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.