Monday, March 19, 2007

Jeopardy category: Middle East debacles

A: Henry Kissinger said the following about this Middle East conflict between a coalition of Western nations and an Arab state:

It takes perseverance to find a policy which combines the disadvantages of every course of action, or to construct a coalition that weakens every partner simultaneously. [X] managed just that feat. [Diplomacy, Simon & Schuster, 1994 (paperback), p. 541.]

Q: What is the Suez crisis of 1956? (With Great Britain, France, and Israel as the mystery bunglers.)

Wikipedia provides a brief summary of the crisis:

The United Kingdom objected strongly when the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal Company on July 26, 1956.[4] By this stage, two-thirds of Europe's oil was being imported via the canal. The United Kingdom sought cooperation with the United States throughout 1956 to deal with what it maintained was a threat of Israeli attack against Egypt, to little effect.

The alliance between the United Kingdom, France, and Israel was largely one of convenience; the European nations had economic and trading interests in the Suez Canal, while Israel wanted to reopen the canal for Israeli shipping and end Egyptian-supported fedayeen incursions and hit-and-run raids.

[Inexplicably omitted here is the part where Israel invaded Egypt in late October 1956 as a pretext for British and French forces to “intervene” to separate the warring parties, thereby regaining control of the Canal. - YB]

When the Soviet Union threatened to intervene on behalf of Egypt, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson feared a larger war and proposed a plan to separate the opposing forces by placing United Nations forces between them to act as a buffer zone or 'human shield'.

Eventually, pressure from the United States forced the United Kingdom, France, and Israel to withdraw. The crisis resulted in the resignation of the British Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden. This marked the completion of the shift in the global balance of power from European powers to the United States and the USSR, and was a milestone in the decline of the British Empire.

Harry from Crooked Timber compares Suez to Iraq:

[T]he parallels are striking. In both cases, it is clear that a small handful of policymakers were determined to undermine the targeted dictator, and were not about to be deflected by stupid facts. In both cases democratic scrutiny simply didn’t operate; neither Blair/Bush nor Eden were subject to the kind of hard questioning by their cabinet colleagues that should have stopped them, or at least forced them to act less precipitously. And in each case, as we know only too well in the case of Iraq, neither politicians nor military had any kind of long term plan.

These are fairly vague parallels, that, while accurate, could have also applied to virtually every American military action since WWII.

There exist more exact similarities between the two conflicts.

From Kissinger again, we see that American neocons were not the first to claim that the perils of Munich lurked in the dark plans of a Middle Eastern strongman:

France was even more hostile [than Britain] to Nasser. Its major interests in the Arab world were in Morocco and Algeria, the former a French protectorate, the latter a department of Metropolitan France containing a million Frenchmen. Both North African countries were in the process of seeking independence, for which Nasser’s policies provided emotional and political support. The Soviet arms deal raised the prospect that Egypt would become a conduit for Soviet arms to the Algerian guerrillas as well. “All this [is] in the works of Nasser, just as Hitler’s policy [was] written down in Mein Kampf,” declared France’s new Prime Minister, Guy Mollet. Nasser [has] the ambition to recreate the conquests of Islam.”

The analogy to Hitler was not really on the mark. Implying that Nasser’s Egypt was determined to conquer foreign nations, it ascribed a validity to Middle Eastern borders that the Arab nationalists did not recognize. The borders in Europe—except for those in the Balkans—reflected in the main a common history and culture. By contrast, the borders of the Middle East had been drawn by foreign, largely European, powers at the end of the First World War in order to facilitate their domination of the area. In the minds of Arab nationalists, these frontiers cut across the Arab nation and denied a common Arab culture. Erasing them was not a way for one country to dominate another; it was the way to create an Arab nation, much as Cavour had built Italy, and Bismarck had created Germany out of a plethora of sovereign satates.

However inexact their analogy, once Eden and Mollet had nailed their flag to the anti-appeasement mast, it should have become clear that they would not retreat. They belonged to the generation, after all, that viewed appeasement as a cardinal sin, and Munich as a permanent reproach. Comparing a leader to Hitler or even to Mussolini meant that they had moved beyond the possibility of compromise. They would either have to prevail or lose all claim to governance—most of all in their own eyes. [p. 531]

The dynamic duo then pioneered a UN-baiting tactic used to similar effect nearly 50 years later:

After [Secretary of State] Dulles’ October 2 press conference abjuring the use of force a second time, a desperate Great Britain and France decided to go ahead on their own. British and French military intervention was now only a few tactical moves away. One of these was a final appeal to the United Nations, which had played a curious role throughout the whole affair. At first, Great Britain and France had sought, with American backing, to avoid the United Nations altogether, fearing the Nonaligned group’s solidarity with Egypt. As they edged closer to the end of their diplomatic tether, however, France and Great Britain did appeal to the United Nations as a sort of last perfunctory gesture to demonstrate that, because of the world organization’s utility, they had no other choice than to act alone. The United Nations was thus transformed from a vehicle for solving international disputes to a final hurdle to be cleared before resorting to force, and, in a sense, even as an excuse for it. [539]

Here’s the setup:

The British and French expedition had been ham-handedly conceived and amateurishly implemented; designed in frustration, and lacking a clear-cut political objective, it doomed itself to failure.

And the punchline:

The United States could never have supported so flawed an enterprise. [543-44]

Kissinger apparently has more faith in American foreign policy than I do, but it’s true that the relatively cautious Eisenhower at least attempted to avoid costly military entanglements, which is more than can be said of virtually every president since. By the current decade, the roles of the players have been switched somewhat, with the U.S. now the declining power lashing out to preserve its rule.

Leon Hadar sketches one possible future for the U.S. in the Middle East, after the U.S. and Israel take long-threatened military action against Iran:

While the United States and Israel emerged as victorious from the military campaign, not unlike the British, French, and Israelis after the 1956 Suez Campaign against Egypt, they found themselves totally isolated in the international community and facing enormous diplomatic and economic pressure to reverse their policies. As oil prices soared to more than $125 per barrel, Venezuela imposed an oil embargo on the United States, and China threatened to create the conditions for the collapse of the dollar by selling her U.S. Treasury bonds if Washington did not agree to convene an international conference on the Middle East that would determine the political future of Iraq and Lebanon, as well as take steps toward imposing a peace accord on Israel and Palestine.

Jim Henley reacts:

The possibility of China reacting to an Israeli or American strike on Iran with the same sort of economic blackmail weapon Eisenhower deployed against the anti-Egyptian allies 51 years ago seems intriguingly plausible. It would have the same means - appeal to the local nationalisms of the region - and ends - oust the old hegemon(s) and become the new one.

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will take as active a role in its own decline as did France and England half a century ago.

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