David Ignatius: In '56 crisis, some parallels

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: January 27, 2013
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Ike said in a March 29, 1956, letter to Winston Churchill that the Middle East was “the most important and bothersome of the problems that currently confront our nations.” His anxiety increased in July, when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.

The British, French and Israelis — unbeknownst to Eisenhower and his advisers — were secretly plotting to roll back Nasser's control of Suez. Their tripartite alliance was formalized in an Oct. 24 secret protocol that specified that Israel would invade the Sinai Peninsula five days later. The three collaborators designed what Nichols calls “smoke screens” to conceal their plans from the U.S.

When the Israeli invasion came on Oct. 29, a week before the U.S. election, Eisenhower was irate. He told Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: “Foster, you tell 'em ... that we're going to apply sanctions, we're going to the United Nations, we're going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing.” The U.S, did, indeed, win a cease-fire resolution at the U.N., despite opposition from Britain, France and Israel.

Eisenhower took a political risk. He was blasted by his Democratic rival, Adlai Stevenson, who charged on Nov. 1 that if the U.S. had acted more forcefully to support Israel, it might have avoided war. But Ike prevailed, winning re-election, forcing the attackers to withdraw from the canal, and enunciating a strategy for U.S.-led security in the region that came to be known as the “Eisenhower Doctrine.”

How does this story apply to modern-day Israel and America — especially for an Obama administration that, while committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, devoutly hopes to avoid military action? The parallels are impossible to draw precisely, but it matters that the cautious and fiercely independent Eisenhower is a role model for the prospective future defense secretary.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP