Ike’s Gam­ble

Michael Doran
  • Review
By – June 4, 2017

Ike’s Gam­ble is an account of the Suez Cri­sis of 1956. Despite the gam­ble” of the title, Michael Doran describes Eisen­how­er as any­thing but a risk-tak­er. Rather, befit­ting his rep­u­ta­tion as a mil­i­tary strate­gist (and expert bridge play­er), Eisen­how­er was the first Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to for­mu­late a com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy for the Mid­dle East, and … one of the most sophis­ti­cat­ed and expe­ri­enced prac­ti­tion­ers of inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics ever to reside in the White House.” Of course, the pri­ma­ry con­text of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy in the 1950s was the Cold War. Doran argues that Amer­i­can pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East was dis­tort­ed by the prism of anti-colo­nial­ism and by an ill-advised tilt” in favor of the Arab pow­ers to gain influ­ence with Gamal Abdul Nass­er, the de fac­tor ruler of Egypt. Ike’s com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy” rest­ed on a deeply flawed under­stand­ing of Nasser’s moti­va­tion and result­ed in a loss of pow­er and pres­tige by American’s most impor­tant ally — Great Britain — and allowed the emer­gence of the Sovi­et Union as a key play­er in the Mid­dle East as the patron of Egypt. 

Doran’s account excels in its appre­ci­a­tion of Nasser’s pol­i­cy and in illu­mi­nat­ing the dynam­ic of the Amer­i­can-Egypt­ian rela­tion­ship. Nass­er was first and fore­most a pan-Arab nation­al­ist who attempt­ed to bring under his con­trol the entire Arab nation, includ­ing the peo­ples of Iraq, Syr­ia, Jor­dan, and Lebanon. Eisen­how­er and his Sec­re­tary of State, John Fos­ter Dulles, con­sid­ered Nass­er to be the strong horse” of the Mid­dle East and attempt­ed to pro­pi­ti­ate him.

Doran brings into focus the clash of Amer­i­can pol­i­cy objec­tives — which includ­ed form­ing an anti-Sovi­et alliance among the so-called North­ern Tier” coun­tries of Turkey, Iraq, and Pak­istan — and Nasser’s pol­i­cy of bring­ing Iraq more close­ly into the Arab fold. 

Doran also excels in ana­lyz­ing the role of the Arab-Israeli con­flict in both Nasser’s and Amer­i­can pol­i­cy. For Nass­er, Israel was cer­tain­ly the demon in the Mid­dle East. How­ev­er, in the mid 1950s it was a con­ve­nient demon in that it was the foun­da­tion for one of the ral­ly­ing cries of Nasser’s pan-Ara­bism. Amer­i­can efforts to bring about a set­tle­ment of the Arab-Israeli cri­sis were rebuffed, because hos­til­i­ty to Israel was much more use­ful to Nass­er than peace. 

Doran’s account also makes clear why Nass­er pre­ferred the Sovi­ets as a strate­gic part­ner over the Amer­i­cans. The Amer­i­cans were pre­oc­cu­pied with a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of the Arab-Israeli cri­sis, where­as the Sovi­ets were will­ing to back the Arabs to the hilt, what­ev­er the results for Israel. Because the Amer­i­cans failed to appre­ci­ate that from Nasser’s per­spec­tive, an alliance with Amer­i­ca nev­er made sense. 

Amer­i­ca suc­ceed­ed in forc­ing the British out of Suez and main­tain­ing its anti-colo­nial­ist bona fides. How­ev­er this allowed Nass­er to seize the canal and become a hero in the Arab world as the man who stood up to the West­ern pow­ers. Over the next ten years, Nass­er was able to con­sol­i­date his role in the Arab world, embark on a mil­i­tary build-up with the help of Sovi­et arms, and lead the Arab nation to the precipice of its great objec­tive — the destruc­tion of Israel.

Doran intends this sto­ry to be a para­ble for our times. An Amer­i­can admin­is­tra­tion seeks to cur­ry favor with a Mid­dle East­ern pow­er by show­ing that it repents of its colo­nial” role in a 1953 coup against a com­mu­nist lean­ing nation­al­ist (i.e., Mossad­eq), and is will­ing to put dis­tance between the Unit­ed States and Israel. The Mid­dle East­ern pow­er (Iran) uses Amer­i­can con­ces­sions to assert its pre­dom­i­nance over its Sun­ni neigh­bors. In 1967, Nasser’s ambi­tions final­ly came to nought as a result of his dis­as­trous defeat by the Israelis in the Six-Day War. The Iran sto­ry, of course, has yet to play out.

Don Feld­man is a retired teacher liv­ing in Lan­cast­er, Pennsylvania.

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