Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East
(Michael Scott Doran, January 18, 2017)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Michael Doran is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He specializes in Middle East security issues. His most recent book is Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East. This major retelling of the Suez Crisis of 1956—one of the most important events in the history of U.S. policy in the Middle East—shows how President Eisenhower came to realize that Israel, not Egypt, is America’s strongest regional ally.
In the administration of President George W. Bush, Dr. Doran served in the White House as a senior director in the National Security Council, where he was responsible for helping to devise and coordinate United States strategies on a variety of Middle East issues, including Arab-Israeli relations and U.S. efforts to contain Iran and Syria. He also served in the Bush administration as a senior advisor in the State Department and as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Department of Defense.Before coming to Hudson, Dr. Doran was a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He has also held teaching positions at NYU, Princeton, and the University of Central Florida. He is the author of Pan-Arabism before Nasser, which analyzes the first Arab-Israeli war as an inter-Arab conflict.
Dr. Doran received a B.A. from Stanford University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. He appears frequently on television, and has published extensively in Foreign Affairs, The American Interest, Commentary, Mosaic Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
Robert R. Reilly:
It is an absolute delight to introduce our speaker this evening, who as you know is Dr. Michael Doran. He is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. He specializes in Middle East security issues. His most recent book, which is the subject of tonight’s talk, is Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East, a book which I could not put down. In the spare time over two evenings, I devoured it. It reads like a thriller. It is very well written, and you wonder how Dr. Doran maintained the suspense when we all know what the ending is, but he managed to do that.
And I was so taken with it that I sent him a note, saying Michael, you need to sell the film rights to this book and you have the advantage that the sequel will be so much less expensive because you can use the same script. All you need to do is change the names because the same illusions concerning the Middle East are unfortunately regnant today or at least were until Friday.
Show us the book.
Robert R. Reilly:
For those of you on stage right who did not see the book the last time I held it up, it is now on camera, Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East by Michael Doran, so, in addition, Dr. Doran served in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush in the National Security Council where he was responsible for helping to devise and coordinate United States strategies on a variety of Middle East issues. He also served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for support for public diplomacy in which capacity I first had the pleasure of meeting him those years ago.
Before coming to Hudson, Dr. Doran was a senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, so you could see he is bipartisan. He has also taught at NYU, Princeton, [and the] University of Central Florida. He is the author of Pan-Arabism Before Nasser. He received a BA from Stanford University [and he received an] MA [and] PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Doran.
Well, Bob, thank you for that, for that generous introduction and thanks to all of you for coming. It is a great pleasure to see old friends and to connect up again with Bob. Bob said he first met me when I was the DASD Support for Public Diplomacy that- actually, Bob gave me my first tutorial when I took that job. I was just starting and there is a lot about this subject. He had a background in VOA in the subject of well, what in other countries they call propaganda. We do not do propaganda in the United States, and he helped me understand the difficulties of doing it. He gave me some very wise advise for which I thank you again and I also want to thank you for all the nice things you said about my book.
What I thought I would do is spend- how many hours do I have, Bob? Two? Three? Yeah? I thought I would spend a little time just describing the book, talking about the book and then, one of the things I did not do in the book was connect up the dots to the present, so I thought I might do that here. Actually, I see the book as an allegory for the Obama Administration, but I believe the history has sort of an integrity to it, so I did not want to tarnish the integrity of the history by turning it into a policy argument. But I will do that tonight. I will destroy the integrity of that argument here.
So the book tells the story of a president’s learning curve. President Eisenhower came into power with a very clear picture in his mind of the Middle East and then spent the next six years thinking himself out of that picture and it was not an idiosyncratic picture. It was a picture that was shared by everyone, all of the senior members of the Eisenhower Administration, both political appointees and career bureaucrats.
They had a couple of principles I would guess you would say that they were utterly convinced of. One of them was that the establishment of Israel in 1948 or the support by the United States for the establishment of Israel was a strategic blunder of the first order, perhaps the greatest blunder in the history of American foreign policy.
The thinking there was very simple. The thinking was that the United States needed the Arabs in the Cold War. The Arabs were hostile to Zionism. The United States had supported Zionism, therefore it was alienating the Arabs and handing the Soviet Union an opportunity to steal a march on the United States. That part of the conception and an important part. I believe they conceived of the Israel question as the central question in the Middle East.
There was also what you might call the British question. When Eisenhower took office, the Prime Minister in London was Winston Churchill. It was his last government. He was about eighty years old. He was past his prime and the British Empire itself was weak. The British were still the dominant power in the Middle East, but all across the region there were nationalist revolts, breaking out against them, which raised a problem for the Eisenhower administration: should we be supporting the British against the nationalists or should we start tacking towards the nationalists?
They believed that nationalism was the wave of the future, that the British Empire was in inexorable decline, and trying to prop it up against nationalism was a fool’s errand. And so what they tried to do was kind of position themselves as mediators between the nationalists and the British and also the French as well.
The combination of this issue, the rise of nationalism and the decline of the British, and the Zionism question, created a very clear picture in the minds of Eisenhower and his top advisers. That picture was on one side we had Arab nationalism and I think you could go even further and say Third World nationalism. They did not use the term Third World at that point, but the peoples emerging from colonialism over here and on this side we had the British, the French, and the Israelis with the United States caught in the middle. And that picture I think shaped all of the major policies of the Eisenhower administration in the Middle East from the moment Eisenhower came into power in ’53 until 1958, until the Iraqi revolution in 1958.
