Suez

By

Decision and even negotiation in the heat of national passion are both risky and dangerous. Yet history demonstrates that the interplay of force and counterforce among nations creates moments when it may be even more fatal to avoid decision or negotiation. Such has been the history of the Suez crisis—in London above all, but to a vital degree also in many other capitals from Moscow and Delhi to Cairo and Washington.

On the night of July 6, while Prime Minister Anthony Eden was entertaining Iraq's King Faisal at 10 Downing Street, he was handed a piece of paper telling him that Nasser had announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal. To Eden this was a blow that could destroy Britain's position in the Middle East. To Eden it conjured up Munich, when he had opposed Britain's sellout to Hitler over Czechoslovakia. The French government reacted in similar fashion; for to Paris, if Nasser were to get away with it, the loss of Algeria and eventually of all French Africa might well be sealed.

The case of Suez needs to be put in perspective—not just the perspective which flashed before Eden and French Premier Guy Mollet that evening, but the perspective of history. This is what the Eisenhower Administration sought to do. And it was the general premise on which Dulles operated during the twenty-two-nation London Conference on Suez.

The United States fully realized the depth of British and French feeling—a feeling which encompassed party and press leaderships from right to left in both nations, excluding only the Communists in France and the ultra-left in Britain. Dulles, in fact, rather admired the British attitude of going down fighting rather than surrendering to Nasser. Yet Dulles also felt that for Britain and France to resort to force was a confession of weakness rather than a sign of strength.

Nasser's Mein Kampf

Curiously, it was Nasser himself who helped put the problem in perspective for Washington. He did so through his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution, a slim but potent work which belatedly became must reading at the State Department, as it already had been at the British Foreign Office and the Quai d'Orsay in Paris. Here Nasser, in the triumphant flush of the first days following his ouster of Farouk, had laid out in the manner of Mein Kampf the dreams which came to haunt the Western chancelleries and, in time, at least to disturb the Soviet Union, India, and other nations as well.

In his book, Nasser spoke of Egypt's need to discover "what constitutes its living space." And he went on to dream in print of three "zones" for the Egyptian future—the Arab zone, African zone, and Islamic zone. In the Arab zone, he wrote, Egypt would hold a strategic position geographically (which of course is due to the Suez Canal), with its neighbors bound by common ties and oil resources. If only Arab nationalism could be roused so that Arab nations would act in concert to use their power and resources, he argued, Egypt could become a great force in the modern world. And when a world storm blew up after he nationalized Suez, Nasser quickly cried out with glee that Arab nationalism had been aroused.

Nasser had written of the great revenues obtained by the Western powers from Arab oil while paying "less than a subsistence wage" to Arab workers. He wrote of an African zone where he saw a "terrible and sanguinary struggle going on" between "five million whites and two hundred million Africans." And finally Nasser dreamed out loud of an Islamic zone "of our brothers in faith" which could be united if a Moslem pilgrimage to Mecca were regarded not only as "a ticket of admission into paradise" but also as "an institution of great political power and significance." This Islamic zone, said Nasser, swept "across continents and oceans" and embraced fifty million Moslems in Red China and forty million in Red Russia.

Here was nationalism unbridled, or so Dulles saw it. Here too Dulles saw an opportunity to arouse Indians, who have no desire for another holy war after the massacres of the partition with Moslem Pakistan. And here he saw an opportunity to work along a road of parallel interest with the Russians, who, while they want to eliminate Western influence in the Middle East and Asia, also desire to replace it with Soviet influence, not with some Pan-Islamic power or even Pan-Arabism.

Dulles plays for time

Eisenhower and Dulles felt certain that Moscow and Washington were in accord on one great fundamental: there must be no Middle East conflict, for it might ignite a world war, which both fear and neither wants. Yet Washington was faced as well with our British and French allies, who were linked and aroused as they had not been since World War II years. So Dulles began to play for time.

