WASHINGTON – Chuck Hagel likes Ike. That much has been apparent for some time. But thanks to David Ignatius’ recent Op-Ed column, “Reviving Eisenhower’s doctrine,” we now know what he likes best: Eisenhower’s management of the Suez crisis.
For Hagel, it is more than a shining example of past American leadership. It is a guide for future presidential behavior.
Dwight D. Eisenhower is certainly worthy of emulation, but Hagel has unfortunately learned precisely the wrong lessons. In 1956, Britain, France and Israel launched coordinated invasions of Egypt. To say that Eisenhower disapproved would be an understatement. He directed at his allies a level of hostility typically reserved for worst enemies. After demanding that the attacking forces evacuate Egypt immediately, he imposed crippling economic sanctions on France and Britain. Against Israel, he threatened sanctions while engaging in bare-knuckle diplomacy.
All three powers buckled under the pressure, which was particularly damaging to Britain. Although Prime Minister Anthony Eden was America’s closest ally, Eisenhower brought his economy to the verge of collapse. The pressure destroyed Eden’s career and drove the final nail in the coffin of the British empire.
Realists in the Hagel mold find this episode exhilarating. Eisenhower, they say, pursued the national interest without concern for “sentimental” attachments, to say nothing of domestic lobbies.
When applied to the present, the analogy calls for dealing sharply with Israel. The United States, the implication goes, must not allow its client to drag it into conflict with Iran. Instead, Obama must treat Benjamin Netanyahu with the same grit that Ike flashed at Eden.
But this analogy omits a key fact: Ike came to regret those policies. “Years later,” Richard Nixon wrote in the 1980s, “I talked to Eisenhower about Suez; he told me it was his major foreign policy mistake.” By 1958, Ike himself had realized his error and reversed course.
Two primary considerations prompted Eisenhower’s re-evaluation. First, the Suez policy simply did not work. By distancing the U.S. from Israel and the Europeans, Eisenhower believed he was stabilizing the region and laying the foundation for a strategic accommodation between the Arabs, as a bloc, and the U.S.
But the anticipated benefit never materialized. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged from the conflict much stronger and more adversarial to U.S. interests.
The Soviet penetration of the Middle East deepened considerably. These trends had catastrophic consequences, chief among them the 1958 revolution in Iraq, which replaced the most pro-Western Arab government with a junta that migrated into the Soviet orbit.
The U.S., Ike realized, was paying a heavy price for having broken the only immutable rule of a realist foreign policy: Support your friends and punish your enemies. It would continue to pay for years, and not just in the Middle East. When the U.S. became mired in Vietnam, Britain and France refused to help. Why should they? Eisenhower had taught them that membership in the NATO alliance imposed no binding obligations outside Europe.
As he contemplated these unintended consequences, Ike concluded that he had based his strategy on a false premise. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles expressed it with admirable clarity in the midst of the crisis. U.S. failure to compel Israel to withdraw its forces from Egypt, he remarked to an agreeing Eisenhower, would lead to a catastrophic defeat in the Cold War. It would, Dulles said, “make it almost certain that virtually all of the Middle East countries would feel that U.S. policy toward the area was … controlled by the Jewish influence in the U.S. and that accordingly the only hope of the Arab countries was in association with the Soviet Union.”
Eisenhower assumed that the Arabs behaved as a unified bloc, especially with respect to Israel. The fallout from Suez, however, taught him otherwise. The upheavals that accompanied Nasser’s rise shared one factor: They had no connection whatsoever to Israel. From this, Eisenhower learned that the alignment of the Arab states in the Cold War was a function of their own internecine conflicts.
This realization led to a paradigm shift. During Suez, Eisenhower had envisioned the U.S. as an honest broker, shuttling between the Arab world and the alliance of Britain, France and Israel. By 1958, he defined the American role in an entirely new way.
The job of the U.S., he realized, was to balance the status-quo Arab powers against a set of revisionists, who were aligned with the Soviet Union.
In that context, Israel was more an asset than a liability. Historians typically ascribe this intellectual innovation to Nixon and Henry Kissinger. They were the first to publicly articulate the perspective, but Nixon had absorbed it while serving at Eisenhower’s side.
Today, another revolutionary wave is sweeping the Arab world, driven once again by internal factors.
Meanwhile, Hagel remains fixated on a U.S.-Arab-Israeli dynamic. This magical triangle has never had the all-pervasive influence ascribed to it. As long as Hagel remains in its thrall, Eisenhower’s true realism will elude him.
Michael Doran is the Roger Hertog Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He is writing a book on U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and the Middle East.