So the book tells the story of how this picture shaped the policies, how all of the different policies were shaped by this picture, and how Eisenhower gradually as he experienced the realities of the Middle East, thought himself out of it so that by the time we get to 1958, he sees Israel as an asset, not a liability. And he also sees the British and the French as assets as well, although by that point he has also undermined them completely, so it was a regret that he could not do anything about, and the Israel question he could do something about, but with regard to the British and French he could not.
I will just give you a few highlights of the learning curve along the way. When he came into power as I mentioned, they believed that the central issue was the Israel question. But I would say it was the most important issue, but it was not the most urgent. The most urgent problem when Eisenhower took office was the tension in Egypt between the British and the Egyptians.
The British had 80,000 troops in the canal zone. What was euphemistically called the Suez Canal base was actually a zone a couple miles wide on either side of the canal all along the canal and it had many different bases. This was the center of the British security system for all of the Middle East and East Africa as well. So the British 80,000 troops were there and they were basically being held hostage by the Egyptians, who wanted them out.
The Egyptians were carrying out a kind of low-level guerrilla war against the British, and the Americans were afraid that this was going to break out into a hot war, and that hot war would – just as in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict – it would drive the Arabs, it would have a polarizing effect in the Arab world, and it would drive the Arabs into the arms of the Soviet Union. That was the nightmare scenario, and this was troubling to the administration because of the oil in the Middle East, which the Arabs controlled, and which Europe needed for its reconstruction. The number one strategic priority of the United States in the Cold War was the reconstruction of Europe.
We needed to get Europe up on its feet so it could balance the power of the Soviet Union, so it could deter the Soviet Union itself so that we did not have to have American servicemen on the ground in Europe against all of those Soviet divisions. But 100% of European oil came from the Middle East. 66% of it went through the Suez Canal. The other 34% went from Iraq across Syria to the Mediterranean, and then from the Mediterranean to Europe, so the nightmare scenario in the eyes of the Eisenhower administration was [that] there would be a war between Egypt and the British that would have a polarizing effect throughout the region, and the Soviet Union would exploit it, and the Arabs would start lining up with the Soviet Union against the United States.
To prevent that we took on a mediating role, and the book spends three chapters talking about this mediation. I thought it was actually really interesting. It is a part of the Suez Crisis, a kind of a prelude to the Suez Crisis that never gets told, and I came across these documents in the archive showing the United States really coming down very hard on the British, and I found it just fascinating.
Historians tend to think of Eisenhower and Churchill as great friends because they worked together during World War II, and because in public they put on a face. They put a public face of friendship on their interactions. Neither one of them had a political interest in displaying the disagreements that they were having both about how to deal with the Soviet Union at the time, but also about Egypt. Eisenhower and Churchill were absolutely at loggerheads over the Egypt question, and I tell it at length. Here I am going to summarize it for you in about one sentence, and it comes down to this.
We drove the British out of Egypt. We forced them out.
The story is a little more complex than that. I will let you go to the book and read it for the complexity, but for the purpose of tonight I will just say Eisenhower drove the British out, and the theory was that we would get the British out of Egypt, and then Egypt would line up with us in the Cold War, and then help us organize the other Arab states against the Soviet Union. We were not operating from the idea that the Arabs would join with the United States in a formal alliance against the Soviet Union, but we thought that Arab nationalism’s kind of inherent antibodies against foreign domination would work to our advantage against the Soviet Union. What we needed was a leader who would sort of direct those antibodies against the Soviet Union just to keep the Soviet Union out.
Why did we need the Middle East? We needed it for the oil.
All we needed was to keep the Soviets from controlling the flow of oil to Europe, and we were happy.
We thought we could accomplish that with Nasser. Nasser of Egypt took over. A charismatic colonel carried out a coup [d’état] in July of 1952. He came across to us as very pragmatic. He told us he was pragmatic. He told us he was pro-Western. He told us the natural place of Egypt in the Cold War was on the side of the West, and he told us that the thing which was making it impossible for him to line up with the West was the British occupation, and if we would just help him get rid of the occupation, then he would be free to help us organize the Arab world.
We fulfilled our side of the bargain, and we got the British out. And the long and the short of it is, again, a more complex and nuanced discussion is to be found in the book, but for the purposes of tonight I will say no sooner had we brokered the agreement by which the British were to evacuate Egypt, then the Egyptians started migrating into the orbit of the Soviet Union.
The first sign that there really was a serious problem afoot came in September of 1955 when Nasser signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, known to history as the Czech Arms Deal, but that was a facade, the deal was with the Soviet Union for arms. And that deal was going to deliver to Egypt a quantity and quality of weaponry unknown to the region.
The Israelis regarded it as an existential threat. They calculated that it would take the Egyptian military about a year to train on the new weapons, and to absorb them into the ranks, and then after they had mastered the weapons systems, it would pose an existential threat to Israel. So the Israelis started the countdown to war. We did not regard this, remarkably, as a move against the United States. Obviously, we did not like it. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles did not like it, but they did not regard it as an anti-American act, which is kind of interesting. It is very interesting. I mean it is part of the subject of the book.
Nasser told the Americans, again, that his natural place was in the West, and that he was pro-American and this alignment with the Soviet Union was not directed at America, therefore. It was directed against – any ideas? – Israel. It was directed against Israel because Israel had launched a raid. The Egyptians had carried out a terrorist attack against Israelis, and they retaliated on the last day of February in 1955 with a raid that killed 39 Egyptian soldiers called the Gaza raid. And Nasser pinned in his discussions with us his move into the Soviet Union as a response to the Gaza raid.
And the gist of what he said was look, I am a moderate, but I am surrounded in my regime by extremists. The Soviet Union is reaching out to us and offering its weapons and dangling them in front of us. After what the Israelis did to me, if I do not take them, the extremists are going to overturn me. And then you are going to have to deal with an extremist Egyptian leader, which is going to be a lot harder for you than dealing with me, so give me some space. I realize that you do not like this, but give me some space, and I am going to take a little detour over the Moscow, but then I am going to bring Egypt back to the West in the long run.