He wanted time to permit a cooling of hot tempers in London, Paris, and Cairo. He wanted time to make sure that the Russians were worried about the noisy Anglo-French military preparations, which Dulles felt had a definite value if restrained short of the brink of war. And he wanted time for the Asian and Middle East nations to absorb the full meaning of Nasser's dreams of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islam, as well as the possible economic cost to them if Nasser alone controlled Suez toll rates.

What happened during he London meetings was a tribute to Dulles's reading of the immediate problem and the wide implications of an unrestrained Egyptian triumph over nationalizing the Suez Canal. Dulles set out to create an international atmosphere which would lead to trimming' Nasser's sails, yet would not fly in the face of the historic process of the gradual withdrawal of Western influence in the Middle East. But he had to do it without seeming to abandon his major European allies, on whom the United States must count if there is to be an Atlantic community strong enough to stand against the Communist orbit.

Withdrawal of Western power

To Dulles, the sweep of history calls for the orderly withdrawal of Western power from the Middle East and Asia so that there will be no power vacuums for the Kremlin to fill. Moscow's aim, as read in Washington, has been to make that withdrawal sufficiently disorderly to permit the Kremlin to fill the vacuums by using the post-Stalin tactic of encouraging neutralism to fill the gap first.

On his arrival in London, Dmjtrj Shepilov, the new Soviet Foreign Minister, gave every indication of Moscow's uncertainty as to whether America would let the British and French belligerency get out of hand Dulles sought to and did play upon this by letting it be known that he felt that Shepilov was a fellow or could get along with, and that America did not want war- but of course, America was not going to let Nasser get away with anything which would inflate his Pan-Arabism or Pan-Islamic ideas. And did Shepilov want Nasser blown up that big either? Shepiloy indicated that his bosses did not.

With this sort of community of interest established between two of the key powers, Dulles then went to work to focus everybody's eyes on the narrow issue of how to make sure that Suez was taken out of the realm of international politics and run on a businesslike basis. Shepilov quickly accommodated him by stating publicly that Russia too was not interested in letting Nasser hike the Canal tolls at his pleasure.

By playing upon economic interests from Scandinavia to India and Indonesia, Dulles succeeded in winning common assent that there was what Krishna Menon called "an international user interest" in the Canal. And by some deft diplomatic footwork Dulles went on to win the adherence of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia, thus avoiding an East-West, or white nations versus colored nations, split.

At this Shepilov reverted to Moscow's public thumping of the Arab tub, but only after it was clear that the consensus of the Conference was that Nasser should sit down and work out some sort of treaty arrangement to protect the Canal's customer nations. Thus, after the talks in London, Dulles felt that he had accomplished his twin ends of avoiding war and restoring Western withdrawal from the Middle East to an orderly affair.

The new independents

Much of the West's problem in dealing with the new nationalisms has been that Western lawyers have too often been in charge, marshaling arguments which are fine for home consumption but which have no effect on the honor and dignity of proud new independents. Moscow's tactic, by contrast, has recognized better the psychological forces at work in these lands and played upon them.

Many students of Soviet affairs are now more convinced than ever that the most important foreign policy shift from Stalinism was the Kremlin's decision to accept a class of nations neither bound to the Communist orbit nor part of the Western community—a middle group of newly independent peoples suspicious of former colonial powers but equally undesirous of becoming Communist satellites. The Suez crisis has shown that the Soviets play this policy brilliantly. Because Britain and France cannot go so far, while they still have important economic imperial ties, especially in Middle East oil, Dulles skillfully tried to shunt aside this division between America and its major European allies and talked only of the business problem of the Canal itself.

No one appreciates better than Dulles that even the solution of Suez by a new treaty with Egypt would not end the problem or halt Soviet penetration into the Middle East. But whether the Eisenhower Administration will or can revamp our Middle East policy to avoid more crises remains a major question mark. Doubtless Western business interests will take out a form of reinsurance by stepping up the trend already started toward supertankers to move round the Cape of Good Hope. That, however, will not alter Western European dependence on Middle East oil for the next couple of decades, at least until atomic energy can provide a major replacement for today's massive dependence on petroleum. Europe could, of course, be supplied with oil from Canada, the United States, and Venezuela, but only for dollars, not sterling, and at the cost of European financial servitude to Washington.

