Read Ike’s Gamble twice – once as history and once as metaphor.
The temptation is to insert “Obama” for “Eisenhower” and read on, but if you do, you will miss Michael Doran’s fascinating look at the general-turned-president and the politics of the time in which he served. Retrospectively, Americans tend to think of the mid-1950s as the halcyon days. The big war was over with the United States as the only superpower and the only Allied country without massive damage on the home front. The Baby Boom was in full swing and the GI Bill providing an education to millions who had served abroad. There were Levittowns and poodle skirts. Elvis Presley’s “[You Ain’t Nothin but a] Hound Dog” was released in 1956. And Dwight D. Eisenhower, after ending the Korean War, was generally considered a genial, not-too-bright president who played golf as much as he did anything else (OK, shades of Obama here).
The post-World War II period was also the last gasp of British and French imperialism, and the rise of American influence in the Middle East. It was when Eisenhower’s patience with Winston Churchill ran thin and finally lapsed. It was the first serious British-American realignment since the War of 1812. It was when, for the first time, America’s misunderstandings about Arab and Muslim nationalism mattered. And, for the first time, Washington was in the international driver’s seat, dealing with the transformation of the USSR from wartime ally to atomic bomb-armed adversary.
Doran, a former Middle East advisor to the White House and deputy assistant secretary of defense, captures the diplomatic tone perfectly. He doesn’t seem to care much for Churchill, however, or at least Churchill in his post-war incarnation as prime minister.
Beginning with Churchill’s 1953 visit to Washington to bid farewell to Harry Truman, Doran paints him as stuck in “empire mode” and eager to get on to relations with Eisenhower, with whom he was intimately familiar. But Eisenhower was no longer Supreme Allied Commander, charged with bringing home the prize demanded by his civilian boss, President Franklin Roosevelt (the “unconditional surrender” of Nazi Germany). Now he would decide the prize – and he was already writing the British out of the Middle East.
Eisenhower showed Churchill a polite face and left to his subordinates the task of telling the prime minister. Anthony Eden, Churchill’s foreign secretary, agreed with Ike’s criticism of Churchill, but he, too, had a uniquely British way of viewing his country, the United States and the wider/colonized world – an “odd couple” with England as James Bond and the U.S. as Felix Leiter. Eisenhower was no more accommodating of Eden’s view than Churchill’s view.
He had his own – or rather, he had Secretary of State John Foster Dulles view, bolstered by a cast of characters from the British Foreign Office, the State Department and the CIA. One familiar name is Kermit Roosevelt, but the other two key players are almost unknown in American circles – retired Brig. Gen. Henry Byroade and British diplomat Evelyn Shuckburgh. Doran makes them politically understandable and three-dimensional. Dulles told Shuckburgh thatU.S. policy was designed to “deflate the Jews,” at which Shuckburgh didn’t bat an eyelash.
Eisenhower’s chief priority appears to have been to keep the Arabs on “our side” of the Cold War. This would entail:
• Pulling as many countries as possible into the Northern Tier – an alignment of Turkey and Iraq with room for Pakistan and Jordan – particularly Egypt’s General Gamal Abdel Nasser, and bribing him as necessary.
• Separating the United States from the colonialist French and British in the eyes of the Arab world – again particularly Nasser, which entailed pushing the British out of the Suez Canal Zone as quickly as possible as a down payment to the Egyptian leader; and
• Solving the Arab-Israeli crisis by leaning on Israel as the remaining currency with which Nasser would be bribed. “What we had in mind was (a) slightly smaller Israel,” as Byroade said.
What Eisenhower – or Dulles, et.al. – missed was that Egypt’s strong man had his own priorities.
Nasser’s chief objective was to assert his position as leader of the Arab nationalist movement, not as an American ally. Thus he was far more interested in destroying the Northern Tier than in joining it because Iraq was Egypt’s chief rival in the region, not a brotherly Sunni Arab state.
Byroade and Shuckburgh both professed surprise at this. Shuckburgh wrote in his diary, “The Egyptians are in a state of fury about (Iraqi Prime Minister) Nuri’s determination to sign a pact with Turkey and will not be comforted. I had no idea they were quite so jealous of Iraq.” The Egyptian desk officer at the State Department, William Burdett, confessed, “None of us anticipated the strength of the Egyptians’ reaction. And considering how irrational they have been, it is difficult to see how we could have done so.”
“Byroade’s ignorance of inter-Arab politics and his deep conviction that forcing concessions from Israel was they key to winning over Nasser made it easy for him to convince himself that Nasser’s conflict with Iraq was ephemeral.”
Solving the Arab-Israel crisis was not only NOT on Nasser’s list of priorities, but peace with Israel would openly undermine his plan to be leader of the Sunni Arab world. It was, therefore, a non-starter regardless of what Israel or the United States did.
