Jul 26, 2006

50 years after Suez: Britain's blunder? Or ours?

Douglas Hurd, who was there, looks back and draws parallels to the war in Iraq and the current war in Lebanon. But his lessons learned aren't mine; and his view of the current situation doesn't ring true either.
Fifty years since Suez, and this week the cauldron boils over yet again. Some of the ingredients are different. Britain and France used force in a way they would not now dare. The United States in 1956 had the power to stop the crisis which it has now lost. Most Arabs today accept the existence of Israel, but fail to impose that acceptance on those still bent on its destruction. Israel still tries to safeguard its citizens by using overwhelming force which breeds hatred and future danger. Suez was a dramatic setback for Britain; but this week we can look back almost with relief at how quickly that crisis was controlled.
There's so much that is wrong here ("Most Arabs today accept the existence of Israel"?) and that's only the first paragraph. Hurd believes that President Eisenhower's opposition to the joint British/French/Israeli Suez plan "saved" Britain. I'm inclined to think it was Ike's worst moment. William Rees-Mogg, who was also there, agrees.
One’s judgment of historic events inevitably changes over time. In July to November 1956 I was a convinced advocate of Eden’s Suez policy. From 1957 to about 1990 I thought that the invasion of Egypt had been both a blunder and a failure. I note that this is still Douglas Hurd’s view in The Spectator; he saw the crisis as a junior member of the foreign service, of broadly conservative views. He writes: “The decision on Suez is now impossible to defend.”
The notion of one's changing view of history seems apt here. It seems to me that Hurd sees the current situation through the prism of the Cold War, which played out in a series of crises that never managed to erupt into full-scale global warfare. (Though the Cold War, with its feints and parries, had more than its share of humanitarian catastrophes such as the Hungarian Uprising, which also occurred 50 years ago.)

And Arab nationalists have another take on Suez: They compare Nasrallah to Nassar.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the former Egyptian leader’s momentous seizure of the canal, Tuesday’s edition of the Nasserist Al Karama weekly carried a full-page picture of the Lebanese guerrilla leader with a caption that read: “Nasrallah, in Nasser’s footsteps”.

Another opposition weekly, Al Arabi, published an entire supplement entitled: “Nasser 1956 - Nasrallah 2006: We will fight and not surrender”.
Nasser's standing in the Arab world can be partly attributed to Eisenhower's insistence on a cease fire. An insistence that did nothing to ingratiate the US in the Arab world as Nasser aligned himself with the Soviet Union.
Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal was a direct challenge to the West. Eden believed that the challenge had to be met. Eisenhower and Dulles, his Secretary of State, were not prepared to meet it; at the Suez Canal Users Conference held in London it became apparent that American policy could not be trusted. Dulles promised action, which he failed to take.
The UN is again calling for a cease fire in the Middle East. Fortunately, President Bush is, so far, taking no part in it.

US, defender of the Arabs?
Secrets and lies at the heart of Britain's Middle Eastern folly
Canada's role at Suez
How Suez made Nasser an Arab icon

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