So we bought it. Eisenhower bought it, and his response, the policy response, to the Soviet arms deal was funding for the Aswan high dam. This was the flagship development project of Egypt. This was going to bring many thousands of acres under cultivation, building a damn on the Nile at Aswan that would bring many, many thousands of acres under cultivation and generate I do not know how many kilowatts of electricity from hydroelectric power.
So we, together with the British and the World Bank, put together a package of funding to help Nasser build the dam, again, with the effort to show not just Nasser but all of the Arabs and the Egyptians that the United States wanted to work with them to achieve their nationalist aspirations in order to sort of court them, pull them away from the Soviet Union.
Well, that did not work. Nasser proceeded as time went on to work more closely with the Soviet Union, and by March of 1956, Eisenhower had pretty much concluded that Nasser is a no-goodnik. He sees him as a blackmailer. He comes to the conclusion that every concession that we give to him he is going to pocket and demand more, and we will never have that strategic alignment with him that we coveted. So we adopted a new policy in March of 1956 designed to pressure him.
Still, even though he now sees Nasser as a blackmailer, Eisenhower still has this picture in his head of the Arabs and Muslims, the Third World on one side, the British, the French, and the Israelis on the other [side], with the United States caught in the middle. So he wants to avoid a head-to-head conflict with Nasser because he thinks that Nasser will just use that conflict in order to organize opposition to the United States, so he wants to work at him indirectly, and start putting pressure on him in every arena around [him], divide him from some of his Arab allies, put some economic pressure on him, maybe even a little military pressure here and there covertly, but not a direct [conflict]. He wanted to avoid a direct conflict.
The idea was life should just get harder for Nasser, achieving Nasser’s goals should just get harder so that Nasser would just have to turn to us and ask for our help, and we would shift the balance of power, and thereby change some of his behavior. That was the idea, but Nasser understood the American game, and he developed a number of countermeasures that we were not prepared for.
So, first of all, as part of this policy of pressure, the decision was made to withhold the funding for the Aswan High Dam, but not to revoke it, just basically to slow roll it, and not provide answers to questions that Nasser had and so forth. Nasser understood what this was all about, and so he basically put America before an ultimatum. Put up or shut up, are you going to fund the dam or not? And the Americans then were forced to revoke the funding.
Once they revoked the funding, he responded with a masterstroke, which was the nationalization of the Suez Canal company. It was Secretary of State [John Foster] Dulles who revoked the funding, and one of the statements that he made in revoking it was that the Egyptian economy was not strong enough to actually pull its weight with regard to the package that the World Bank, the United States, and the British had put together. There was a contribution that the Egyptians were to make, and the decision was made that their economy was not powerful enough to pull their weight.
Nasser said, of course we are powerful enough, we have all this money tied up in the canal, but it is being stolen by the British and the French, who own the Suez Canal company. So he nationalized the Suez Canal company, and in fact, he had a point. It is hard not to be sympathetic to him with regard to this claim because the Suez Canal company was a legacy of European imperialism. When boats went through the canal, they paid their dues to the company in Paris. The company then forwarded a small percentage of those dues to the Egyptian government. Probably about 2 percent of the revenues actually went back to Egypt for a canal that was 100 percent within Egyptian territory.
When Nasser nationalized it, it was an extremely popular act in Egypt. There are not that many left, but if you talk to Egyptians who were alive at that time, they can tell you how thrilled they were. I think every Egyptian was thrilled by it, and not just the Egyptians. Throughout the Arab world, everybody was thrilled by this.
The genius in this move was it transformed a bilateral conflict between the United States and Egypt into a conflict between Egyptian and Arab nationalism on the one hand, and British and French imperialism on the other [hand]. And that in turn activated Eisenhower’s fear of lining up with the British and French imperialists against the Egyptian nationalists. This is the great irony of the Suez crisis to my mind because Eisenhower has given up on Nasser the man. Nasser the man is a blackmailer in his eyes, but he still does not want to go directly against him because the demonstration effect to the rest of the Arab world would be deleterious and it would damage the U.S. position in the Cold War.
The British and the French want to immediately go back and go in militarily and take back the canal. And Eisenhower says no, and then he wrapped up the British and the French in futile diplomacy for the next few months, conference after conference. Well, it was two conferences, but [there was] an enormous amount of back and forth, ostensibly to force the Egyptians to disgorge the canal, that is a phrase that Secretary of State Dulles used. He promised the British that he was going to make Nasser disgorge the canal.
But we really had no intention to do that. We just wanted to keep the parties talking so that the farther we got away from the act of nationalization, the less rationale the British and French had for going to war. The British and the French though, as this futile diplomacy was unwinding, start to get nervous. They felt that it is us or them, it is Nasser or us, and if we do not diminish Nasser or topple him, that the British or the French are going to be finished in the region.
And this led to this very interesting collusion between the British, French, and the Israelis. Again, I will not go into the details of it here, but the gist is that the British and French needed a new pretext for war, and the French convinced the Israelis to provide it, so the Israelis start a war against the Egyptians. And then the British and the French, in the name of protecting international shipping through the Suez Canal, intervene to separate the Egyptians and the Israelis. But of course, they are actually in cahoots with the Israelis, so they are really not trying to separate [them]. They are carrying out a near simultaneous invasion of Egypt.
