Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East

Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East
(Michael Scott Doran, January 18, 2017)

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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 EastThis 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’s 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 couldn’t 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.

Audience member:

Show us the book.

Robert R. Reilly:

For those of you on stage right who didn’t see the book the last time I held it up, it’s 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’s bipartisan. He’s also taught at NYU, Princeton, [and the] University of Central Florida. He’s 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.

Michael 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.

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