggest American foreign policy blunder since the War of 1812.
The socialist Proudhon said the origin of property was theft. The same could be said of the modern Middle East. By any objective standard, Nasser's seizing of the canal was theft. Until that July, it had been administered by a private company headquartered in Paris and owned by international shareholders. Nasser had even signed an agreement recognizing the Canal Zone's autonomy two years earlier, which allowed Great Britain to pull out the last troops from its bases in Suez.
That withdrawal, of course, freed the Egyptian dictator to do what he pleased. Nasser decided to grab the canal to pay for his ill-conceived dam on the Nile at Aswan. He also reasoned that the resulting international outcry would only build up his reputation in the Arab world, and that the response from a declining British Empire, and the rest of the West, would be all talk and no action--even though Suez was vital to Britain and Europe for their oil from the Persian Gulf.
This was Nasser's one miscalculation--but in the end it proved unimportant. In 1956, memories of Hitler and Mussolini were still fresh. Appeasing demagogic dictators who broke international law had few advocates. Just three years earlier, Iran's Mossadegh had tried to nationalize Iran's oil wells. The British and the CIA had kicked him out of power for his pains.
Britain's prime minister, Anthony Eden, assumed he had to respond to Nasser's move with some show of force, especially if he wanted to lay claim to being Winston Churchill's political heir. He also saw an opportunity to reassert Britain's authority on the world stage after the loss of India. But ,unlike Churchill, Eden had no understanding of history; he had, in historian Paul Johnson's words, "a fatal propensity to confuse the relative importance of events." He also never understood, as Churchill had, that to use military force, one had to be ready to use it to the hilt.
So, when the British high command informed Eden it would take six weeks to assemble enough ships, planes, and men to take back the canal and topple Nasser, Eden turned to the French for help. They in turn appealed to the Israelis. For some time the Israelis had wanted to wipe out the Palestinian guerrilla bases which had sprung up along their border with Egypt since the 1948 war, camps run by a Palestinian student-turned-Nasser flunky named Yasser Arafat. So Israel's chief of staff, the 41-year-old Moshe Dayan, drew up a plan with the help of a young paratrooper colonel named Ariel Sharon for an incursion into Gaza and Sinai in coordination with an Anglo-French landing at Suez. The Israelis assumed the West would back up bold action against hit-and-run terrorists and those who supported them.
But they, and their allies the French and British, had not reckoned on the United States. President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were preoccupied with the Cold War. Like their Democratic predecessors, they were reluctant to support any move that smacked of "colonialism," no matter how justified. And Eisenhower, in Stephen Ambrose's words, was "uncomfortable with Jews" and never understood the threat Israel faced from its Arab neighbors. So the Americans refused to endorse the Suez invasion. "We do not want to meet violence with violence," Dulles said--words that have a disturbing echo today. Then the Americans went further. If the British and French attacked Egypt, Eden was told, the United States would not back them up in the United Nations.
Finally, in late October, after weeks of hesitation and prevaricating, the British, French, and Israelis struck. The British and French Operation Musketeer was a stunning success; in the face of the Israeli attack, Nasser's army collapsed. French paratroopers and tanks were poised to roll into Cairo. But then, with American encouragement, U.N. secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld became involved.
To this day in elite circles, his name is treated with pious reverence second only to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. After his death, his face even graced an American postage stamp. In fact, Hammarskjöld was arguably the worst secretary general in the history of the United Nations. He was certainly the most devious. He was the bleak prototype of another U.N. apparatchik, his fellow Swede Hans Blix. Smug, icily cerebral, essentially humorless, he possessed a smooth arrogance that concealed a bottomless pit of liberal guilt.
Suez was the making of him. From the start, Hammarskjöld steered the U.N. debate away from the question of how to deal with a lawless dictator, making it an open forum for denouncing "Western imperialism." The loudest voices came from the Russians and their Communist allies, who made Israel their particular target (even as Russian troops were crushing the revolt in Hungary). Nasser became the new hero of the "nonaligned nations," the Fifties code phrase for the new countries in Asia and Africa who were ready to play one Cold War superpower against the other. According to at least one insider, although Hammarskjöld personally despised Nasser, he deferred to Nasser's ambassador "on all points and at all stages" in arranging a final cease-fire and calling for a British, French, and Israeli withdrawal.
To Hammarskjöld, the issue was simple. If you were European and white, you were always in the wrong. If you were nonwhite, you were a victim of something and ipso facto in the right. Even so, Hammarskjöld's U.N. resolutions would have remained so many scraps of papers had President Eisenhower not threatened to break the pound sterling on the world's financial markets. Eden's will to fight burst like a soap bubble. French and British troops began pulling out in March 1957. Nasser triumphantly claimed his canal; Israel withdrew from Gaza and the Sinai.
The Suez crisis was over. But the damage it did was, and remains, incalculable. Eisenhower had wrecked the trust between the United States and its former World War II allies for a generation; in the case of France, for all time. If anyone wonders why French politicians are always willing to undermine American initiatives around the world, the answer is summed up in one word: "Suez."
Suez destroyed the United Nations as well. By handing it over to Dag Hammarskjöld and his feckless ilk, Eisenhower turned the organization from the stout voice of international law and order into at best a meaningless charade; at worst, a Machiavellian cesspool. Instead of teaching Nasser and his fellow dictators that breaking international law does not pay, Suez taught them that every transgression will be forgotten and forgiven, especially if oil is at stake.