And they are doing all of this one week before the election in November of 1956, the American election, presidential election. And they are doing it behind the back of Eisenhower. So when Eisenhower realizes, it does not take him very long to realize that the British, French, and Israelis are in cahoots in making war against Egypt, he is totally against it, partially because he was taken by surprise and he felt stabbed in the back, but again, he still has that picture in his head of the Arab nationalists on this side, and the British, French, and Israelis on that side, and he is loathed to be on the side of the Zionists and the imperialists when they are making war against the hero of Arab nationalism.
So the long and the short of it is he supports Nasser in the war. That is not the way he is thinking of it, he is just trying to stop the war, but the effect is to hand Nasser an enormous victory. Nasser carries out another clever act. The minute the war begins, he fills boats with concrete and sinks them in the canal, thereby cutting the oil that is going through the canal to Europe. At the same time, his allies in Syria blow up the pipeline from Iraq over to the Mediterranean so all of the oil to Europe is cutoff.
Britain has about two weeks’ worth of oil to fuel its economy at the time, so the Prime Minister, now Anthony Eden, turns to Eisenhower and asks him for North American supplies of oil. And Eisenhower says no way, not unless you get out of Egypt immediately and unconditionally. The markets get wind of the fact that there is no oil in Europe, and the bottom falls out of the Pound. And Eden turns to Eisenhower and says at least help me stabilize the markets, and Eisenhower says no, you have got to get out of Egypt immediately and unconditionally.
The effect of that is that he stops the British and French in their tracks, forces them to withdraw, and destroys Anthony Eden’s career. Eisenhower would say, of course, that Anthony Eden destroyed his own career, but however you want to describe it, the effect is that Eden’s career is finished. He basically had a nervous breakdown as a result of this. He was already in bad physical shape due to some medical problems that he had, but in the midst of the crisis, he took a leave of absence and went off to Jamaica for rest and recuperation, and he never came back as prime minister. And of course, Britain as a great power in the region was then finished.
The Israelis held out a little longer. The Americans did not have the kind of economic leverage over the Israelis that they had over the British and French because of the oil, and so they are also actually better negotiators. It was 2,000 years of Talmudic study [which] helped. Ben Gurion immediately agreed when Eisenhower said you must get out of the Sinai. He said yes. And there then ensued the discussion [of] what is a withdrawal, how does a withdrawal begin, and this went on for months, well into March.
And then Eisenhower went on national television, and said that the Israelis, Ben Gurion is not just defying the United Nations, because when the British, the French, and the Israelis attacked, the U.S. went to the General Assembly. It could not go to the Security Council because the British and French could veto it, but it went to the General Assembly and got a resolution saying that the attackers should get out of Egypt immediately and unconditionally. It was in the name of the United Nations that Eisenhower had made this demand on Eden.
Now he was making it against the Israelis, and he went on national television and said the Israelis are destroying the United Nations. ‘They are destroying the United Nations,’ and so the supporters of Israel in Congress started to get a little bit weak in the knees, and they signaled to Ben-Gurion that they were not going to support him in this fight. Eisenhower had just been reelected by a landslide. He was enormously popular, and he had thrown down the gauntlet and said I am not going to put up with this.
The Israelis then pulled out of the Sinai and got very little concessions for their trouble. The effect of this though was the opposite of the one that Eisenhower intended. I mean the theory of this policy was that by supporting Egypt against the British, French, and the Israelis, this would create a space for cooperation between Arab nationalism and the United States, and that we would show the Arabs that we wanted to work with them to help realize their legitimate, nationalist aspirations.
But the effect was the exact opposite. What happened was we created a power vacuum in the region into which stepped Nasser of Egypt and the Soviet Union. The Soviets played the crisis very cleverly with a couple of simple moves. Once they realized that Eisenhower was serious about opposing his own allies, they stepped forward and threatened those allies and Israel with nuclear annihilation. Marshal [Nikolai] Bulganin, the Soviet Premier, sent letters to each one of the heads of government in Britain, France, and Israel. It was a veiled threat that basically said, you know, it is a nice country that you have got there, it would be a shame if it was destroyed by nuclear weapons. And that was all public, so to the Arab public, it appeared as if Nasser, together with the Soviet Union, had defeated the British, the French, and the Israelis.
The American role was absolutely decisive, and the Soviet move was also just grandstanding. I mean they made these outrageous threats because they knew they were never going to have to carry through with them because the Americans were going to do their work for them. So the American role here was completely invisible to the average person in the Arab world. Nasser, whose previous successes were facilitated by the United States, such as driving the British out of Egypt in the first place, now was twenty feet tall in the Arab world. I mean he was just a giant with a stature unlike anything else in the region.
And the result was that there was a wave of revolutions, [which] swept the Arab world. Nasser inspired revolutions, I think you can call them, and Nasser was not necessarily directing each one of them, but it was a wave of revolutions not unlike the wave that we saw in 2011. And that wave culminated in the revolution in Iraq in 1958, which I mentioned in the opening of this talk, and it did away with the most pro-Western regime in the Arab world.
And Eisenhower after that revolution looked back at the wreckage in the region caused by his policy, and he reversed course, started to cooperate more with the Israelis, saw them more as an asset than a liability, and also regretted what he had done to the British and the French. But as I said, it was a little bit late at this point because he had already undermined them significantly.
You can see the regret in two ways. One is the total reversal of policy, or at least the principle on which policy is made. When he goes into Lebanon in 1958, it is a direct response to the fall of the regime in Iraq. And they have a discussion in the National Security Council where they are now using military force in Lebanon to counter a Nasserist wave, something that they never wanted to do in the past.