If the London Conference outcome in. the end confines Middle East nationalism to a fairly orderly process, the West probably can count on holding its lucrative oil concessions for an indefinite period. For how long will depend on the future interplay of forces between the West and the Soviet Union and upon whether the West is willing to take the risks from too much encouragement Middle East nationalism.

Gunboat diplomacy

There has been much dispute London on Eden's willingness to go war over Suez. To Washington, both London and Paris seemed to be indulging in nineteenth-century gunboat diplomacy. Dulles knew that to use force to seize Suez would almost certainly mean the sabotage of Middle East pipelines and the nationalization of Western oil concessions, and that a war almost surely would be the result. A good many observers at the London Conference felt that Eden was bluffing, that he would not dare to use force, and that the British people, who are now enjoying a fair measure of the good things of life, would not back him despite the belligerent tone of the press and the initial support of the Labor Party leadership.

British officials say they were in fact prepared to use force in the first forty-eight or seventy-two hours after Nasser's seizure if Nasser had made the additional move of taking over the British multimillion-dollar installations left behind in the Suez Canal Zone after the withdrawal of the last British troops.

When Bulganin and Khruschev visited London last spring, Eden flatly told them that Britain would fight to prevent the loss of oil concessions, especially in the Persian Gulf at Kuwait. The Russians asked if Eden was threatening them with war. Eden said no, that he just wanted to let them know how strongly the British felt. The Russians said no more, but when Shepilov arrived for the London Conference, he let the British know that he had been apprised of that conversation.

The British and French, in the first hours after the nationalization of the Canal, thought they saw an opportunity to destroy Nasser. As Dulles played for and won time, however, London trimmed its hopes for cutting Nasser down to size. The French government, ironically headed by Socialists, became more and more unhappy as it became Dulles would not back any “destroy Nasser" idea; and while publicly going along with the United States, the French privately became increa­singly bitter over what they felt was another failure of the Americans to back France's legitimate interests.

The British press during the Conference was full of praise for Dulles, which must have sounded strange to the Secretary after a long series of scathing denunciations of him for his "brinkmanship" in Asia. Underneath this praise for his handling of the Conference, which was indeed most skillful, one could find criticism of the Secretary for his handling of the Egyptians in regard to the Aswan Pam aid offer. The British contend that they had first to win over Dulles to the idea of American aid to Nasser to build that Nile dam and then to get him to call it off.

Britain and America had privately agreed to withdraw the offer of aid, but the British say that the first time Eden knew that Dulles was doing so in a dramatic public manner—in a statement moments after the Egyptian ambassador in Washington called on Dulles to say that Nasser had decided to accept Western help instead of Russian help—was when the Prime Minister read it on the news ticker. Nasser said he nationalized Suez in retaliation.

What policy for Washington?

This sort of recrimination was muted during the London Conference, but sooner or later it will come to the surface unless there is erected a common British-American Middle East policy. The British officials say that this is now a major necessity. But Washington's way of looking on the Middle East is not the same as London's. Washington sees the Middle East as part of America's overall problem of relations with newly independent nations and colonies still remaining in Asia and Africa vis-à-vis Russian policies for the same areas. Hence Washington feels it cannot be tied to the British position in the Middle East, however much it recognizes Britain's and Western Europe's dependence on Middle East oil.

The London Conference outcome left the feeling that rampant nationalism, in the case of Nasser, might be channeled again. But few diplomats were willing to risk the prediction that nationalism would not be able to break the banks of the channel, aided by some Soviet spadework. If Nasser Is finally curbed in this case, will it be he or someone else next time?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1956/10/suez/305584/