Commentary Magazine


Topic: Suez Crisis

The Right’s Unwise Eisenhower Nostalgia

There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

Read More

There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

To be sure, there is much to admire in Eisenhower. But it doesn’t add any clarity to conservative policy planning to admire things about Eisenhower that didn’t actually exist. This week two of the right’s foreign-policy minds, Colin Dueck and Roger Zakheim, wrote a piece for National Review Online sketching out what they say is a reform-conservative foreign policy with a GOP candidate “who will play Eisenhower” as its avatar. As sensible as many of their principles are, the article contains neither much reform nor an accurate portrayal of Ike.

They pitch the coming GOP foreign-policy debate as a modern-day battle between Eisenhower and Taft. They cast Rand Paul as the champion of the Taftites, but I don’t think they’re being quite fair to Paul when they say those on his side of the debate “see American military power itself — rather than external challenges such as Russia, China, or the Islamic State — as the single greatest threat to American interests.” His father, Ron Paul, probably believes this. Rand believes in strategic retrenchment that, I think, underestimates the repercussions of such retrenchment but which does not replicate the noxious rhetoric of his father’s acolytes.

So what would a reform-conservative foreign-policy doctrine look like? Here’s their description:

It would preserve uncontested U.S. military supremacy. It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter. It would work from the understanding that the United States faces a range of serious international competitors that are not about to disappear anytime soon. It would look to push back against our adversaries through robust, coherent strategies of pressure. It would take great care before committing America’s armed forces to combat — and then do so, when finally required, in a deadly serious way.

This sounds almost exactly like … the reigning conservative foreign-policy consensus. I’m not sure what about that description is “reform”–which is fine with me, because those are sound principles. They just happen to be sound principles that have been guiding most conservative foreign-policy thinkers. It’s such a general description, in fact, that I could imagine it appearing on any GOP 2016 candidate’s issues page.

But the authors see this as a back-to-our-roots conservative reform. They write: “President Eisenhower, for example, pursued a national-security policy very much in keeping with the principles cited above.”

He most certainly did not.

The obvious hole in this plot is the second in their list of principles: “It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” If this sounds like Ike to you, we’re having a very strange foreign-policy debate.

Two of the most famous foreign-policy incidents on Ike’s watch were the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising. Eisenhower fumbled the attempt to keep American partnership in the Aswan Dam and influence on the Suez Canal, which Egypt then nationalized. And he forcefully opposed the allies’ attempts to break Nasser’s hold.

In his recent book on postwar American foreign policy, Stephen Sestanovich writes: “Suez was no mere transatlantic disagreement, but a strategic defeat from which Britain and France never recovered. This was, in a sense, Eisenhower’s goal. He and Dulles now went beyond merely wanting American allies to fail. The United States actively and decisively promoted their failure.” Ike’s public stand against Britain, France, and Israel later in the crisis “combined outrage with undisguised pleasure at the chance to join world opinion against old-fashioned imperialism.”

Ike’s decision not to intervene in the Kremlin’s quashing of the Hungarian uprising certainly has many defenders, but I doubt it qualifies as making “clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” Ike’s foreign policy was muddled, improvised, confused, and often shallow. Eisenhower’s caution was followed by the next Republican president, Richard Nixon. It wasn’t until Reagan that Republicans had a foreign policy consistent with the principles Dueck and Zakheim lay out.

Of course, the Iraq War is the elephant in the room, and Dueck and Zakheim choose to acknowledge it this way:

Those of us who are reform conservatives on national-security issues respond to a different set of circumstances than did President George W. Bush more than ten years ago. We have cut our teeth on the debates of the past few years — not prior eras. We did not mastermind Bush’s war in Iraq.

That seems really to be what this is about: the foreign-policy factory worker’s ritual denunciation of Bush. I don’t have a ton of patience for this. I wasn’t part of this supposed evil cabal of warmongers that led us into Iraq either. I was a sophomore in college when the 9/11 attacks enduringly changed our foreign-policy debate. But I don’t feel the need to claim clean hands every time I expound on foreign affairs.

Conservatives who believe that the principles that guided much of Bush’s foreign policy are perfectly acceptable unless they’re held by people who actually served in Bush’s inner circle are engaging in school-cafeteria politics. And transferring Bush’s principles to Eisenhower in order to launder political capital is not constructive. Ike was a hero, and he deserves to be remembered as one. But as president, his foreign policy was eventually left behind for a reason.

Read Less

Will Hagel Learn from Eisenhower’s Mistakes?

Many of Senator Chuck Hagel’s most vocal advocates like to compare Hagel to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Hagel views Israel through a realist prism and believes it would be in America’s interest to cultivate much closer ties to Arab states and the broader Muslim Middle East. There are 22 states in the Arab League (including Palestine and Syria, even if the latter is suspended), and that doesn’t include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the many non-Arab Muslim states who dislike Israel’s existence.