In fact, for all the discussion about Israel, its size, shape and role, the country only shows up in the book as a player on page 188. At which point British imperialism kicks in again as Israel, which had agreed to launch the first shots of the war against Nasser, said it would have to be a border skirmish, not an all out attack. British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd replied that “Britain could not justify an invasion of Egypt on the basis of a mere border skirmish. Lloyd demanded, instead, that the Israelis launch what he called ‘a real act of war.’”
Dulles, who considered himself anti-imperialist, behaved instead very much like a traditional imperialist. He told Nasser what he thought Nasser wanted to hear, failed to listen to the inter-Arab subtext, excused Nasser’s provocations and lies, and believed Nasser only wanted help from Washington. Early in the game, Dulles “informed his staff that it was important to ‘pursue policies in the area during the next few months that will help build up Nasser and give us the opportunity to say to him that we are prepared to cooperate with him in strengthening his position, but that it must be accompanied by his cooperation in Alpha [the Baghdad Pact].”
And his State Department “informed the American ambassador in Cairo that it intended ‘to convince Nasser that we… are desirous of extending our support and assistance – political, economic, and military – to Egypt and in general of assisting Egypt to achieve the international standing to which she is entitled to aspire.” Dulles explained:
For many years now, the United States has been walking a tightrope between the effort to maintain our old and valued relations with our British and French allies on the one hand, and on the other, trying to assure ourselves of the friendship and understanding of the newly independent countries who have escaped from Colonialism. Recent events, are close to marking the death knell for Great Britain and France… If the United States supports the French and British on the colonial issue,” [we would go down with them]. ”
Eisenhower added insult to injury when, during the 1956 Suez war, Nasser managed to cut off Britain’s oil supply and Washington declined to provide North American oil, telling aides, “those who began this operation should be left to work out their own oil problems – to boil in their own oil, so to speak.”
Following his showdown with the French and British, Eisenhower took on Israel, forcing it out of the Sinai with threats of sanctions and rejection of Israel’s security demands, and announcing that to prevent “incalculable ills” for Israel, “In the interests of peace – the United Nations has no choice but to exert pressure upon Israel to comply with the withdrawal resolutions.” Dad still knows best. Dulles wrote:
I expressed the view that we had gone just as far as was possible to try to make it easy and acceptable to the Israelis to withdraw and I felt that to go further would almost surely jeopardize the entire Western influence in the Middle East and make it almost certain that virtually all the Middle East countries would feel that United States policy toward the area was in the last analysis controlled by the Jewish influence in the United States and that accordingly the only hope of the Arab countries was in association with the Soviet Union.
Which is precisely where they went. Egypt, Iraq, Syria became Soviet allies and Eisenhower turned to the Saudis as the basis for U.S. power projection in the region. Eisenhower, Doran writes, had decided “supporting traditional allies was less beneficial to the West than a policy aligning the United States with ‘the whole Arab world.’ The concept is unusual. Steely-eyed realists like Eisenhower tend to bet on tangible entities…above all, they support friends and punish enemies. The French, British, and Israelis repeatedly urged Eisenhower to adopt this conventional conception, but he steadfastly refused. He was unshakably convinced that a bet on his traditional friends would undermine the Western position in the Cold War.”
This is a good place to start the metaphorical reading – but don’t spend too much time there.
President Barack Obama had a plan to reduce American involvement in the Middle East/Persian Gulf and boost regional alternatives. He invited Muslim Brotherhood representatives to his Cairo speech over the objection of longtime American ally, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, and then into the White House. That gave way to the promotion of Iran as a regional partner, disregarding the objections of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states (not to mention Israel). The president’s view of Israel mirrored Ike and Dulles, Byroade and Shuckburgh – with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the center of regional disruption and Israel as the center of the problem. Bombing Libya removed long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who had turned his nuclear/chemical capabilities over to the United States and United Kingdom, and spent the previous decade serving as a barrier to al-Qaeda moving across North Africa. The departure of U.S. forces from Iraq empowered Sunni jihadist ISIS and Shiite jihadist Iran at the same time.
All of this rearranging of allies and adversaries was at least as high-handed and colonialist as anything Dulles and Ike ever managed, with similarly dismal results for the same reasons.
1. Finding “new friends” at the expense of old friends and calling it “accepting new realities” doesn’t work;
2. Ignoring the provocations and threats from the new friends doesn’t make them more moderate; and
3. Calling the Arab-Israel conflict the priority of the Arabs in the face of all evidence to the contrary doesn’t help.
Ike’s Gamble is a great and readable piece of history, but there’s always a nit to pick; this one is on page 142. Doran writes, “Van Loon attended the Conference of Arab University Graduates in Jerusalem (the Old City was Jordanian at that time) as a guest of the Iraqi delegation.” The Old City was never Jordanian. Pronounced corpus separatum in 1947 by the United Nations, the eastern side was conquered and annexed by Jordan and the Jews expelled in 1948. The annexation was recognized only by Pakistan and Great Britain.
Chapter 13, called “Regret,” details Eisenhower’s later thinking about Israel and about the region. The Obama administration would have done well to start there, and it is worth the price of the book.