Bad Bet

The rivalry between an ascendant U.S. and a waning England shaped the modern Middle East.

Flickr. The rivalry between an ascendant U.S. and a waning England shaped the modern Middle East.

Michael Doran, one of America’s leading experts on Middle East affairs, does not have time for orthodoxy when it comes to analysis of the historical and political imperatives driving policy in the region.

This sets him at odds with other exegetes, many of whom have a tendency to focus on America’s close but thorny relationship with Israel when dealing with bigger regional questions. This relationship distorts and damages America’s ability to work effectively in the region, some argue, because Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians inflames local anger and hobbles the growth of other relationships. It has long been an article of faith among certain sections of our foreign policy establishment that the turn towards Israel begun by Truman and continued intermittently by subsequent presidents has done irreparable harm to our strategic interests. What would the region and the world look like had we pursued an alliance with the emergent Arab states, they ask, rather than with the emergent Jewish one?

That this question is treated as a counterfactual is strange. As Doran’s new book Ike’s Gamble — well worth the time of anyone interested in the Middle East — points out, the U.S. did aggressively pursue closer relations with the Arab world at the expense of Israel. It did strive to be, in the words of the president who executed that project, an “honest broker.” It did attempt to foster client states amid the nascence of various Arab nationalisms. This strategy did not work. It does, however, present a clear and valuable lesson about a necessary skill for all leaders, not just military and political ones: the ability to look clear-sightedly at past decisions, see where you went wrong, and correct accordingly.

The trenchant argument put forward in Doran’s account of the post-war efforts of to court the Arab world is, in a word, that the Eisenhower administration’s attempt to cultivate an ally in Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was a serious mistake. Doran gave The Octavian Report an an exclusive interview on the topic to explore his thinking. The rationale behind it, as Doran explained, was a seemingly realistic impulse. After the 1952 coup of the Free Officers against Egypt’s King Farouk, anti-colonialist sentiment came to a head. The U.S., Doran says, felt “that backing the British” — then the colonial masters of Egypt and a powerful if waning player in the region — “would be a terrible mistake because it would lead in the first instance to an Egyptian-British war. More broadly, it would alienate the Arabs whose nationalist aspirations were seen to be so powerful that they couldn’t be blocked. They had to be redirected.”  This decision came, Doran points out, against an eerily familiar background: “There was a strong belief, a unanimous belief among all the senior officials and the government, both elected and career bureaucrats, that the association of the United States with Israel was destroying the American position in the Arab and Muslim world. Therefore just as the United States needed to tack away from the British somewhat and make accommodation with local nationalists, the same thing was true with Israel. The phrase that we would use today would be to ‘put daylight’ between the United States and Israel in order to prove to the Arabs that they could realize their nationalist aspirations in concert with the United States.”

This meant, of course, backing the true leader of the Free Officers, a charismatic young colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser (the real power behind the throne, which was occupied, so to speak, by General Mohammed Naguib) — and ultimately siding with him during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when international tensions rose to the boiling point after Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and culminated in Israel’s invasion of Egypt.

There were other strategic impulses at work here as well, Doran points out. One was a weakened England. “The British Empire was in severe decline,” Doran notes. “Winston Churchill was Prime Minister and he really wanted to hold onto the position in the Middle East. He regarded the British position in Egypt as the key to holding onto the British position in the region in general.” For America to cement its new position as rising global hegemon, a way of managing and profiting from this decline had to be developed.

The more serious threat, however, came from the Soviets. As Doran puts it, “100 percent of Europe’s oil came from the Middle East. The reconstruction of Europe was the strategic priority of the United States in the Cold War. The Soviet Union was showing an increased interest in the Middle East. We knew on the basis of documents that we had captured from the Nazis during World War II that in the course of the Molotov-Ribbentrop negotiations over Poland, Molotov had explained to the Nazis that the center of the aspirations of the Soviet Union was the Persian Gulf. Soviet behavior after the war reinforced that notion. The Soviets created puppet republics in northern Iran and the Republic of Mahabad and the Republic of Azerbaijan. There was a sense that the Soviets were trying to push into the Middle East. There was this fear that they would align with radical elements in the region to cut off the flow of oil to Europe and hold European reconstruction hostage.”

