Fifty years ago this past week, on July 26, 1956, the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Nasser's act would lead to an international crisis, a regional war and ultimately to the resignation of a British prime minister. "Suez" would become a lesson and a warning against Western meddling in the Middle East.
But the lessons and warnings of Suez look very different after 9/11.
In 1956, the Suez Canal was owned by the British government and a consortium of British and French private investors. Two-thirds of Europe's oil traveled through the canal, protected by British troops.
In 1952, a group of nationalist military officers led by Nasser had overthrown Egypt's king and elected parliament. The officers demanded the withdrawal of all British troops. The British complied. In 1954, Britain and Egypt signed a new treaty in which Egypt promised to respect foreign ownership rights over the canal.
But as soon as the last British soldier departed in June, 1956, Nasser immediately violated his promise and seized the canal.
So Britain and France made a secret deal with Israel. Nasser had been sponsoring terrorist raids into Israel from Egyptian-occupied Gaza. If Israel invaded Sinai to punish Egypt, the deal went, France and Britain would intervene to impose a peace--and to topple Nasser.
Israeli troops moved on Oct. 29 and swiftly defeated the Egyptian forces. But the allies had miscalculated the attitude of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower fiercely opposed the Suez war. He ordered Israel to stop and threatened economic reprisals against the British and French. The Anglo-French intervention collapsed. Nasser survived.
And what did America get in return? Did Nasser show gratitude to the president who saved him? Did Arab nationalists acknowledge the U.S. as their friend and protector? The questions are absurd: Of course not.
After Suez, Arab nationalists redoubled their invective against the United States. The region turned increasingly radical, increasingly pro-Soviet, increasingly violent. And Nasser himself led the way through his vitriolic radio broadcasts, his aid to extremist movements throughout the region, and his tightening relationship with the Soviet Union.
Here's an alternative lesson to draw from Suez. What Westerners think of as goodwill, Middle Easterners often interpret as weakness. Westerners expect their concessions and compromises to be met with concessions and compromises in return. Instead, Western moderation often intensifies Middle Eastern radicalism--as Eisenhower's goodwill intensified Nasser's radicalism, as Jimmy Carter's intensified the Ayatollah Khomeini's, as Ehud Barak's at Camp David intensified Yasser Arafat's. And (I'd argue) as George Bush's moderation toward Iran since 9/11 has intensified the Iranian regime's intransigence, extremism and violence.
By contrast, when Westerners act strongly and assertively, Middle Easterners surprisingly often back down. In 1958, Eisenhower sent 14,000 U.S. troops to support the government of Lebanon against Nasserist radicals--and the radicals yielded. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 intimidated the Iranian mullahs into releasing U.S. hostages.
Sometimes even mistakes can do the job. In 1986, a U.S. warship mistook an Iranian passenger jet for a fighter plane and shot it down. Khomeini refused to believe the shooting was an accident. He became convinced that the U.S. was actively intervening to support Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war--and, for that reason, he at last agreed to accept peace.
What if the U.S. had shown itself equally tough in 1956? What if it had refused to rescue Nasser from his self-inflicted doom? What if terrorism and treaty-breaking had carried a high price for the first Arab dictator to try them? Might we possibly have had less terrorism and treaty-breaking in the years since?
We cannot know, of course. But we can say this: A lot of the mainstream commentary on the Middle East is guided by assumptions that Middle Eastern leaders will do what we would do if we were in their place. As Barry Rubin tartly observes in the June issue of the Middle East Review of International Affairs:
"Palestinian leaders should be thinking: ...Violence, radicalism and maximalist demands have failed to bring benefits. We must instead try a strategy of compromise, peace and moderation. ... Since this seems logical, much of the world simply assumes that such is the Palestinian position." But in fact it is not the Palestinian position, any more than it is the Iranian position to want a negotiated solution to the nuclear problem or than Hezbollah wants a compromise with Israel.
The U.S. misjudged Nasser in 1956. And it has repeated that same misjudgment again and again in the years since. As the international community gets ready now to rescue Hezbollah and Iran from yet another war provoked by terrorism and treaty-violation, maybe it's time to consider a very different kind of lesson, the lesson forlornly propounded by Bernard Lewis for all these many years: "In the Middle East, get tough or get out."
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