Thursday, November 30, 2006

Aspects of Suez

[posted by Callimachus]

I'm not going to give a detailed account of the whole Suez crisis of 1956. Probably Wikipedia can give you a decent summation. Most of the key participants told different versions of the events till the day they died, so any attempt at straight-up narrative explanation is bound to bog down in buttresses and dossiers.

But the background, and the consequences, are what matters most now, in terms of understanding how these things happen.

BRITAIN: Sir Anthony Eden could see the shapes of things straight enough but had a problem with scale. He was a politician trying to escape Churchill's bulky shadow, leading a nation in serious economic trouble and in need of a morale injection and proof that it still could be a world player independent of the U.S. Yet Eden was too honorable to be a Machiavelli, too conscientious to be an aggressor, too pro-Arab to stick with the Jews for long, and none of those things in sufficient measure to avoid trying all three.

[Paul Johnson -- Reader_i_am is a fan as well -- has an assesment of Eden's rivals that may amuse our British friends: Eden was "sandwiched between two would-be successors: the old Appeaser, R.A. Butler, who wished to pull the party in the direction of the Left, and Harold Macmillan, who wished to pull it in the direction of himself. Both behaved in character."]

Eden's wiser course would have been to use diplomacy to pressure Nasser, wait till after the American election, then get together with Eisenhower and hammer out a plan (remembering the American had graciously solved a British problem in Iran by toppling Mossadeq). But if Eden had thought of changing his mind, his old boss Churchill was still in the next room -- the lion may have been toothless by now, but he still had claws -- roaring about "appeasement."

FRANCE: The Fourth Republic was on its last legs. Tunisia was lost and Algeria was crumbling -- abetted by Nasser. Even more than Britain, the French needed a big, public showdown and they needed to win it.

ISRAEL: It was not entirely clear Nasser had done anything illegal with regard to the Suez Canal. However, his effective blockade of Israel's southern port and his refusal to allow its ships through the canal was illegal and a casus belli between two nations technically still at war. Egypt was sponsoring Fedayeen and commando raids from Gaza, and Nasser's October pact unifying the military command of Syria, Egypt, and Jordan was a prelude to an attempted war of extermination. Israel, typically for the times, didn't wait to be hit.

AMERICA: Washington was bidding for influence in Egypt, the pivotal state in the Arab world in those days. So were the Soviets. Nasser and his generals were not particularly ideological, but they were strong nationalists. By the time of Suez, the Americans largely had given up on wooing Nasser, who was playing the game perfectly.

But Dulles still felt the U.S. had a chance to assert its influence in the wider Arab world and thwart Nasser's pan-Arabist dreams. When the attack against Egypt came, Eisenhower fumed, "How could we possibly support Britain and France if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?" [John Lewis Gaddis, "The Cold War," p.127]

Eisenhower also seems to have understood something his allies chose to overlook. In a warning letter to Eden on the eve of the crisis, he wrote, "Nasser thrives on drama." The French and the British may have looked on this escapade as a temporary expedient to pull them out of their global slides. For Nasser, it was his element.

Eden hatched a scheme that, combined with his nature, guaranteed the worst possible outcome. Derek Leebaert writes, "Britain and France caused the maximum grief for themselves and everyone else, especially America, by mounting a great reassertion of empire, then losing their nerve as they faced threats from both the United States and the Soviet Union." ["The Fifty-Year Wound," p.203]

U.S.S.R. Moscow, wringing its hands over Hungary (and Yugoslavia, and China) was in no position to help its new client in Cairo, except by nuclear sabre-rattling, which is what it did. The menacing letter to London arrived after the British and French already had realized they must cave in to the Americans, but the Soviets always believed it was their threat that had turned the Suez situation around.

"Father was extraordinarily proud of his victory," Sergei Khrushchev recalled. The lesson he learned and applied in later crises was both that nuclear weapons were all-powerful and that he didn't need many of them. [William Taubman, "Khrushchev," p.359]

The crisis confirmed the Soviets in another belief as well. Those "with the strongest nerves will be the winner. That is the most important consideration in the power struggle of our time. The people with the weak nerves will go to the wall."

Khrushchev (through Bulganin) also proposed joint U.S.-Soviet action to end the fighting. The Americans rejected this, as the Soviets anticipated they would when the proposal was made. The Soviets then gloated over the revelation that Americans weren't truly interested in peace and justice after all. "We had unmasked them!" Khrushchev exulted.

In the American leadership's minds, the relatively minor real role of the Soviets in this imbroglio seemed magnified. It further confused the already muddy conflation in Washington of "anti-colonialism" and "communist conspiracy" which would be a haunting and deadly error in the Cold War.

