Commentary Magazine

Descent to Suez, by Evelyn Shuckburgh

Thoughts of an Arabist

Descent to Suez: Foreign Office Diaries 1951-56.
by Evelyn Shuckburgh.
Norton. 380 pp. $24.95.

Over a long period prior to World War II the British Foreign Office was a principal institution in defense not of Britain alone but of the international order. Success against Nazism in the war should have strengthened the skills and morale required to deal with the spread of Communism in its aftermath, but in fact the Foreign Office proved virtually helpless, paralyzed by a strange new conviction that the breed of dictators rising abroad was indeed representative of their people and of their age, and therefore irresistible. Confronted by postwar nationalists of the Nasser and Nkrumah type, British diplomacy suddenly looked incompetent, rooted in illusion, or worse.

Of all the species of British diplomat, perhaps none had been so celebrated as the Arabist, the man who “understood” the Arabs and who on their behalf had fashioned federations and pacts, unity and independence. When, in the postwar period, these measures led to chaos, the Arabist passionately advocated more of them. It has never been clear quite how tradition, character, and chance combined to form these Arabists, but Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh’s diaries—intended as a document for posterity, and much shortened for this first publication—give us a welcome and fascinating insight into the process.

Between 1954 and June 1956, Shuckburgh was head of the Middle East department of the Foreign Office. By his own frank account, he was a complete failure, brought by the job to the verge of nervous collapse. Where the Arabs were concerned, he sought ceaselessly on their behalf for fresh concessions, only to discover that no concession was ever enough for them. Where the Israelis were concerned, his attitude developed into hostility which was often fantastical, not to say paranoid. In his surprise and dismay over unfolding events is heard the melancholy but authentic sound of the breaking of the British empire.

Privately, Shuckburgh and his beautiful wife had high social connections, and they shared tastes in the arts, and in music in partieular. Here was someone cultivated in the best sense. Also he was following a family tradition, in that his father, Sir John Shuckburgh, had been Under Secretary in the Colonial Office, with special responsibility for Palestine between the wars. In an early posting to the Cairo embassy, in 1937, the son was already writing to ask his father, “How can we risk prejudicing our whole position in the Arab world for the sake of Palestine?” Then and since, the Foreign Office has been unable to see beyond that simplified, one-side-or-the-other formula. In fairness, it should be said that the indecisiveness of Shuckburgh père and his generation over Palestine and the Arabs had fully prepared the miseries of Shuckburgh fils and his generation.



The diaries begin in 1951, when Evelyn Shuckburgh was promoted to private secretary to Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary in Winston Churchill’s last government. Initially impressed by Eden, Shuckburgh in the end perceived him as vain and egocentric, a poseur who liked to conduct business in his bedroom and addressed him and others as “dear.” As the anxious heir-presumptive to the aging Churchill, Eden lacked the courage to be his own man, lest he somehow forfeit his claim.

Presumably it was a matter of temperament that both Eden and Shuckburgh were so much occupied with daily trivialities. In these diaries, long-term policy assessments are nowhere suggested, and nothing indicates that either Eden or Shuckburgh was making such assessments. Both men were busily, and sometimes hysterically, responding around the clock to rumors, to gossip about colleagues, to articles in the press, or to the absence of articles in the press.

Unkind words pierced Shuckburgh. His first two big occasions were at the United Nations debate on Korea in 1952, and at the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina. At the former, Andrei Vishinsky, formerly the chief prosecutor at the Moscow Trials and now the Soviet representative at the United Nations, gave an anti-Western speech that was “very disagreeable.” At the latter, the Chinese came “preaching hatred of the white man and confident in the massive forward march of their nation and reckoning to throw us out of Asia altogether.” Shuckburgh recorded: “I am upset—what is it?—frightened.” It was axiomatic to him that “it would be folly to try to save Indochina by force of arms.” He did not consider what effect it would have upon the Russians, Chinese, and the Vietminh to observe someone so palpably upset by speeches alone.

American robustness in the face of these opponents was so alarming to Shuckburgh that it seemed almost indistinguishable from Communist aggression. Hearing Dean Acheson say that the Western nations would have to “fight their way out,” Shuckburgh took no heart at all: “The fact is that, when you scratch this elegant and civilized Acheson, he turns out to be just another tough guy.” Chinese rage itself seemed to him primarily the fault of the Americans, “for being so damned contemptuous of them.” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, openly displaying “almost pathological rage and gloom” at what he had to hear from allies and enemies alike, becomes a favorite bugbear in these pages. Encounters between Dulles and Eden were embarrassing, as Eden withheld even moral support because of his conviction that the Americans wanted only to replace the French in Indochina and the British in Egypt.

“One gets a terrible impression of the United States and Russia as two unwieldy, insensitive prehistoric monsters floundering about in the mud,” wrote Shuckburgh. Which is the more strikingly false in this phrase—the political perspective which reduces the United States and Russia to one and the same mudpile, or the assumption of superior British sensitivity?



