Kinder Sculpture


Dec 2006 Journal

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Suez 1956 - a lesson from history

In autumn 1956, just as the Hungarian uprising erupted (see November issue), the crisis that had been triggered when Egypt's President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal (26 July 1956), was nearing its climax. Anglo-French military intervention against Egypt proved to be a monumental error; it cost Prime Minister Anthony Eden his job and Britain its remaining position in the Middle East, as well as demonstrating with brutal clarity the hollowness of Britain's claim to be a 'world power' any longer.

Those whose priority is still to ensure Britain's 'seat at the top table', by 'punching above our weight' in purely military and diplomatic terms, ignore the lessons of Suez at their (and our) peril. For decades after World War II, their strategy succeeded only in relegating Britain to a position behind Germany and Japan, the defeated powers of 1945, in terms of real economic strength, and in frittering away the real advantages that might have been secured by tailoring British policy to the country's new position as a regional, European power.

Nasser was the leading figure in the pan-Arab movement, bent on removing the remnants of colonial rule from the Arab world (and bitterly hostile to Israel). His nationalisation of the Suez Canal, owned by companies representing Britain and France, was legitimate - Egypt was willing to compensate the former owners, just as Attlee's Labour Government had compensated the coal-owners when it nationalised the coalmines.

Nevertheless, Eden became obsessed with Nasser, whom he compared to Hitler; a soft line on the Canal crisis became in his mind comparable to Chamberlain's failed policy of appeasement in the 1930s. In reality, Britain's evacuation of its troops from the Suez Canal Zone, begun in 1954, showed that the logic of its position pointed in the opposite direction, to the abandonment of Britain's role 'East of Suez'; with Indian independence in 1947, the Canal had lost its significance as the arterial connection to Britain's imperial possessions.

Eden dragged Britain into a squalid and misconceived adventure. In a secret understanding with France and Israel, he agreed that Israel should attack Egypt and that Britain and France should then send in troops, allegedly to separate the warring parties. Israeli forces invaded the Sinai Peninsula on 29 October 1956 and, when Nasser rejected the Anglo-French proposal to occupy the Canal Zone temporarily, supposedly in order to establish a buffer zone between Israelis and Egyptians, the forces of the two powers invaded Egypt and rapidly established control over the Canal.

However, this was a short-lived success, for the rest of the world saw that military intervention 'to separate the combatants' was a transparently dishonest pretext for retaining Anglo-French control over the Canal. President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, refused to support their European allies in this version of twentieth-century gunboat diplomacy - greatly to their credit, as they risked alienating the Jewish lobby on the eve of the American presidential elections of November 1956.

Not for the last time, Britain's economic weakness proved to be its Achilles heel: as Sterling weakened under the impact of the crisis and the country's currency reserves drained away, American pressure forced Eden to back down. A ceasefire came into effect on 6 November 1956 and British forces were withdrawn: only 11 years after victory over Hitler, the limits of British power in the post-war world were exposed, as Britain was whipped into line by the USA.

None of the participants in the brief campaign emerged with lasting gains. Nasser, whose forces had been defeated by the Israelis, nevertheless won a huge political victory through his stand against the Western 'imperialists'. But this was a success built on sand. The union of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic soon foundered, and Egypt's crushing defeat by Israel in the war of 1967 meant that Nasser spent his last years as leader of a profoundly humiliated nation.

Israel emerged from its campaign in the Sinai Peninsula victorious militarily, but with precious little political advantage. Nasser, its foe, had emerged from the campaign with his prestige in the Arab world much increased, whereas Israel had damaged its standing by associating itself with a war of aggression initiated by the former imperial powers. Israeli policy was becoming marked by a pronounced reliance on its military strength - understandable in a small, embattled nation surrounded by numerically superior enemies, but unsuited to the political process necessary for the solution of the central dispute with the Palestinians. France, for its part, failed to halt Egyptian support for Arab Algeria's fight for independence.

The failure of the Suez campaign revealed that Britain, having lost an empire, had yet to devise a foreign-policy strategy appropriate to its new, post-imperial situation. Too weak to be a major player on the world stage by itself, but reluctant to throw in its lot with its European neighbours, Britain fell back on its 'special relationship' with America. Fifty years on, a British prime minister is again colluding in the invasion of an Arab country, again on questionable grounds, and this time not restrained by the wisdom of a Republican president in the White House.
Anthony Grenville

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