As for Nasser, Israel moved to the top of his agenda. Attacking the Jewish state became the recognized path to leadership of the Arab world, from Nasser to Saddam Hussein to Iran's Ahmadinejad--with the U.N. and world opinion standing idly by. Nasser also poured money and arms into Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization, making it the world's first state-sponsored terrorist group. And again, the world did nothing.
This, in the end, was the most egregious result of Suez. Hammarskjöld had ushered in a new era of international gangsterism, even as the U.N. became an essentially anti-Western body. Its lowest point came less than two decades later, in 1975, when it passed a resolution denouncing Zionism as racism and a triumphant Yasser Arafat addressed the General Assembly with a pistol strapped to his hip.
Suez destroyed the moral authority of the so-called world community. Fifty years later, we are all still living in the rubble.
Arthur Herman is the author, most recently, of To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (Harper Collins/Perennial).
And while Dag Hammarskjöld's halo turns out to be tarnished, I'm not sure that he could have been much worse than the UN's current Secretary General.
A Man, A Plan, A Canal
reminds of the word play:
A man a plan a canal panama spelled backwards is:
A man a plan a canal panama.
The biggest blunder the U.S. made in that situation was getting involved in the first place. There was no compelling reason for the U.S. to enforce some stupid agreement between Egypt and a former European colonial power.
It was also the first war I actually paid attention to in the news.
"Did you just make that up?"
In fact I did. I also invented the internet, Clinton was innocent, Vince Foster shot himself, Berger inadvertently misplaced secret documents in his underwear, and Dems care about this country.
What a bunch of nonsense! The French, Israelis, and Brits failed to tell Ike all the while it was the US that kept them free. If the Russians had stepped in, guess who would have to save their butts.
The current problems belong to Carter, the fool that allowed the crazies to take over Iran.
After his military successes, all the wannabees starting wearing a patch over one eye :)
Amen, DITTO and absolutely positively.
The creator of world terror...along with many other reprehensible things.
This is just stupid. The French were undermining and backbiting the US long before this.
The idea that they were loyal allies prior to 1956, and would be still, had we not "blundered" at Suez, is just too ridiculous for words.
Not as big an error as the author would have readers believe, but contemporaries have noted that Ike later considered it to be a mistake, as did Nixon in his memoirs. The idea was that Nasser would become pro-US, he didn't. It's not unreasonable to assume Arab duplicity over the Suez affected Nixon's actions in 1973.
I used to read Strategy and Tactics. When I was in high school, I belonged to a wargaming club, called the Kriegspiel Society, that was set up by one of our history teachers.
Had Jimmy Carter been involved, he would have solved the problem by giving the canal away.
Most useful responses to a complex situation demand more than a baseless opinion. In this case, for instance, can you think of a bigger one?
Other than perhaps handing over to the world's ugliest and mean baboons most of the world's energy supplies earlier in the century?
Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky (Hardcover - Oct 5, 2004)
How the heck are you?
"The French, Israelis, and Brits failed to tell Ike all the while it was the US that kept them free."
That is exactly the way I remember it, and furthermore, I sat at a radar scope at Wheelus Air Base just a few miles east of Tripoli, Lybia and watched the invasion unfold. We watched as a huge air armada progressed across the Mediterranean from west to east. Our two detachments east of
Wheelus and closer to Egypt, kept reporting the progress of the invasion force after they left our radars. All the time we were unable to account for the aircraft until they crossed into Egyptian airspace. It was then that our allies informed us of what they had in progress. At that point it was too late for Ike to stop it, which they believed he would have if he had known.
For the next few weeks we paid a price in the Arab world for what the British, French and Israelis had done. We had to close our base and repel mobs at the gates, and the British had fuel dumps sabotaged in and around Tripoli by mobs. The night skies glowed bright orange. Even though it was only a dozen years after WWII, the toothless Tiger had already been born. We were required to walk atop the perimeter of the walls securing our radar site carrying Carbines with no clips and no ammunition. Our State Dpartment didn't want a shooting incident to occur. It never was clear to me what we would have done if an attempt to breach the wall had occurred, but I sure did give it a lot of thought when it was my turn to patrol the perimeter.
Just for memories sake, it was 50 years ago in July when I arrived at Tripoli, a scant three months before the invasion of Suez, and it was fate that had placed me in a position to be a witness to it.
"How the heck are you?'
Bad Wire, real bad. (remember, you have got to read this in a very, slowwww, measured voice)
Movie has done poorly,...guess I should have hired at least one licensed climatologist. Seems global warming is the only gig in town right now. Went to a outdoor mountain man contest but they only wanted to roll me over in the water while they high stepped. Seems Slick has decided to come out and support me in my climate rant. Slick is looking sick. Must be like having a caged lion in heat stuffed in a rabbit pen. Hillary supposedly told him to keep it under wraps until after she is in the whitehouse and then she would cut him loose, right after she changes her name back to RottedHam. Well, that's all for now. I gotta take some more temp readings on the ice flow.
The French didn't trust us much after Ike said "no," to nuking the Commies at Dien Bien Phu in early 1954.
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