Book review: Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East - how the US failed in Suez

US President Dwight Eisenhower misread the Middle East when he backed Gamal Abdel Nasser over his nationalisation of the Suez Canal – a mistake he lived to regret.

People walk through bombed streets during the Suez Crisis in 1956, which looked like it might trigger another world war. Bellamy / Getty Images
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This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis that shocked the western world with its tangles of politics and nationalism, greed and opportunism, imperial manoeuvring and Cold War brinkmanship.

Michael Doran, former White House Middle East adviser and a deputy assistant secretary in the department of defence under President George W Bush, in his new book Ike's Gamble: America's Rise to Dominance in the Middle East, seeks to untangle the great mess of Suez and present it for a new generation living in its shadow.

It’s a larger task than it seems on the surface. The precipitating factors of the Suez Crisis and its progress from week to week can be laid out with deceptive ease. In June of 1956, handsome young Egyptian nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser supplanted Egypt’s president and took the office himself, borne along on the wave of Pan-Arab anti-colonialism directed against the country’s erstwhile imperial overlord, Great Britain, and its ally France. Britain had had close, controlling relations with Egypt and was all the more eager to keep those relations smooth in order to guarantee the unimpeded flow of oil tankers through the Suez Canal.

In deference to anti-colonial sentiments growing in Egypt and throughout the Crown’s former empire, Britain had begun withdrawing its troops from the Canal Zone in 1954. The last British troops left in June of 1956, ending nearly 75 years of military occupation, and in July of 1956, Nasser gave a long and instantly famous speech in Alexandria announcing his decision to nationalise the Suez Canal, what Doran calls with simple accuracy “the single greatest move of his career”, rightly pointing out: “It is impossible to exaggerate the power of the emotions that the canal takeover stirred in ordinary Egyptians.”

The response from British prime minister Anthony Eden was quick and unambiguous. He warned Nasser that the Suez Canal was too important an international asset to be in the hands of one man. Nasser was unfazed; he’d been furious at the high-handed complications he’d recently encountered from the British and the Americans regarding the financing of the Aswan Dam, and the imperial arrogance of Britain’s emissaries – and the general-purpose arrogance of the US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles – only served to put extra sting in his contention that if Egypt had access to the immense profits of the canal, it could finance its own development projects.

The whole situation put US president Dwight D Eisenhower in a tight spot. He was fighting for re-election in one month’s time; the last thing he wanted to do was announce America’s involvement in a shooting war in Africa.

The British and the French had no such worries, of course. On the night of November 5, their forces invaded the Canal Zone city of Port Said in an attempt to wrest the Suez from Nasser’s control. Eden had been counting on the American president to support his actions, or at the very least stand aside, and he was correspondingly shocked when Eisenhower instead reacted with peremptory anger, threatening the instant strangulation of British currency markets if the Suez invasion wasn’t halted at once.

The USSR, solicitous of Nasser’s growing popularity and happy to maintain the weapons-buying deals he was striking in Soviet bloc countries, threatened Britain with nuclear war if troops weren’t withdrawn. For a small, vertiginous span of days, things looked to be on the brink of a third world war.

But Eden, ailing and uncertain, could recognise the threatened American financial strictures for the flat veto they were. A ceasefire was called in November, and pundits the world over began theorising about Suez and the End of Empire, writing op-ed pieces and books about the last, pathetic attempt at what Dulles angrily referred to as “the straight old-fashioned variety of colonialism”. Nasser himself became a superstar, an Arab leader who defied the old Crown powers and won.

The heart of Doran’s book concerns the key source of Nasser’s victory: president Eisenhower, who startled America’s oldest allies by siding against them with the forces of Arab nationalism in the person of president Nasser, even though Nasser was engaging in what Doran calls “policies of defiance”, supporting rebels in Algeria and East Africa, conducting “subversive activities” in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and continuing to tighten its ties with Russia and various Soviet satellite states. Doran seeks to understand the reasons for Eisenhower’s unlikely decision to side with an incendiary stranger over old and trusted friends.

Eisenhower favoured the encouragement of nationalist movements in the Middle East, not only because he hoped it would foster stable pluralism in the region but also, and more importantly, because it was a canny move in the constantly-seething Cold War being conducted all over the world by the US and the Soviets. Eisenhower risked propping up Nasser as a bulwark against the further infiltration of Soviet influence into the region, and as Doran writes: “It would not take long before Eisenhower would come to realise that Nasser’s appetite only increased with eating.”

At first, the Egyptian leader must have seemed like a good bet. "In another age, Nasser could have been the sort of Arab leader favoured by the West," writes Alex Von Tunzelmann in Blood and Sand, his own recent study of the Suez crisis. "He was pro-American, anti-communist, and secular, yet blessed with almost unlimited credibility throughout the Middle East."

As a vigorous figurehead of an emerging populist government, he struck Eisenhower as a far more sympathetic alternative to the spent twilight empires of the previous century. In this, Doran maintains that the US president was being wilfully blind. “In ordinary life, the most successful conmen often evade detection because their victims are so entranced by the fantasy on which the con is based that they fail to realise they have been fleeced,” he writes. “So, too, in political life.”

Our author may describe Eisenhower as a “steely-eyed realist”, but the clear message here is that the gamble mentioned in the book’s title was ultimately a bad one, favouring an unknown set of new forces over a known, albeit sometimes unworthy, set of old ones. Parallels with the West’s 21st-century involvement with the Middle East are readily drawn; it’s to Doran’s credit that he doesn’t belabour the obvious.

There’s a great deal to credit in this compact and densely-researched book. Doran breaks his 13 chapters into numerous sub-chapters designed to keep the narrative moving briskly along and also to keep an eye on all the many moving parts of the crisis, from the explosive Arab-Israeli conflict to the dynamics of Nasser’s rule to the increasingly frenzied diplomacy being attempted on all sides.

Doran’s portraits of his characters are done with skilful economy, as in the case of Radio Cairo propaganda coach Paul Linebarger, who’ll be known to science fiction connoisseurs as Cordwainer Smith, or in the case of Dulles himself, often simplistically condemned for his role in the whole incident but here given refreshingly even-handed assessment.

And towering over all such personalities in the book are the two men who defined the limits of the Suez crisis: Nasser, whose odd combination of calculation and charm is compellingly drawn in these pages, and president Eisenhower, whose Cold War calculations Doran resolutely exposes even while he’s arguing for a more nuanced and more appreciative estimate of the man.

“Behind the agreeable mask, Eisenhower was pure steel,” Doran writes. “What is more, he was shrewd – so shrewd that even his close advisers often failed to read him correctly.”

That Eisenhower himself misread the complexities of his day’s Middle East (and, according to Doran, eventually came to regret it) has never seemed so understandable as in this history.

Doran’s impatience with the standard interpretations of the Suez Crisis becomes more and more refreshing as the book builds momentum. We begin with Eisenhower and Dulles entering the Arab world hoping to be “honest brokers” in their efforts to align Middle Eastern powers against the looming threat of Soviet encroachment, and things only deepen and fracture from there.

The result is an excellent, lively account of the seminal precursor event to our modern world.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.