The United States is trying to make a deal with Iran, by which that country would guarantee to keep its nuclear program peaceful. After winding down the war in Iraq, American troops are back in that country to fight ISIS. And the present governments of two longtime American allies, Israel and Egypt, gripe that we are not as friendly as we should be.
Rough times, to be sure—but different only in degree from America’s experiences in the Middle East for many years. Whether the problem of the moment is Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq or Iran, the United States has been holding hands, knocking heads or fighting wars in the Middle East for decades. We do it because we are the superpower that is most involved in Middle Eastern affairs—a role assumed by Dwight Eisenhower. The Middle East needed a steady hand because it held the bulk of the world’s oil supply, and because it was subject to nationalist upheaval and possible Soviet penetration. It needed a steady hand because its previous imperial masters were too weak to do the job any longer.
At the end of World War II, the dominant powers in the region, on paper at least, were still France and Britain. France had a chain of mandates and possessions stretching from Morocco to Syria. Britain’s writ ran from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. French or British commercial interests heavily influenced those countries not aligned with either power. But this vestigial Anglo-French empire was moribund. France had been prostrated by defeat and occupation; Britain was near bankruptcy. The peoples they dominated yearned for complete independence. Local nationalists, some of whom had intrigued with the Axis, might now be wooed by the Soviet Union.
After the war, the United States helped Britain and France to recover economically, and worked with them to maintain the freedom of Western Europe. America had no intention, however, of propping up the Europeans’ spheres of influence in developing countries. As a former colony itself, the United States sympathized with the rhetoric of liberation.
Dwight Eisenhower, first elected president in 1952, brought a unique perspective to the postwar world. As the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he had worked closely with Britain’s political leaders as well as its military leaders. He knew them, liked them—and never forgot that he had been Supreme.
The first Middle East crisis of the Eisenhower years concerned Iran. In 1953 Britain asked the United States to join in toppling democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British-controlled firm that pumped and processed Iran’s oil. (Its refinery on Abadan Island in southwestern Iran was the largest in the world.) John Foster Dulles, secretary of state, and his brother, Allen, director of Central Intelligence, prepared a CIA plan codenamed Ajax. Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote that, although the president “left no documents behind that could implicate” him, he nevertheless “maintained a tight control” over this and other CIA operations. A combination of riots and army maneuvers brought Mossadegh down in August. In the aftermath, American oil companies won access to 40 percent of the Iranian market. The U.S. had helped Britain—and helped itself.
Eisenhower’s next Middle East crisis pitted the United States and Britain directly against each other. A Franco-British company operated the Suez Canal under an Egyptian government lease that was set to expire in 1968. But in July 1956 Gamal Abdel Nasser, the new president of Egypt, nationalized the canal, declaring that he would use revenue from tolls to modernize his country. Britain and France reacted with wounded pride and fear. (One British newspaper headline called Egypt’s president “Grabber Nasser.”) The Suez Canal was the conduit for the Middle Eastern oil on which their economies depended; if Egyptians mismanaged it, or closed it to them, they would be crippled.
The two countries reached out to Israel and came up with an elaborate scheme. Israel, reacting to Palestinian guerrilla raids from Egyptian soil, would invade the Sinai Peninsula. In response, Britain and France would send an armada to protect the canal—from the conflict that Britain and France had encouraged. On October 28 the Israelis moved into the Sinai. On November 5-6 British and French troops took Port Said and Port Fuad at the northern end of the canal. Although the United States had been warned that its allies might intervene to recover the canal, the joint operation with Israel took Eisenhower by surprise. For Britain and France, acting on their own was the point of the exercise. “It’s rather fun,” remarked one British diplomat, “to be at Number Ten [the prime minister’s London residence] the night we smashed the Anglo-American alliance.”
Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers, however, were determined to stop them. “We cannot be bound by our traditional alliances,” the president said privately. “Nothing justifies double-crossing us.” If fighting cut off the fuel supply to Britain and France, he grumbled that they should “boil in their own oil.” In public Eisenhower used more dignified words to convey the same message: “We cannot subscribe to one law for the weak, another law for the strong. . . .There can be only one law—or there shall be no peace.”
The United States offered a motion in the General Assembly of the United Nations calling for a cease-fire under UN auspices. It passed, 64 to 5 (only Britain, France, Israel and two Commonwealth countries voted against it). International disapproval and fierce domestic debates, especially in Britain, weighed heavily on the three combatants, but the heaviest pressure came from Eisenhower and the United States. In December the British and French evacuated the canal. Eisenhower had imposed his will on our oldest allies, and, it seemed, on the Middle East. One British diplomat summed up the new situation: “We have become very much junior partners in the Western Alliance.”
Eisenhower had muscled his way to victory, but in two years he would shoulder the burdens of responsibility. In January 1958 Nasser announced a new pan-Arab state, uniting Egypt and Syria. In mid-July Iraq’s royal family was murdered in a pro-Nasser coup in Baghdad. When the president of Lebanon, Camille Chamoun, was threatened with a coup, he asked for help not from France, which had created modern Lebanon in 1860, but from the United States, the 20th-century superpower. Eisenhower called a meeting of his advisers in the Oval Office. He was not seeking their counsel, but telling them what he intended to do. “My mind was practically made up,” he wrote in his memoirs. The U.S. Sixth Fleet would put Marines and soldiers ashore in Beirut “to stop the trend toward chaos” in Lebanon. Later that day Eisenhower informed British prime minister Harold Macmillan of his plans. “You are doing a Suez on me,” Macmillan joked. Eisenhower laughed, but he considered the two operations very different: Eisenhower was acting at the invitation of the local government. On July 15 U.S. troops went ashore, to be greeted on the waterfront by refreshment sellers. Lebanon remained peaceful, Nasser backed off and the Americans left Lebanon in October. The trend toward chaos was stopped.
But the trend toward American involvement had just begun. We backed Israel in two wars in 1967 and 1973 and brokered peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978. In 1979 our embassy in Tehran was overrun and our diplomats held hostage. In 1982 we sent armed forces once more to Beirut (where 241 Americans were killed by a suicide bomber the following year). We fought Iraq in 1991 and invaded it in 2003. Year in, year out, we dealt with terrorists, nationalists, Islamists and OPEC. No power has spent more, done more or been frustrated more. It is Dwight Eisenhower’s world—what he found in the 1950s, and what he made of it. We are still living in it.