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)

Transcript available below

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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.

Transcript

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:

Introduction

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.

Overview

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.

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