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Suez and Iraq, two of a kind

Simon Jenkins

For Eden read Rumsfeld. For Eisenhower read Annan. The ironies of recent history are uncanny

CONSIDER the following. A British prime minister is so obsessed by a Middle East dictator that he screams “I want him destroyed” and declares war on him. He concocts a “threat” to British security and seeks to inveigle Americans and others to join him. The dictator has tweaked the lion’s tail. He and others like him must be taught a lesson. Besides, there is oil to consider. The Americans are appalled. The dictator, replies the president, is no threat to world peace or to anyone but his own people. War would destabilise the region and propagate anti-Western sentiment among the Arabs. It would breach numerous treaties and be seen as imperialist. Besides, what of the United Nations? It must be given time to consider Britain’s case. That is what it is for.

The British prime minister will have none of this. The UN, he says, is for wimps, a place of stallers and cowards. America should understand that the world has moved on and faces new threats. The dictator is so monstrous that treaties and laws no longer hold. America should remember Mussolini and Hitler. It should be more concerned for the security of Israel.

If Washington lacks the guts for war, Britain will go it alone. The American president demurs. “From this point onwards,” he says, “our views diverge.”

I have immersed myself in the Suez crisis — such being the above — through reading the remarkable 1955-56 correspondence between Anthony Eden and Dwight Eisenhower (University of North Carolina Press, see this week’s TLS). Although fragments have been used in histories of the period, the complete letters have not appeared before. They show an astonishingly precise role reversal between Europe and America then and now. Eden might be Donald Rumsfeld. Eisenhower might be Kofi Annan.

Eden pleads with Eisenhower to understand the threat represented by the Egyptian, Abdel Nasser, who has just nationalised the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company (albeit with compensation). To Eden Nasser is Saddam and al-Qaeda in one, “active wherever Muslims can be found . . . from the Persian Gulf to Nigeria”.

Nasser is out to dominate the region, unseat friendly sheikhs and threaten Israel “to the point where the whole position in the Middle East will be lost beyond recall”. Nasser is the “greatest hazard facing the Free World since 1940”.

Eisenhower is incredulous. In among references to wives and holidays he chides Eden for grossly overstating Egypt’s importance. War is not acceptable just “to protect national or individual investors”. There can be no question of the “legal rights of sovereign nations being ruthlessly flouted”. Nasser was not threatening oil supplies or ships in the canal. Britain’s sabre-rattling was rallying support for him across the Middle East, which was far more destabilising. Eden, in other words, was behaving like an old imperialist out to prove his virility. As for Eden’s constant references to Hitler and appeasement, Eisenhower clearly felt they insulted his intelligence.

America’s deepest concern was for the UN. “There should be no thought of military action,” Eisenhower warns Eden, “before the influences of the UN are fully explored . . . Initial military success might be easy, but the eventual price might be far too heavy.” Every peaceful means must be exhausted before a resort to war. The British were rushing to action when there was no evidence that Nasser was using violence to infringe the UN Charter. Surely they should concentrate on “on-the-spot” inspection under UN auspices? American public opinion, Eisenhower wrote, considered that “the UN was formed to prevent this very thing”.

Desperate not to seem the aggressor, Eden colluded with the Israelis to get them to attack Egypt, so Britain could invade apparently to “protect the security” of the canal. It was a tactic that involved grand diplomatic and intelligence deception. To a furious Eisenhower, it “violated our pledged word” under a 1950 treaty that the West would act in the Middle East only in concert. Eden’s response was pure Pentagon. In the face of Nasser, he said, treaties and agreements were “past history”. Britain’s UN Ambassador was told to block Eisenhower’s attempt to stop Israel from attacking Egypt. Britain was the champion of Israel’s expansion.

I have never encountered modern history so laden with irony. Every one of Eisenhower’s warnings proved right. Eden may have been under pressure at home, but it was from a public hysteria he had himself generated. Like George Bush (and Tony Blair), he craved an enemy abroad, one he could exaggerate by rhetoric and against whom a crusade would rank him with his warlike predecessors. At that point alliances, laws, the UN, even the improbability of success, did not matter — only “conviction”.

Eisenhower emerges from the Suez letters as a counsellor of maturity and judgment, distressed to see an old friend embarking on disaster. He rebukes Eden as a latter-day imperialist, lacking a strategic vision and unable to keep global threats in proportion. He shows an America aware of the realpolitik of the Middle East while Britain proclaims a duty to set the world to rights.

Hegel bids us learn from the mistakes of history, but offers no guidance as to which bits of history are mistakes. The parallels between Suez and Iraq are astonishingly seductive. But just as Eden could mistakenly cite Hitler during Suez, so we should be chary in citing Suez in Iraq. Both were “optional” wars. The first was a disaster, destroying Eden and leaving the canal closed for 20 years. The second is still a matter of heated debate.

But one message echoes down the ages. I have no doubt that at Suez Eisenhower’s analysis was right and Eden’s wrong. There are no Eisenhowers today, in the White House or in Downing Street.