The fiftieth anniversary of the Suez Crisis came and went this past November without much notice. That’s too bad because the Bush administration could learn a lot from the crisis, which ensued when the armed forces of Great Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt, then under the rule of Gamal Abdul-Nasser. In a move that earned the United States respect around the world, the administration of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower denounced the tripartite invasion as a violation of international law and used America’s considerable diplomatic leverage to force a withdrawal of these American allies.
The goal of the British, French, and Israelis was regime change. They compared Nasser to Adolph Hitler and insisted he was threat to the region’s security and to the world. He was believed to be developing chemical and biological weapons, and there was fear that he might even have long-term nuclear ambitions. He was accused of supporting Palestinian and Algerian terrorists. His nationalization of the Suez Canal Company from its British and French owners was seen as a dangerous socialist initiative that they hoped to reverse by re-opening the country to foreign investment and market principles. His autocratic rule and ruthless repression of dissent led to calls to liberate the country in the name of bringing democracy to the region.
Yet, despite this, the Eisenhower administration wisely recognized that, should our erstwhile allies succeed in their overthrow and occupation, it would set a dangerous precedent. The United States had led the world just weeks earlier in condemning the Soviet Union for its brutal invasion of Hungary and its denial of their right of self-determination. Recognizing that consistency in the application of international law was critical for U.S. credibility, Eisenhower figured that it would be wrong to allow its Cold War allies to get away with what it condemned its Cold War adversary from doing.
Indeed, Eisenhower realized that such an overt violation of the UN Charter and could risk a breakdown of the post-World War II international legal system critical to international stability. He also recognized that democracy could not be imposed from above and that free elections in the Middle East would not necessarily bring to power stable pro-American governments. The Eisenhower administration also recognized that the re-conquest of an Arab state by Western powers would breed widespread popular resistance, including guerrilla warfare and terrorism in Egypt and throughout the Arab/Islamic world, and would encourage anti-Western extremism.
The threat of U.S. economic sanctions against Britain and France, still heavily in debt to the United States from World War II, as well as against Israel, which was even more dependent on U.S. contributions in its early years than it is today, was enough to force these countries to withdraw from Egypt within weeks. Eisenhower initially challenged the Israelis and our European allies just days prior to the 1956 presidential election, in which he was seeking his second term. Despite the widespread belief – even at that time – that it’s politically dangerous to criticize Israel during an election campaign, Eisenhower was re-elected by a landslide.
This policy was even more popular overseas. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, in his biography of Eisenhower, “Eisenhower’s insistence on the primacy of the U.N., of treaty obligations, and of the rights of all nations gave the United States a standing in world opinion it had never before achieved.” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles noted, “This has been a policy which has evoked greater international support for the United States than we have secured at any time in our history.”
The Eisenhower administration was certainly not above violating international legal norms, such as clandestinely sponsoring coups against democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Iran. Yet at least the United States at that time had the sense to recognize the dangerous consequences of a full-scale invasion and occupation of an Arab nation by a Western power.
It is profoundly disappointing how much our country has regressed in the past 50 years. President George W. Bush, with the support of the Republican and much of the Democratic leadership in Congress, launched an invasion of Iraq using the same flawed rationalizations that the British, French, and Israelis used in1956. Not surprisingly, the dangers of such an offensive war recognized by Eisenhower have largely come to pass.
There is an important historic lesson here: when the United States defends our historic principles of enforcing the rule of law, support for the right of self-determination, and rejection of imperialism, we are respected and supported in the Arab and Islamic world. When we do otherwise, we become the targets of terrorists and extremists.
In short, we are not hated for our values. We are hated because we have strayed from those values.