And there is a discussion in the National Security Council, and some of his advisers are saying everyone is going to say that we are doing now exactly what the British did in ’56. And Eisenhower’s response in effect is yeah, they are going to say that, and that is what we are going to do. And not only did we do that in Lebanon, we [also] did it simultaneously with the British in Jordan, so the British military went into Jordan, we went into Lebanon, and we facilitated. We ferried the British soldiers from Cyprus into Jordan, so working militarily together with the British was also something that we never wanted to do prior to this moment.
So you can see Eisenhower has done a 180. He no longer cares about public opinion. He just cares about shoring up allies and showing allies that we are concerned about them. There is a very interesting little conversation with Sam Rayburn, the venerable Speaker of the House. When Eisenhower has him [come] to the White House to talk about his decision to intervene in Lebanon, Rayburn says, Mr. President, I am worried that this will inflame opinion throughout the Third World. I am worried about the Soviet reaction, and I am afraid that this is going to turn out badly.
One of the things I love about Eisenhower is he was a very steely eyed realist. And I just do not imagine very many leaders saying it so clearly. He says to Rayburn, it is going to turn out badly, I can assure you of that. He said basically the question is does it turn out badly with us behaving like we did at Munich, or does it turn out badly with us supporting our allies, and the most important thing is that we be seen to our allies to be willing to take action to support them.
And actually, it turned out really well in the end. I mean there are only two soldiers lost in the intervention, which by any standard is an extremely successful intervention. One of them was killed in an accident, I believe, and another by a sniper. But Eisenhower did not know that that was going to be the case. He says in his memoirs that the decision to send the troops into Lebanon was the second most difficult decision of his life. The first one, of course, being D-Day. I mean you can only just imagine you are sending men into battle in uncertain circumstances. That must weigh very heavily on you. He could not have seen that it was going to go as smoothly as it did.
The other sign we have of his regret [was the fact that] Eisenhower made at least three statements privately to people later that Suez was his greatest mistake. Historians prior to this book, I hope it changed some opinions, did not take those statements of regret seriously. I think they just saw them as a politician gladhanding and telling people what he thought they wanted to hear. But I do not think that was the case.
One of them, one of the most dramatic ones, was what he said to Richard Nixon, and Nixon later wrote about it in a couple of different places, and later sent letters to British leaders telling them that this was how Eisenhower felt. People kind of just discount things that Nixon said, but I do not see any reason why he [would lie]. He had a personal relationship with Eisenhower, you know, their families were connected. And I do not see why he had any motive for lying about this. And as I say, besides you can see that there is a policy change.
I will just say a couple of lines about the relevance to the Obama administration, and then we can open it up for discussion perhaps. The book was reviewed favorably in The New York Times by David Frum, and Frum did me a tremendous service in that he drew the connection. I dropped a few hints in the book here and there and said there are some lessons to be learned from the present, that kind of thing. But he drew out the lesson and said there is a direct parallel between what Eisenhower did with Egypt and what Obama has done with Iran. That is the parallel that I see.
Once again, an American President saw a major power in the region that was hostile to the United States, and organizing opposition to the United States, and believed that if he extended an outreached hand, and showed the regime that the United States was willing to work with it on issues of common concern, that he could change the calculus in general of the regime toward the United States, soften it, soften its behavior, and possibly even turn it into a partner on key issues.
And once again, the effect was to create a vacuum into which now the Iranians moved together with the Russians, who are basically playing the same role now, or at least an analogous role now to the one that they played in 1956. As I say, I did not draw any of that out in the book, that the world has changed a lot since 1956, and today no two arrows are exactly the same and people can always say, but this is different and that is different, and so on.
But that is the parallel that I see, and I would urge you to go look at that David Frum review. I was extremely happy when I saw it. I said to my wife that it is not just that I could not have done it better, I could not have done it as well as Frum did. He summed it all up very succinctly, so I was extremely gratified, and there it was in the pages of The New York Times, something I did not really expect at all.
I am somewhat surprised by your conclusion, that you do not draw much stronger analogies. I would say that there is a long history of thinking that if we just get rid of the bad guys, starting with the imperialists and then moving on to the dictators, everything will be fine. We saw this under Bush, we saw it under Eisenhower and the second Bush, and they both learned from their mistakes. We saw it under Obama with the Arab Spring. [We were] happy to overthrow our allies. [He] delighted in it and he never learned from his mistakes. And that I would see as the main difference, and the deal with Iran is almost secondary by comparison with the real damage he did throughout the core of the Middle East. I am sort of disappointed you draw too short an analogy.
And if I may press a little on Bush because you might be a little defensive there, having served in that administration, maybe not, after all, they did promote elections in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood free to compete. Fortunately, Mubarak headed them off and only let them take a few seats. He promoted [democracy] in Iraq, which turned a bad situation much worse, which is what really brought the country to the edge of civil war, and the surge only barely corrected that. And he promoted [democracy] in the Palestinian areas, bringing Hamas to power, destroying the opening for peace with Mahmoud Abbas. Those are really catastrophic results, but Bush learned from them because everyone hated Bush and he saw what was wrong with what he was doing. No one said what is wrong with Obama, but it seems to me that is what the parallel is: get rid of the bad guys and get rid of imperialism, and everything will be great.
I agree with you in this sense, that there is something more going on here than just a simple policy calculation. And I pick this example because I feel like it does repeat itself time and time again. For me the issue of repetition that is most striking is the question of Israel, of Israel and the sense of guilt about imperialism. But time and time again, you see there is a whole school of thought that says that the Israel question is the central question in the region, and that our policy towards Israel is what is going to determine the attitude of the entire Arab world toward us.