CONSEQUENCES: The big victors were Nasser, and Arab nationalism generally. Nasser emerged as the Third World's anti-imperialist champion. None of his worshippers seems to have noticed that his shiny new Soviet-supplied military had been pounded to scrap iron by the Israelis in less than a week. The Arab world, and the U.N. leadership, also felt themselves confirmed in the prejudice that Israel was nothing but an outpost of the old imperial power.

However, Nasser, and the movement he embodied, did not survive the debacle of 1967, and the Arab world's subsequent turn away from a quest for secular, nationalist solutions, and toward jihad.

Gaddis, in keeping with his theme that "Cold War superpower" is a misnomer because, while capable of destroying the world, the U.S. and the USSR were hamstrung in diplomacy and practical action, focuses on Nasser's triumph:

[B]eing a Cold War superpower did not always ensure that one got one's way. There were limits to how much either Moscow or Washington could order smaller powers around, because they could always defect to the other side, or at least threaten to do so. The very compulsiveness with which the Soviet Union and the United States sought to bring these states within their orbits wound up giving those states the means of escape. Autonomy, in what might have seemed to be inhospitable circumstances, was becoming attainable. Tails were beginning to wag dogs. [p.128]

Paul Johnson writes in "Modern Times": "The real loser in the long term was the United States. Eisenhower appeared to act decisively, and he got his way fast enough. Britain came to heel. He preserved his reputation as a man of peace. But in the process he helped to prepare a mighty scourge for America's own back, in the shape of the tendentious concept of 'world opinion' ..."

Especially in the form of the United Nations, into whose lap the whole Suez problem fell. The U.N. ignored its own earlier resolutions seeking fair access to the seaways for Israel, ignored the ongoing Soviet invasion of Hungary, and harshly rebuked the British, French, and Israelis. [Eden had expected the Americans to run interference for them in the U.N., as the British had for the Americans two years earlier over Guatemala.]

NATO ties frayed. A few years later the Kennedy administration, obsessed with Fidel Castro and perhaps having read too many James Bond novels, asked MI5 to get involved in assassinating him. "We're not in it anymore," was the blunt British reply. "We got out a couple of years ago, after Suez."

In France, the fiasco helped bring the national crisis to a head. And the unwritten last testament of the Fourth Republic willed Vietnam to America. As soon as 1967, when the next general Arab-Israeli war broke out much as the 1956 attack did, France, which in 1956 had been Israel's principal military supplier, denounced the Jewish state's "aggression" and, incredibly, blamed the U.S., because its presence in Vietnam supposedly set the example that instigated Israel's air strike against Nasser.

Whether the Suez Crisis tied America's hands in dealing with the simultaneous rebellion in Hungary is a doubtful matter. Even before Suez, Eisenhower and Dulles never considered lifting a finger to help the Hungarians. It can be said Eisenhower and Dulles showed consistency in their handling of the simultaneous crises: In each case the goal was to keep a regional flare-up from turning into a global war.

But at what a cost. The juxtaposition showed something ugly and conflicted in U.S. policy: America left the Soviets a free hand to crush the uprising it had helped inspire in Hungary, while it blustered mightily about the "imperialism" of its own allies. As Khrushchev said after the crisis, the Americans help their allies "the way the rope helps the man who is being hanged."

But the immediate, and most tragic, consequence of Suez was the chaos that resulted from the overnight deflation of the two empires that had been, when Eisenhower was a boy, the world's true superpowers.

Paul Johnson calls Suez "one of those serio-comic international events, like Abyssinia in 1935, which illustrate historical trends rather than determine them." That's essentially true, but once trends get highlighted so emphatically, and a broad swath of the world suddenly becomes aware of them, the trends become stampedes. And the change can have consequences.

Suez definitively uncovered how much the postwar greatness of Britain and France had been resting on habit and bluff. ... Suez was the deathwatch of Britain's sense of itself as the third of the Big Three. Within a matter of weeks, observed political commentator Alan Watkins, bright young people were no longer dressing for dinner. [Leebaert, p.204]

The catastrophic sudden imperial withdrawal from India in 1947 was repeated on a global scale. Forty new nations tumbled out of the old empires in rapid succession -- 19 in 1960 alone -- most of them doomed to fall into the hands of what Ghana's George Ayittey coldly summed up as "crocodile liberators, Swiss bank socialists, quack revolutionaries and grasping kleptocrats."

It was idle to believe that imperial power, established by shattering what indigenous legitimacy had existed, could, just by the fact of European departure, be transformed into deeply rooted constitutional authority. The sudden abandonments propelled by the Cold War ensured a freezing of colonial boundaries, which were often inauthentic ethnically or economically but were nervously consecrated thereafter because of the trouble that would be let loose if any border came under challenge.

The Cold War did not so much accellerate change in the not-particularly-developing world as create it a generation ahead of schedule, short-circuiting what might have been a more considered process. [Leebaert, p.204]

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