Lessons from Suez
Monday, July 31, 2006
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Suez Crisis. Marking this anniversary, the July 29th issue of The Economist ran a special feature on this subject, giving its readers a historical refresher while highlighting the parallels that can be drawn. It's an excellent article that I think everyone should read.
In a nutshell, for those who do not wish to read the article, when Egypt's Nasser seized and nationalized the Suez Canal, the British and French viewed the act as threatening and unacceptable. They decided to use military force to retake the canal (there was even hope for a regime change to rid themselves of the troublesome Nasser, who they had compared to Hitler and Mussolini). To avoid international criticism, they accepted Israel's under-the-table offer to invade the Sinai (Israel was looking for a chance to retaliate against Egypt's involvement in Gaza), which would give the British and French an excuse to send in troops to secure stabilize the region and to keep the peace. Israel invaded, the British and French feigned surprise, issued an ultimatum demanding a cease-fire, and then joined the fray. The United States, under the Republican president Eisenhower, demanded that the British and French stop their offensive, and with the threat of withholding reconstruction funds, they succeeded in forcing the British and French to a ceasefire. They then proceeded to call an emergency session of the UN (therefore bypassing the British and French vetoes) and established a UN peacekeeping force to secure the area.
In my opinion, what was most striking about all this is the degree to which things have reversed themselves over the course of these fifty years. Saddam, in many ways, tried to follow in the footsteps of Nasser, and, like Nasser, his critics compared him to Hitler and wished for regime change. Except that in 2003, instead of the French wishing for an invasion and regime change, it was the United States, and instead of the United States opposing military action, it was the French. In 1956, the United States masterfully used the UN to resolve the problem, and in 2003, the United States more or less brushed aside and dismissed the UN. In 1956, it was the French and British who sided with Israel and it was the United States who opposed the Israeli invasion; of course, in 2006, the opposite is true. And while the United States were allergic to imperialistic notions in 1956, it is often accused of such today.
So what had changed? Perhaps it was the fifty years of superpower status? Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and as a nation, it may be that the United States had forgotten the sorts of principles that it once cherished. Have those who support the American troop presence in the Middle East forgotten how violently allergic colonial Americans were to British troops in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War? Or perhaps the shift over the past fifty years was the result of the Cold War, where we took on a quasi-imperialistic agenda in order to thwart the spread of Communism (opposing the spread of Soviet Communism was good, but we may have allowed our principles to be compromised in our zeal). Or perhaps it is the resurgence in American politics of the more bellicose and fundamentalist South over the past fifty years (with its virtual takeover of the GOP) after having been marginalized after the Civil War. Or perhaps nothing really has changed, and the Iraqi invasion of 2003 and the opposition to an Israeli-Lebanese ceasefire in the past two weeks are simply the result of a misguided (and clueless) leader who has obviously not learned much from history.
This entry was edited on 2006/07/31 at 20:15:37 GMT -0400.