But Eisenhower’s decision — motivated in part by analysis from John Foster Dulles, his Secretary of State — did not play out as intended. “After 1956,” Doran says, “there was a wave of revolutions (not unlike the revolutions that we saw in 2011) all of which worked to the disadvantage of the west in the Cold War. By 1958 you have a revolution in Iraq.” The decision to back Nasser against Britain, France, and Israel, while it put paid forever to the imperial age of Great Britain and dealt a severe humiliation to France, did not have even in the medium term the desired effect. Israel was, by many measures, a strategic winner — a result that ran counter to the entire purpose of the enterprise. It entrenched Nasser in power (and provided fuel for the first of his authoritarian political impulses, which included restrictive measures levied against Egypt’s ancient community of Jews), but that entrenchment proved to be the entrenchment of pan-Arabism as a political force more broadly in the region. This provoked a rapid and explosive shifting of power balances from its earliest days: two years after the Suez Crisis, Nasser’s chief Arab antagonist Nuri al-Said — the prime minister of Iraq — was deposed and killed. This removed the biggest local obstacle in Nasser’s path to creating, as Doran points out, an Egyptian sphere of influence to replace the British and French he had so skillfully undermined. Nasser also was welcomed into a close embrace by the Soviets, and thus helped extend the USSR’s own zone of influence in the region. Which is the precise result Eisenhower’s move was intended to avoid. “When he put daylight between the United States and Israel, between the U.S. and Britain,” Doran notes, “Eisenhower created a space for an Egyptian-Soviet alliance, a space for Nasser to align with the Soviet Union and for the USSR to make tremendous inroads into the region. He found that Nasser pocketed every concession that the United States gave and then demanded more.”

How did Eisenhower miscalculate so badly? Doran thinks that in large measure he simply got outplayed. “We didn’t understand Nasser,” Doran says, “partly because Nasser didn’t want to be understood by us. The thing that he wanted from us was to get the British out of Egypt. He couldn’t do that with the 80,000 troops the British had stationed there. He couldn’t get them out without our help. But he had a larger agenda which he was not telling us about, which was that he wanted to get the British out of the Middle East in general. When we first woke up to it we were so concerned about solving the Arab-Israeli conflict that we turned a blind eye to his regional aspirations. We didn’t understand the extent to which they really were at odds with American plans for the whole region. It took a good year, while he was busy trying to ferment revolution in Iraq and Jordan. We were dreaming of solving the Arab-Israeli conflict unrealistically.”

Eisenhower did, eventually, come to realize his error, says Doran. As he puts it in Ike’s Gamble: “Thanks to his military experience, [Eisenhower] was accustomed to reviewing his actions and assessing their effectiveness.” The aftermath of Suez prompted a wholesale re-evaluation of the Middle East on his part — he even foresaw to some degree what shape the new geopolitical reality in the region would take as power contests between Arab states intensified. Namely that Israel would side with Jordan in the Hashemite Kingdom’s inevitable struggle with Egypt and its satellite Syria, a prediction amply borne out in September of 1970 when (during the efforts of the Palestine Liberation Organization to topple King Hussein) Syria threatened intervention and Israel managed to stave it off through the threat of kinetic action. “He understood,” says Doran, “that Israel was playing the role of a stabilizing force in the Eastern Mediterranean. Look how much blood and treasure we expended to trying to build up a stabilizing force in the Persian Gulf and to no avail. If you have a country like Israel that is willing to work closely with you and stabilize its part of the Middle East — that’s golden, you can’t buy that.”

Eisenhower’s insight into his own failed gamble should serve as a valuable lesson to America’s current political leadership. Not least because it has an unnerving echo the major foreign policy effort of the Obama administration, the JCPOA (an object of much criticism from Obama’s successor). “Barack Obama made an outreach to Iran which required the U.S. making concessions upfront to the Iranians and trying to develop a new relationship by turning a blind eye to everything the Iranians are doing in the region. I think that was pretty much the same deal that Eisenhower was trying to broker with Egypt and I think it has been having exactly the same effect. The Iranians are pocketing all the concession that they’re getting from the West and not changing any of their behavior anywhere else.” This seems, in the cold light of day, hard to argue with. Its broader implications, too, are clear. It’s not only political leaders who need the ability to assess their own tactical and strategic errors and, if not rectify them, at least warn others not to repeat them (though we fervently hope Donald Trump learns the art of hindsight). Any decision-maker needs to develop and refine that capacity. Ike’s Gamble — in addition to being a necessary corrective for some serious analytical gaps in narratives about American presence in the U.S. — offers a historically grounded blueprint for doing just that.