Ike’s Gamble by Michael Doran is an account of the 1956 Suez Crisis with a perspective different from many previous ones which were directed from narratives from CIA players at the time.
The United States under Eisenhower supported the rise of independent nations and the decline of colonialism. The CIA and the State Department opposed the recognition of Israel under Truman and remained consistent in that position under Eisenhower. Recognition of Israel in their view stood against American interests (as they saw it), and stood to alienate us from the Arab world and possibly drive them into the communist sphere.
For the CIA and the State Department Gamal Nasser stood as a leader of the Arabs in the Middle East and deserved the support of the United States. When Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal the British, French and Israelis conspired a plan to retake the canal with force. Eisenhower stood with Nasser and strongly against his former allies and forced them to withdraw.
Britain’s Churchill and Anthony Eden warned of the consequences of surrendering such power to Nasser, comparing it to the appeasement of Hitler at Munich. Eisenhower rejected this approach, sensing that colonialization was a dying institution and Arab nationalization was an inevitable growing specter. He allied American power accordingly.
Nasser’s success in the campaign elevated him to hero status in the Middle East and he expanded his power quickly; allying with Syria, and likely promoting the bloody coup is Iraq in 1958. Nasser also embraced Soviet influence in a way that alarmed Eisenhower. The President quickly regretted his decision and took action to save Lebanon and Jordan from encroaching Egyptian power. Eisenhower tried unsuccessfully to promote a northern alliance with Iraq and Iran and Pakistan and wished to make the Saudis a center of power. This infuriated Nasser as a direct threat to his power.
Nasser became bolder, broke his promises to the U.S., militarized the Sinai, and amassed a serious enough threat to Israel that they attacked Egypt in the 1967 war and devastated Nasser and his power. Eisenhower retired supported and praised the Israeli move. Israel accomplished in 1967 what the British wanted to do in 1956, but the Mideast had substantially changed in the interim.
Eisenhower regretted his decision during the Suez Crisis, but once he realized his mistake he took corrective action. Other opinions at State blame our failure to support Nasser as much as we should have earlier, driving them into the Soviet sphere.
Eisenhower learned that Israel was not the main driving issue that State made it to be. There were much greater contests for power between rival Arab countries such as Iraq and Egypt than there was between Israel and the rest of the Mideast. Israel was a useful common enemy. Ike realized that the chances for Pan Arab unity was nil.
Israel went from being the pariah of the State Department to a useful ally, and relations were re-established with our French and British allies.
The negotiations before and during the crisis were complicated and trying. Very experienced and knowledgeable players in American foreign policy made rational and morally guided decisions with the focus on American interests and badly blundered. They believed things to be true that were not, and underestimated the organic friction with other powers in the region. Foreign policy is the most treacherous of political arenas.
The best we can hope for is to recognize errors when we make them and correct them as honestly and quickly as we are able. The CIA and State likely suffered the problems of an undiversified bubble mentality that was unable to consider options and views that became clear only too late.
Ike’s Gamble was a great read on the history and policy of the crisis, but it is also a valuable look at the difficulty and complexity of foreign policy.