Adam Kirsch has an interesting review, in Tablet, of two new books on the 1956 Suez crisis.
Suez, it's generally agreed now, was a disastrous blunder by the British and French - and, by implication, their Israeli allies. Eisenhower stepped in, standing up for Nasser and quashing the plans of the old colonialists to retake control of the Suez Canal by force, thereby making it clear that a new era had dawned: the old European powers were now finally and definitively superseded by the US on the world stage, and the new "third world" had arrived on the scene - and their voice would be heard.
While one of the books takes this conventional line, the other - Ike's Gamble, by Mike Doran - suggests that Eisenhower blundered:
If Eisenhower took a gamble for peace in 1956, Doran believes that it was ultimately a losing one. Ike may have thought he was affirming the power of the United Nations and the independence of the postcolonial world. But, in fact, by empowering Nasser, he ended up damaging both the Middle East and American interests.
The root of Eisenhower’s mistake, Doran argues, was to see the Arab world as a monolithic entity, with Nasser at its helm. In order to appear as an “honest broker” in the Middle East, Eisenhower distanced the U.S. from its traditional allies in order to accommodate Nasser, which he believed would win America the affection of the Arabs at large. What this failed to account for, Doran believes, is that the Arab world was itself riven by national enmities, power struggles, and ideological disagreements. As it turned out, boosting Egypt meant that, less than two years after Suez, the governments of Iraq and Syria were overthrown by Nasserist, pan-Arab movements. (Syria was briefly merged with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic.) Egypt’s rise meant trouble for Saudi Arabia, which since the days of FDR had been America’s most important Arab ally (and oil supplier). And it spelled disaster for Israel, which was forced to fight much more serious wars against Egypt in 1967 and 1973. Neither the U.S. nor the region reaped any benefits from the Nasserist order that Eisenhower helped to sponsor.
Doran spends some time at the end of the book arguing that Eisenhower himself came to regret his position over Suez. He speaks of a notional “Ike of 1958,” whose views had become more realistic about American interests than the Ike of 1956. This idea rests on fairly slim evidence, however, and Doran seems to invest it with more importance than it requires. Really, it is Doran, not Eisenhower himself, who is making the argument that Ike’s gamble was a losing one.
In doing so, he is also making an implicit but unmistakable argument about America’s Middle East policy today. Any reader of Ike’s Gamble who is even a little familiar with the current situation will be able to draw the lines connecting Ike with Obama, and Egypt with Iran. Once again, Doran implies, an American president has fallen prey to the delusion that favoring one particular Muslim state is the same thing as being honest broker with the Muslim world. And once again, this approach has succeeded only in emboldening America’s enemies and endangering its friends, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel. This makes Ike’s Gamble a timely intervention into current debates. Obama won’t read it, but Hillary Clinton should.
From the Amazon review:
In Ike s Gamble, Michael Doran shows how Nasser played the US, invoking America s opposition to European colonialism to drive a wedge between Eisenhower and two British Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. Meanwhile, in his quest to make himself the strongman of the Arab world, Nasser was making weapons deals with the USSR and destabilizing other Arab countries that the US had been courting. The Suez Crisis was his crowning triumph. In time, Eisenhower would conclude that Nasser had duped him, that the Arab countries were too fractious to anchor America s interests in the Middle East, and that the US should turn instead to Israel.