Hagel has learned the wrong lessons from the 1956 Suez Crisis

Mivtza Kadesh – the Suez Crisis 1956

A fascinating insight into the mindset of Chuck Hagel, the candidate for US Secretary of Defence, and by extension the motivations behind US foreign policy under Barack Obama , is brought to us by David Ignatius of the Washington Post when he writes “What the Suez crisis can remind us about US power“.

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.

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.


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.


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.

However, a counter-opinion in the Washington Post by Michael Doran a few days later explains how Hagel is misreading Ike about how to treat an ally:

Dwight D. Eisenhower is certainly worthy of emulation, but Hagel has unfortunately learned precisely the wrong lessons. In 1956, Britain, France and Israel launched coordinated invasions of Egypt. To say that Eisenhower disapproved would be an understatement. He directed at his allies a level of hostility typically reserved for worst enemies. After demanding that the attacking forces evacuate Egypt immediately, he imposed crippling economic sanctions on France and Britain. Against Israel, he threatened sanctions while engaging in bare-knuckle diplomacy.

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.


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.


This realization led to a paradigm shift. During Suez, Eisenhower had envisioned the United States as an honest broker, shuttling between the Arab world and the alliance of Britain, France and Israel. By 1958, he defined the American role in an entirely new way. The job of the United States, he now realized, was to balance the status-quo Arab powers against a set of revisionists, who were aligned with the Soviet Union. In that context, Israel was more an asset than a liability. Historians typically ascribe this intellectual innovation to Nixon and Henry Kissinger. They were the first to publicly articulate the perspective, but Nixon had absorbed it while serving at Eisenhower’s side.

Today, another revolutionary wave is sweeping the Arab world, driven once again by internal factors. Meanwhile, Hagel remains fixated on a U.S.-Arab-Israeli dynamic. This magical triangle has never had the all-pervasive influence ascribed to it. As long as Hagel remains in its thrall, Eisenhower’s true realism will elude him.

This very important viewpoint is expanded upon in “Learning the wrong lessons from Ike” by Alexander Yoffe in the National Interest (via the Middle East Forum):

It appears that Hagel sees Eisenhower’s demand that Israel leave the Sinai Peninsula, which it captured in a one-hundred-hour campaign in late October and November of 1956, as an explicit model for future relations, where American demands for Israeli withdrawals will be acceded to, if Israel knows what’s good for it. But 1956 was about more than Israel in the Sinai. These offer more useful lessons for policymakers.

The brief and ill-conceived campaign of Israel, Britain and France to capture Sinai and the Suez Canal grew in part out of American policy failures. Since the late 1940s, America’s primary goals in the region were to halt the spread of Communism and Soviet influence, maintain the flow of oil from friendly regimes, and to manage the Arab-Israeli relationship. By the end of that decade the oil still flowed, but the rest was in tatters.

At every turn, the United States waddled into Arab and Muslim politics it did not understand and failed to take Israeli concerns seriously. It also thought that spending vast amounts of money on economic development would westernize Arab thinking and generate gratitude, and that military aid to Arab nationalist regimes would ensure stability.


Long fearful of Soviet designs for the northern Mediterranean and Western Asia, the United States provided military aid to Turkey and Pakistan in 1954. The next year, Iraq, Turkey and Britain signed the U.S.-supported Baghdad Pact, but this led Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to sign an agreement later in that year opposing the pact. U.S. offers to Nasser to support construction of the Aswan High Dam enticed him to give up his opposition. But this enraged Iraq, since by September 1955 Nasser had succeeded at getting both U.S. aid and Soviet arms from Czechoslovakia.

The direct lead-up to the 1956 war was marked by similar U.S. miscalculations. Running out of options, Dulles turned to the UN, which promptly demanded Israeli concessions. Increasing Arab cross-border attacks were met by Israeli retaliation, but Washington and the UN condemned only the latter. The U.S. refusal to provide Israel with arms, despite the Egyptian deal with the Soviets, heightened a sense of desperation and a search for new allies, namely Britain and France. Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in July 1956 lit the final match but Eisenhower’s four-month diplomatic scramble to prevent war failed.

Under pressure from Eisenhower, Israel, France and Britain withdrew their forces. Soviet forces, which had invaded Hungary in October 1956, did not. American diplomacy that had been concerned with the apparent similarities between the two events could not make the contrasts clear in the UN. But Eisenhower and Nixon still campaigned successfully on their having kept the United States out of direct confrontation with the Soviets and won the November elections. American liberals and non-interventionists were impressed, but American adversaries were not.


Hagel could point to 1956 as an example of unintended consequences and how no good intentions or grand bargains go unpunished in the Middle East. Or he could point to 1956 as an example of how incommensurable promises to unreliable partners interested solely in extracting money and weapons from superpowers inevitably end in failure. He could even note that forcing allies into concessions is less impressive than successfully exerting pressure on adversaries. These, the real lessons of 1956, are unlikely to have been his message.

It is becoming clearer than ever (in case it wasn’t obvious enough already) that Chuck Hagel is most unsuitable to be nominated the US Secretary of Defense, not only for the sake of Israel, but more importantly for the sake of America. Let us hope that the rumours that his nomination is now in doubt are true, even if for reasons other than foreign policy ones.

This entry was posted in International relations, Mideast news and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.