When Eisenhower entered office, he sought to rectify the damage—at least as he saw it—caused by President Harry S. Truman’s recognition of Israel. He immediately moved to cast his lot with Israel’s Arab opponents. In 1956, when France, the United Kingdom, and Israel responded militarily to Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with Nasser and forced France, the United Kingdom, and Israel to terminate hostility and withdraw. Nasser’s “victory” in the Suez Crisis—the successful consolidation of Egyptian control over the Suez Canal—was the greatest victory Arab nationalists won. Nasser became a household name throughout the region. Arab nationalists got a burst of adrenalin, which they used to bring down the Iraqi monarchy, the Yemeni imamate, and the Libyan monarchy, replacing each with radical states. That might be all well and good to realists, so long as these Arab nationalist states paid heed to U.S. national security interests. Alas, that was not to be. Even though Eisenhower courted Nasser and gave him the greatest gift of his career, Nasser and his fellow-travelers turned their backs almost immediately on the United States. As David Verbeteen, then a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London, explains:

Read More

Many of Senator Chuck Hagel’s most vocal advocates like to compare Hagel to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Hagel views Israel through a realist prism and believes it would be in America’s interest to cultivate much closer ties to Arab states and the broader Muslim Middle East. There are 22 states in the Arab League (including Palestine and Syria, even if the latter is suspended), and that doesn’t include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the many non-Arab Muslim states who dislike Israel’s existence.

When Eisenhower entered office, he sought to rectify the damage—at least as he saw it—caused by President Harry S. Truman’s recognition of Israel. He immediately moved to cast his lot with Israel’s Arab opponents. In 1956, when France, the United Kingdom, and Israel responded militarily to Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with Nasser and forced France, the United Kingdom, and Israel to terminate hostility and withdraw. Nasser’s “victory” in the Suez Crisis—the successful consolidation of Egyptian control over the Suez Canal—was the greatest victory Arab nationalists won. Nasser became a household name throughout the region. Arab nationalists got a burst of adrenalin, which they used to bring down the Iraqi monarchy, the Yemeni imamate, and the Libyan monarchy, replacing each with radical states. That might be all well and good to realists, so long as these Arab nationalist states paid heed to U.S. national security interests. Alas, that was not to be. Even though Eisenhower courted Nasser and gave him the greatest gift of his career, Nasser and his fellow-travelers turned their backs almost immediately on the United States. As David Verbeteen, then a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London, explains:

The Eisenhower administration bent over backwards to avoid any policy that might vindicate the Arabs’ almost paranoid perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel. Washington denied Israel arms and threatened the Jewish state with economic sanctions in 1953 because of its water crisis with Syria and its military reprisals in Sinai against Egyptian raids. The State Department expected Israel to make sweeping border adjustments in the framework of the Alpha and Gamma plans, which called for Israel to cede Negev territory in order to enable a land bridge between Egypt and Jordan. Further, the White House condemned Israel in 1956 for participating in the Anglo-French Suez campaign and forced it to retreat from the Sinai in 1957. Kenen’s objections to Eisenhower administration policies fell on deaf ears…

Why, then, did an exclusive U.S.-Arab alliance not solidify into a permanent fixture of U.S. policy? Simply put, reality intervened. Arab priorities were not those of Washington. While U.S. officials saw resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a precondition for a U.S.-Arab alliance against the Soviet Union, such a grouping was not to be. Arab leaders were unreliable and did not share the U.S. vision of international, let alone regional, security. Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad grew closer to Moscow. These Arab nationalist and revolutionary regimes sought to undermine pro-Western governments in Lebanon and Jordan. The Middle East operated—and continues to operate—according to internal dynamics that are not easily channeled by external forces. Inter-Arab rivalries surfaced.

By the end of Eisenhower’s term, even Eisenhower realists understood that the reason why Washington needed Jerusalem was simply because Israel was a much better ally. As would be demonstrated repeatedly through the remainder of the Cold War, the United States got as much if not more from its relationship with Israel as Israel got from its relationship with the United States.

Perhaps in his confirmation hearings, Hagel can explain why he thinks Eisenhower’s assumptions about the Middle East fell flat. Let us hope he is aware of the history. Nasser’s expansionism with radio propaganda and conventional arms posed a formidable challenge and, indeed, led to destabilizing wars in the region. More than half a century later, it is a potentially nuclear-capable Islamic Republic of Iran that Hagel seeks to appease. The question is whether U.S. national security can now afford to re-learn Eisenhower’s mistakes.

Read Less




Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.