Taking over responsibility for the Middle East, Shuckburgh had to contend with the fallout of the Mossadegh crisis in Iran, the Baghdad Pact and its repercussions, a dispute with Saudi Arabia (which had invaded the desert oasis of Buraimi), and above all Egypt’s President Nasser. At that moment, Nasser was consolidating his power by eliminating those who had helped him to achieve it, as was only to be expected. Eighty-thousand British troops were stationed in the Canal Zone, and if Nasser could succeed in removing them on his terms, he could hope to justify himself to the Egyptians as their leader. To that end, he directed the usual terrorist campaign.

Typically, Shuckburgh nowhere discusses whether withdrawing or maintaining the garrison would serve British or Egyptian interests, or both, or neither, all of which is as debatable today as it was then. Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery are among those recorded here as advocating the use of bayonets in the circumstances. Churchill hoped for a fight, after which the British would withdraw, leaving Nasser to learn his lessons the hard way. Reflexively, Shuckburgh mocked and rejected this line. It was a foregone conclusion to him that Nasser could not be resisted. Principle was not involved. No pacifist, he merely considered that force was too public, too ungainly.

Shuckburgh’s conception of the nature of Middle East politics was too shallow to have any practical application. His inability to grasp that the Arab sociopolitical system owed nothing to British sensitivities, let alone to democratic values, condemned him in advance to defeat and loss. The limitation in his thinking often led to unfounded suppositions—for instance, that Syria might meaningfully merge with Iraq, or that the Sudanese, split religiously and tribally, and at that point uncertain of independence from either Britain or Egypt, “have it in them to become a really independent and stable nation.” Egypt was a society without defenses against a man of Nasser’s ambitions, yet Shuckburgh imagined offering him a “carrot” to desist from the pursuit of power, and fondly hoped that “sense” might be put into him. In the event, Nasser and his Free Officers could hardly believe their luck at the terms proposed by the Foreign Office for the evacuation of the Canal Zone. The Egyptians signed on the spot, and not even their grins of delight alerted Shuckburgh to what lay ahead.



How, the British wondered, was it conceivable that Nasser, who had been ceded what he wanted, was still not friendly to Britain? Would more concessions do the trick? Perhaps something should be done about the Arab-Israeli dispute, one of the “unnecessary irritants” that in Shuckburgh’s judgment needed to be eliminated in order to improve relations with the Arab states. It was to this, at any rate, that he turned his attention. Together with Francis Russell, his opposite number in the State Department, he worked out “Plan Alpha,” a fine example of diplomats’ geometry that involved complex territorial concessions by Israel, with land going to Jordan and Egypt, and British guarantees to follow.

The discovery that the Israelis would not allow their boundaries to be thus whimsically reduced embittered Shuckburgh. His thoughts turned to using force against them, for their own good. He persuaded himself that the Israelis did not appreciate their own true interest, and that if they did not obey, then they could only expect to be killed one day: “They seem to have some sort of ghetto instinct.” It was a short step from there to losing his temper with Israeli representatives, telling Prime Minister Eden that the Guardian was a Jewish newspaper, making reckless accusations about agents and lobbies. By November 1955, he “half hoped that the secret reports [of impending war] were true, and that the Israelis would attack Egypt, and have a good fight before going under for good and all.”

Plan Alpha had no basis in reality. It coincided with the launching by Nasser of guerrillas from the Gaza Strip, and Israeli retaliation. By contrast, Nasser’s interest in raising the stakes was very real, for by this means he was able to oppose the Baghdad Pact and secure Soviet arms, thereby opening up the maneuverings between East and West which finally made him the uncontested Egyptian leader. To Shuckburgh, as apparently to the whole Foreign Office, these developments were quite beyond prediction. In bewilderment, Shuckburgh came slowly to perceive that British policy had created the very Soviet opportunity in the area which it had been designed to preclude. He bemoaned the ingratitude of the Arabs, rather than blaming his own timidities and misconceptions. “How they hate us really,” he wrote in his usual vein, when the true lament should have been, how deftly the power-seeking Nasser has taken advantage of us.

Like Shuckburgh, Eden himself was soon swinging between alternative reactions of abject surrender and violence, whose climax was reached in the disastrous Suez campaign of 1956. “Poor Englandl We are in total disarray,” Shuckburgh was exclaiming at the end of his term in office, and these sentiments earned him a transfer as Chief Civilian Instructor at the Imperial Defense College, of all posts and places.

The profound defeatism so vividly exposed in these diaries no doubt was the guiding disposition of many influential Foreign Office officials at that moment, when the fate of many former colonial peoples was in the balance. Unable to recognize their own interests, officials of this cast of mind could not recognize anyone else’s either. Refusing to pay the price for order, they handed the costs of disorder to others, in this case the Arab masses left at the mercy of any dictator now able to capture the state.



About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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