And on all of these things, some of the ones that you mentioned and on the Israel question, I do think there is something deeper at work than a simple strategy calculation. I did not go into it in the book at all. I started to, but I tried to write a book, however, that somebody might want to read, so I wanted to tell a story, a story with characters and [a story] that moved as quickly as you can make it. But there is, hiding beneath the story, a kind of thesis about – I do not know what you would call it – political philosophy or something like that [which] animates the Americans. And the question is where does that come from? Where do these ideas come from?
And my answer, which again, I do not touch on it in the book at all, is religion, actually. I think that Eisenhower and all of the American elite were heirs to a certain mainline Protestant vision of the Middle East. Our understanding of the Middle East came from the missionaries, mainly Presbyterian missionaries. All of the first generation of Foreign Service officers and CIA agents were either missionaries themselves or trained by the missionaries. And what they had was a kind of Kantian vision of a universal peace. Lurking in the deep recesses of the mind is the idea of the peace of Jesus Christ.
But the missionaries learned over generations to translate their religious vision into a secular and pragmatic vision, which they then transposed on the United States. And I think that still animates our thinking even though by now we think of it as purely secular ideas. We are not even aware of the fact that if you trace these things back in time, you will see that they have a theological underpinning.
But I think our attitudes towards the Middle East, even the ones that we think are totally secular, have some really deep theological underpinnings that we have not looked at, but this was too theoretical, too religious, and too far from the mind of Eisenhower. Eisenhower was a total pragmatist. I mean this is what I find very interesting. He is a true pragmatist.
In Middle East policy circles, we have the realists today. We have them in academia, that is Walt and Mearsheimer. In foreign policy circles that is James Baker and so on. And one of the funny things about the realists is they always feel that Israel is a liability. And it always seems to me that if you are a realist, you would say look, here is a country that shares with us an enormous number of values, that wants to align with us, and is helping to stabilize the eastern Mediterranean. So you would say that is kind of a natural fit for us in terms of pure interest, right, pure interest.
But that is not what the realists say. The realists say the opposite. What I am saying in the book without ever tying it up here is that the realists are actually the heirs to the missionaries. Realist ideas about the Middle East are as unrealistic as they could possibly be. The real realist is Eisenhower, and there are two Eisenhowers. There is Eisenhower A and Eisenhower B. Eisenhower A was taking this missionary vision and trying to apply it. Eisenhower B looked at the evidence and said this just does not work, and then he moved towards something that would work, and so I guess what I am trying to do, again without saying it, is lay the basis for a true realism.
Every few months, Egypt threatens to go to war over the Grand Renaissance Dam. Are there parallels here, and is there any lesson in Eisenhower for Trump?
Yeah, I think there are lessons in Eisenhower for Trump, but again, I would focus mainly on Iran because in the 1950s, Egypt was the central strategic question, and Egypt was at the center, [it was] the strategic fulcrum in the region. It is not true anymore. Now, I think it is really Iran or maybe the Iranian-Russian alliance. And I would just say that the simple lesson for Donald Trump and for all of us is do not get too sophisticated. There is something about the Middle East that leads people, Americans, to think they can flip countries from enemies to friends.
It is a very interesting thing when you work in the White House, as I did. If you do not have a background in the region, the region does not present itself to a president as divided between friends and enemies. We have countries like Iran that are out daily in their public statements proclaiming that they are the enemy of the United States, but that is not the message that they are sending to the White House through all kinds of channels, intelligence channels, through allies, and so on.
They are whispering all the time that, oh, we could be great friends if only you would do x, y, and z. If only you were not so close to those Saudis, we could do business together. If only you were not so close to those Jews, we could do business together, and so on. And that can lead if you are not schooled in the history, and you are gullible and naive, or it does not have to be gullible and naive, you can be a very savvy American businessman who is looking for a deal like in the James Baker mold. Baker always believed that there is a deal out there, and so when someone is causing trouble, you look at them and you say how do I cut a deal with them? And you start to think of the region as divided not between friends and enemies, but between problematic friends and potential friends.
And then once you get in that frame of mind, you start trying to win over your potential friends by paying them off with interest, with money, paying them off at the expense of your problematic friends. Once you do that, you are lost. I think the key thing is to know your friends, problematic or not, are you friends. The countries that daily are proclaiming themselves to be your enemy in their public media are your enemy. That is why they call themselves your enemy. Do not get too cute about it otherwise.
I am wondering if the fact that Russia, the Soviet Union in those days, supported the establishment of Israel, and a goodly number, not a huge number, but a significant amount of the arms that Israel got in ’47, ’48 came from Czechoslovakia, obviously with Soviet approval, have any influence on the Eisenhower administration’s attitude?
Yes and no. The simple answer is yes, in ways that might surprise you. For instance, why is the Soviet arms deal – Nasser later called it the Soviet arms deal – when he nationalized the Suez Canal, he told the history of the negotiations. It was a long, dramatic speech and he told the history of the negotiations to the Egyptian public, and he said, “And I am calling it the Soviet arms deal. It was a Soviet arms deal.”
But why is it known to history as the Czech arms deal? Well, there are a couple of reasons, but the main one is the CIA told Nasser to call it the Czech arms deal. Kermit Roosevelt was responsible for the Middle East. Kermit Roosevelt of Mosaddeq fame, and he had been one of the key architects in the administration of the tilt toward Nasser. He was fighting Eisenhower, as Eisenhower is fighting the policy, as Eisenhower started to put pressure on Nasser. He encouraged Nasser to call it the Czech arms deal because you remember I said there was this message, that Nasser’s message to Washington was I am not opposed to you, I just have a problem with the Israelis.
Calling it the Czech arms deal made it seem less strategic, allowed Nasser to emphasize the fact that it was just a commercial deal for weapons, but also this issue that you mentioned, that it allowed the CIA and others then to make the argument that look, Israel took arms from Czechoslovakia in 1948, and they did not end up as Soviet clients, so there is no reason to believe that if the Egyptians do it, that they are going to end up as Soviet clients. I go into detail in this in the book.
