David Ignatius: In '56 crisis, some parallels

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: January 27, 2013
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Chuck Hagel means it when he describes himself as an “Eisenhower Republican.” He kept a bust of President Dwight Eisenhower in his Senate office for a dozen years, and has a portrait of Ike on the wall of his current office at Georgetown University.

But the most compelling evidence of Hagel's fascination is that he purchased three dozen copies of an Eisenhower biography and gave copies to President Obama, Vice President Biden and then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates, according to the book's author, David Nichols.

The book that so interested Hagel, “Eisenhower 1956,” examines one of the most delicate and dangerous moments of Ike's presidency. Published in 2011, it's basically the story of how Eisenhower forced Israel, Britain and France to withdraw from their invasion of the Suez Canal — thereby establishing the United States as the dominant, independent power in the Middle East.

It's impossible to read Nichols' book without thinking of recent tensions between the U.S. and Israel over the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. Just as Egypt's mercurial leader Gamal Abdel Nasser posed the pre-eminent threat to Israel in the 1950s, so it is today with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Iran. What's interesting about Eisenhower is that, while sympathetic to Israel's defense needs, he was also determined to maintain an independent U.S. policy and avoid a war that might involve the Soviet Union.

As the Senate deliberates Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense, it should consider the “Eisenhower 1956” narrative carefully. It's a useful guide to how Hagel thinks about American power in the Middle East — and it explains ideas he has shared with the top U.S. policymakers, Obama and Biden.

Many themes come together at Suez: the falling empires of Britain and France; the rising global hegemony of the United States; the turmoil of the Arab world; and the assertive, unpredictable role of an Israel that, then as now, saw itself fighting for its life amid hostile Muslim nations.

Eisenhower said in a January 1956 news conference the U.S. should pursue an Arab-Israeli policy that was “above politics” and encouraged “some kind of friendship, at least cooperation between the two sides.” This gauzy idea of evenhandedness would be severely tested.

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