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1956 and All That

April 2, 2012

There are bad historical analogies, and then there’s what Fouad Ajami tried to pull on readers today:

On Nov. 6, 1956, Election Day, to be precise, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a brief message to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden: “We have given our whole thought to Hungary and the Middle East. I don’t give a damn how the election goes.”

Eisenhower could afford that kind of attitude-he was a genuine American hero in World War II, and there was no chance of his losing his bid for a second term to the inconsequential Adlai Stevenson. But the election came, as the historian David Nichols put it, during a “perfect storm.” Britain and France had invaded Egypt under the guise of bringing to a halt fighting in the Suez Canal between Egypt and Israel, and the Soviet Union had deemed this the right time to crush a Hungarian bid for freedom.

Ours is a different world. Barack Obama isn’t to be held to the Eisenhower standard. Indeed, as a fortunate “off-mic” moment recently revealed, this president bargains with Russian errand boy Dmitry Medvedev over something as trivial as protecting Europe with a missile defense system. I will have more “flexibility,” the leader of the Free World says, with my last election behind me.

Ajami begins to then assault Obama for bungling U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq (too much withdrawing, naturally) and failing to “rattle the Turbans” – no, really, those words –  by allowing the Syrian rebellion against Assad and his brutal, Iranian-backed repression to be crushed.

Well, this all makes sense until one considers the actual historical context. When Eisenhower made those remarks to Anthony Eden, he was pressuring Eden to withdraw troops from Egypt and accept a non-UNSC Permanent Five peacekeeping force in the country. When Britain and France intervened in support of Israel in Egypt, the United States did not stand up for its allies. No, on the contrary, it recognized the act for what it was: an act of profound destabilization that was jeopardizing U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Far from opting to “rattle the turbans,” the U.S. sided with Saudi Arabia and the Arabs against the Euro-Israeli coalition. Why? Because the intervention interfered with Eisenhower’s efforts to array Arab states against the USSR, disrupted the ability of the U.S. to ensure oil access to Europe, threatened to cause a wider war dragging in the USSR, and weakened the basis for U.S. criticism of Soviet intervention in Hungary. As Nixon said:

We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser

When Israel’s refusal to withdraw from Egyptian territory grew tiresome, Eisenhower pushed for economic sanctions on Israel and cut off its aid, prompting outrage from Congress, which Eisenhower rebuffed and asserted the primacy of Presidential decision making over Congress in matters of foreign policy. The U.S. then pushed for UN peacekeeping plans that excluded Egypt from the sphere of influence of Europe or the Israelis, and used the UN Security Council, along with threats of coercive action from the IMF and excluding Israel from a defense guarantee in the event of Soviet intervention, to secure the compliance of the intervening states.

As for Hungary, far from standing up to tyranny alongside beleaguered rebels, the U.S. was forced to watch helplessly while the USSR crushed the revolution. Eisenhower heeded detailed studies outlining the military foolishness of intervening in Hungary and settled on using political rhetoric and non-military means. While these were futile, they avoided a war that Eisenhower knew would not be in America’s interests. Insofar as Eisenhower had made up his mind about Hungary, he had decided against domestic hawkish pressure.

Eisenhower indeed damned electoral consequences. He did so, however, in order to resist hawkish pressure that would have decreased his flexibility in negotiations and forced him into foolish, unnecessarily belligerent policies (which would have, for example, imperiled his New Look policy). For these choices, he received significant criticism from the American right. If Obama is more in need of electoral flexibility than Eisenhower, it is because critics like Ajami have attacked him viciously for his undesirably dovish foreign policy choices, and unlike Eisenhower, Obama doesn’t have his war-hero reputation to dispel or at least weather such criticism. If Obama were to apply a similarly tough line on a potential Israeli instigation of a new war in the Middle East, Ajami and other voices of the right would be viciously flaying him. If Obama cannot be as confident as Eisenhower in making relatively similar decisions for restraint, even against the preferences of close allies, it is because the space for a foreign policy of particularism and tact has been relentlessly destroyed by the political opposition.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. humpjones permalink
    April 2, 2012 10:04 am

    Dismissing Medvedev as an “errand boy” is pretty telling, too.

  2. Render permalink
    April 2, 2012 11:09 am

    “When Britain and France intervened in support of Israel in Egypt…”

    That may have been the excuse, but the Israeli’s hardly needed any direct support, they’d already defeated the Egyptian army in the Suez before Eden issued his ultimatum. Britain and France intervened in order to retake the canal, which Nasser had seized and nationalized.

    The US aid to Israel that Eisenhower cut was not military aid, that had already been embargoed (with some exceptions) since 1948 and remained embargoed until the early 1960’s.


    Elusive Victory by Trevor N. DuPuy (1978)
    The Israeli War Machine by Ian Hogg (1983)
    Warfare of the 20th century by Christopher Chant (1988)


    • ohk321 permalink
      April 2, 2012 11:56 am

      Actually, UK, France, and Israel all colluded prior to the invasion. The UK wanted troops back in the canal zone, France thought Nasser was funding the Algerian rebellion, and Israel thought recent arms purchases in Egypt were a build up for an attack. It was supposed to be a win-win-win. The plan was for Israel to invade the Sinai while the responsible Great Powers would intervene to “keep the peace” in the Canal Zone (and reoccupy it) and, possibly, depose Nasser (but that last point is up for debate).

  3. April 2, 2012 5:29 pm

    Nice post, and I would add that Ajami’s reference to Adlai Stevenson as “inconsequential” is nonsense. Stevenson had his flaws, but “inconsequential” is not a good description of him.


  1. Eunomia » Eisenhower and Suez

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