Their strategic enemy, I am talking about Kermit Roosevelt and the others in the administration who thought like he did, the one that they were really fearful of was Congress. They were afraid. They knew that once Egypt started getting weaponry from the Soviet Union, that was going to create a strong, anti-Egyptian coalition in Congress, which in fact it did. They, of course, believed that there was inordinate Jewish control over Congress, and so they wanted to have an answer to the Jewish argument that Egypt was now an enemy of the United States. They say no, no more than, you know, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If Israel can take weapons from the Soviet Union, so can Egypt.
You mentioned the 1958 military coup d’état in Iraq, and you mentioned also that after 1958, President Eisenhower changed. I wonder did the United States try to help the monarchy in Iraq, because there were many signs in 1957, ’56 [that] the monarchy was getting closer to the United States?
It was all too little, too late with regard to helping the monarchy. The strategic prize was Egypt in the minds of the administration. Nasser was the guy who was going to solve their problems in the region, so they did not pay close attention to what all of the efforts that Nasser was making to subvert the monarchy in Iraq, and those efforts at subversion began before 1955, but by February, March 1955, they were in full swing. We time and time again ignored what he was doing to our allies in the region like Iraq.
The best example is Nasser made tremendous use of propaganda with the Voice of the Arabs broadcasts. He had state of the art broadcasting equipment from 1953 on, which beamed his voice all over the Arab world, which exploited the new technology of the transistor radio, which was having an effect on the region much like Facebook and Twitter are having now.
So where did he get this broadcasting equipment? From the CIA. We handed Nasser this unbelievable tool. Already in ’53, before he signed the agreement with the British to get the British out, because we were so certain, we entered into a Catholic wedding with Nasser without even dating. We were so certain that he was going to in the end work to help us organize the region that we started giving him the tools to organize the region even before he had proved his intentions to do so. And then he took those tools and used them against us, used them against the Iraqis, used them against the Jordanians.
I am a retired Foreign Service officer. I served in Jerusalem from 1980 to 1984 and for twelve years I ran the foreign policy shop at the American Jewish Committee. Many historians, both Israeli and European, consider that the only real winner in the ’56 war were the Israelis, who demonstrated even with the collection of second-hand, old German tanks and old centurions gunned-up, that they got through the Mitla Pass which they had to do again in ’67. They got to the canal, they stalled for a while, and demonstrated to themselves their own military capabilities, but also the Soviet threat of using nuclear weapons, or even the nuclear threat, certainly spurred them on to the creation of their own nuclear arsenal. [And] they had an actual, working arsenal by 1967.
What are your thoughts on the idea that the only power [to win was Israel]? Eden fell, the French were caught, although one of the things the French [were doing was] fighting in Algeria. That is why they were pro-Israeli. And when the Algerian thing was over, they quit, but that is why in ’67, the Israelis were flying Mystères and Mirages. Before that they had been flying World War II surplus American muskets.
Yitzhak Rabin in the 1980s, gave a talk to an Israeli military audience on some occasion. I cannot remember if it was an Independence Day or whatever, and he went over the history of the ’56 war. And he said there were two victors in 1956, Egypt and Israel, and I think there is a lot to that, actually. The Israelis, as you mentioned, demonstrated their military abilities. The war was crucial to developing this strategic relationship with France, which in turn was crucial to developing the Israeli nuclear weapon. They bought a decade of peace in which they could absorb all the immigrants they had gotten after the War of Independence, develop the economy. One of the concessions that they got, I said that they got some minor concessions from the Americans as a result of ’56, one of them was the opening of the Straits of Tiran, which allowed them shipping out to East Asia, and the guarantee against the closing of the straits in the future. We can argue about how valuable that guarantee was, but yes, the simple answer is I think there is a lot to that.
One of the things, one of the points that [I make in] the book that I did not go into in my talk with you is that Nasser used the Arab Israeli conflict in order to project his [own voice]. The Arab Israeli conflict was a platform that he used in order to project his influence into the wider Arab world, and he pretty much makes this clear to Eisenhower almost directly that he was playing for dominance in the Arab world, and the Arab Israeli conflict was the tool for that.
So what this means is a lot of the hostility he directed at Israel [was not aimed at Israeli opinion]. The political effect that he was looking for was not in Israel but in the rest of the Arab world. There is an ambiguity in my mind about how much of the peace, if you can call it that, or the quiet that the Israelis experienced after ’56 was a result of their military action. The fact of the matter is Nasser just had other fish to fry. Nasser got everything that he was seeking to get out of the conflict with the Israelis in ’56 at that stage.
And after that, he had other fish to fry like, for instance, he absorbed Syria for a while. Egypt and Syria were one country. He did not want any trouble with Israel while he was trying to absorb Syria. Once that union fell apart, he started up the conflict again with Israel, which was helpful to him. There is a question in my mind. If the quiet the Israelis got was really a result of Israeli deterrence or just the fact that the Egyptians were busy elsewhere, and we cannot really answer that. It is hard to answer that.
It gave the Israelis twelve years until the ’67 war to really build up both their internal structures and their military capability.
I was intrigued by the consistency of the State Department’s anti-Israeli mindset. I guess it goes back to when George Marshall threatened to vote against if he were voting. I mean he was really angry, really hostile after less than a year at the State Department, so he was obviously concealed by the bureaucracy to some extent. But I am trying to force your dichotomy, especially as it relates to the realists into that process. Are the State Department [officers] the realists today?
You mean realists as the define themselves?
