Tuesday, October 30, 2007

5 Lessons from the 1956 Suez Crisis

After the nationalization of the Suez Canal in July 1956 by Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, the British and French, along with Israel launched Operation Musketeer, on October 29 and the 31st of that same year. Militarily the air-land-and sea campaign was a glorious success, but politically it was a failure as the 2 new superpowers forced the three victorious allies to back down. The Middle East hasn't been the same since, and from this we get these 5 lessons:

  1. Don't abandon your allies. Britain and France were wrong in launching the operation without first consulting their most important ally, the USA. Yet, America was equally at fault for siding against their partners to be humiliated by coercion from the Soviet Union, and for leaving the Canal in the hands of a dictator. Britain would eventually withdraw from the region, leaving a power vacuum that America had to fill, and France soon quit NATO.
  2. Seapower is still essential. Even in the age of jet fighters and the atom bomb, the allies proved that naval forces were still vital, as did the Korean War 6 years earlier. Seven Anglo/French aircraft carriers participated in the operation, including the first use of helicopter-borne assault troops. Britain would relearn this same lesson 26 years later in the Falklands Conflict.
  3. Don't give in to dictators. Prime Minister Anthony Eden rightly likened Nasser's power grab to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930's. The principle reason for launching the Operation was not just securing the Canal for the West, but forestalling future war and instability in the region. Considering the trouble we find ourselves currently in the Middle East, the reasoning was a sound then as it is now.
  4. Israel is the West's best friend in the Middle East. Musketeer couldn't have been pulled off so smoothly without military support from the Israelis, who quickly seized the East bank of the Canal. Besides being a superpower in the region, Israel shares common European values, and didn't need to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept democracy. Any diplomatic agreement with the Arabs that threatens the security of Israel should be avoided at all costs.
  5. Don't underestimate the British. By 1956, Britain may have been a weakened Empire, but the amazing strike on the Egyptians so far from her shores proved the Royal Navy was still a force to be reckoned with. The Argentines would repeat the folly to their chagrin in 1982, Saddam Hussein in 1990 and 2003, while Iran currently is headed down the same disastrous path.
Due to pressure from the Eisenhower Administration, and missile threats from Khrushchev, the British and French were forced into a shameful withdrawal. Afterwards, the UK began a drastic cutting of her armed forces, while speeding up the decolonization process. Nasser would give birth to a new Arab nationalism that has shaped our modern world, mostly for the worse. The Soviet Union, which got away with squelching Hungarian freedom at the same time, felt emboldened to demand further concessions from the West, eventually leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Ike would later say he regretted the decision to abandon the Allies at Suez.