As you are using it.
With Marshall and Eisenhower, Marshall’s hostility to the recognition of Israel was well documented. Eisenhower had the same kind of ideas when he came in and for them it was really a very [straightforward argument]. I mean it is a good argument. I think the argument is wrong. In the end it is wrong, and we can see now, but at that moment in time, I think it was a very common-sense argument. The Arabs have the oil. We need the oil for reconstruction in Europe. The Arabs are hostile to Israel. Our friendship with Israel is alienating them. That is a very commonsensical [idea]. I think it is wrong, but it is hard to argue against it. I mean it is a sensible argument. Somebody making that argument does not look like a woolly-headed thinker, and I think that is why it had such an impact on men like Marshall and Eisenhower.
Now, the State Department today is a very different animal, I think, than the State Department in the 1950s. In the 1950s, there was still the missionary legacy, if I can call it that, weighing a lot heavier on the minds. What you have in the State Department today is the simple fact that the State Department in its DNA is focused on building bilateral relationships. You have [about] 23 Arab countries and you have one Israel, and they are all in the same bureau, so all of those officials are going out to the Arab world and trying to make friends with the Arab countries, and there is still a lot of hostility towards Israel in the Arab world.
So that is part of it, and then you add to that the Europeans. The Europeans have a tendency, a strong tendency, to see Israel as the central question, and they tend to see [Israel supporters as unsophisticated]. Where does U.S. support for Israel come from? It comes from the flyover states, you know, from the rubes in Kansas and Oklahoma. And they see themselves as sophisticated people, and they see themselves as helping the sophisticated Americans against the dumb Americans.
People do not realize that I am a dumb American, so it takes a little while for them to realize the number of times I have had European diplomats say to me, look, I understand that you have this problem that you have to deal with. If you add up all of those Europeans that we are dealing with, and all of those Arabs that we are dealing with, that has a kind of cumulative effect, but it is a lot weaker today than [it was before]. And look, they have a lot of experience in the Arab world as well. It is very hard to make the argument today. People are still making it. John Kerry just made it recently within the last two years.
But it is very hard to make the argument in a compelling way that if we get a peace agreement between Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, it is going to help us stabilize Syria, [or] it is going to bring peace to Iraq, [or] it is going to make things better in Afghanistan. I mean there are people saying this kind of thing, but who believes them? I gave a talk to a bunch of young people working in the U.S. government, many in the State Department, and from other places as well recently and I asked them, I was just curious, how many of you think that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to help us with any of the other problems we have in the region? And none of them raised their hand, none, so it really is not the same today.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I could ask the last question here and get your reaction to this, Michael, it seems that from our own founding, Americans are predisposed to think if someone somewhere else is not free, it is because they are being oppressed. And usually, the instrument of that oppression has been imperialism, and in terms of the Arabs in the Middle East, it was the dead hand of Ottoman imperialism and the dead hand of either French or British imperialism, and we were instrumental, as your book so brilliantly shows, in removing that kind of imperialism from the Middle East only to be replaced with, voilà, our own.
So whereas we can see this view permeating both kinds of administrations, Republican or Democrat, this latest iteration of it is from President Obama, who says the dead hand of American imperialism must be removed. And then, of course, the local instrument for the spread of this self-rule and freedom, of which they will naturally assume, once we are gone, it was curiously no longer pan-Arabism but the Muslim Brotherhood. First of all, do you agree with that, and second of all, what can cure it?
That is deep in the American DNA.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, no, I know the American predisposition to that is not something that needs to be, but it does not take into cognizance the culture of the Middle East.
I agree with 98 percent of what you said, maybe 97.5 percent. I ran all the relevant models, I put all the data into the computer, and I agree with you 96.7 percent. Actually, we are down to 95.3 [percent].
Robert R. Reilly:
Let me first of all defend Eisenhower a little bit because I think Obama’s policy is much less defensible than Eisenhower’s. Eisenhower was confronted with a Britain that was truly in decline and probably could not have been propped up. I mean he really had a dilemma that was not easily solved. There was a rising nationalism, there was a declining Britain, and again, I think it was worth a try to reach out to the nationalists to try to see if they could be moved in the direction of the West. That was eminently reasonable, I think, and defensible.
Where I think he could be faulted, where I think he would fault himself, was on this Catholic wedding to the Egyptians that he entered into so quickly. He should have moved more slowly, and he should have conditioned it. They should have noticed that he was working overtime. They had the information at their fingertips. It just did not compute strategically that Nasser was working overtime to undermine the Iraqis and the Jordanians.
Robert R. Reilly:
I would just like to point out that Catholic weddings require a Pre-Cana consultation.
Yeah, there should have been some discussion with a priest about what a wedding looks like for sure. I think all of that is defensible. In Obama’s case, I think it was pure ideology, ideology and propaganda. But yes, where I really do agree with you, and I am glad you made the connection because I wanted people to see the connection without saying it, is that if you substitute Egypt for Iran, and you substitute George W. Bush’s militarized foreign policy for British imperialism, and you substitute Israel for Israel, [when you look at] Obama’s approach toward the Middle East, you can see the DNA of the early Eisenhower thinking running right through Obama’s thinking.
But we have fifty years of experience in the Middle East between Eisenhower and Obama. It took Eisenhower six years to wise up. How come fifty years later, we have got guys doing the same sort of thing?
It is because we have four years of experience about eight times.
Where I disagree with you, we do not need to go into it now, maybe later, [was] when you said Muslim Brotherhood. I do not see the Muslim Brotherhood, I think, as the problem that you do. I think it is problematic, but I do not see it as the strategic problem.
Robert R. Reilly:
Great, thank you very much, Dr. Doran.