Lessons of Suez
Comments directly to
December 2, 2006
November marked the 50th anniversary of the Suez crisis, when Britain,
France and Israel decided to attack Egypt and unseat Gamal Abdel-Nasser,
the nationalist Egyptian leader. This was one of those seminal moments
in the mid-twentieth century that had momentous geopolitical consequences
for the world, and especially for the Middle East.
When the West first promised and then reneged on its promise to help the
construction of the Aswan Dam, Abdel-Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal
to use its revenue to build the dam, as was within his right. As the result
of the strategic importance of the canal to Western interests, Britain,
France and Israel decided to remove the Egyptian leader and undo the nationalisation
of the Suez Canal, as they had done only three years previously when Dr
Mohammad Mosaddeq had nationalised Iranian oil and was toppled as the
result of a British-CIA coup.
In 1875, Isma'il Pasha had been forced to sell his country's share in
the canal to the United Kingdom, and the Convention of Constantinople
(1888) declared the canal a neutral zone under British 'protection'. The
Suez Canal had been important in the British and French colonial penetration
of Africa. For this reason it was considered important by them to keep
the canal out of Egyptian control. The French thought that by suppressing
a nationalist Arab leader they could hold on to what was left to them
in North Africa. Israel, then only eight years old, saw a chance to humble
the most important Arab state, and gain some territory as well. Israel's
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had wider ambitions than Suez. He dreamed
of annexing southern Lebanon up to the Litani River, take the West Bank,
which belonged to Jordan, and give the rest of Jordan to Iraq, then in
the hands of a Hashemite king.
So it was that the three powers cooked up a secret deal that involved
Israel seizing the Sinai, with the British and French grabbing the Suez
Canal. On October 29, 1956, Israel invaded the Egyptian-controlled Gaza
Strip and Sinai Peninsula and made rapid progress towards the Canal Zone.
On 30th October Britain and France vetoed a USSR demand for an Israel-Egypt
ceasefire, and instead mounted air strikes on Egypt. On November 5, Anglo-French
forces landed at Port Said. The 3rd Battalion of the British Parachute
Regiment dropped 668 British paratroopers at El Gamil Airfield, clearing
the area and establishing a secure base for incoming support aircraft
and reinforcements, and 470 French paratroopers landed at two bridges
on the canal.
That ill-considered invasion had a number of disastrous and long-term
consequences, which are still with us.
First of all, it confirmed the view of many people in the Middle East
that the state of Israel that had been recently created, as the result
of massive US pressure on the UN, on Palestinian lands was indeed a colonial
project and served the interests of imperialist powers. It also created
a precedent for Israel to attack Arab countries, something that still
continues as we can see from the latest barbaric attack on Lebanon and
the ongoing incursion and killings in Gaza.
Its second outcome was that it marked the end of European empires and
European domination of the Middle East, and their replacement by the American
super-power. After the end of the Second World War the United States had
emerged as the strongest power, but it found that most of the Middle East
was under European domination. It had managed to get a share of the Persian
oil after the coup against Dr Mosaddeq in 1953 and later on achieved the
lion's share of oil concessions in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Persian
President Dwight Eisenhower's opposition to the invasion, which resulted
in its speedy collapse, made the United States the uncontested super-power
after the Second World War. The lesson that the French learned from that
episode was that they could not trust the United States and had to go
it alone. Shortly afterwards, they developed their independent nuclear
deterrent. The lesson that the British leaders learned from that event
was that they should stick closely to the United States and should not
try to act independently, something that has been most clearly demonstrated
by Tony Blair.
Its third consequence was to provide a fantastic propaganda boost to the
Soviet Union when Nikita Khrushchev threatened to intervene on behalf
of Egypt against Western imperialism and portrayed himself as the friend
of the Arabs. That event encouraged Egypt, Syria, Libya and later Iraq
to cut their links to the West and turn towards the Soviet Union, something
which continued more or less till President Sadat's time in Egypt and
till the end of the Cold War in the case of Libya and Syria. That event
greatly strengthened the Soviet Union.
In fact, coming only a few days after the Hungarian uprising that had
started on 26th October, it provided an excuse to the Soviet Union to
brutally crush that uprising on November 10th, and thus prolong the oppressive
domination of the Soviet Empire over Eastern Europe for another 35 years.
At the Politburo meeting of 30th October it was almost unanimously decided
to allow Imre Nagy, the new Hungarian leader, to ride out the storm. However,
in the wake of the Anglo-French and Israeli attack on Egypt, Khrushchev
decided to crush the Hungarian uprising.
The fourth consequence of that failed attack was to strengthen Nasser
and make him a hero in the eyes of the Arab world. It gave rise to Arab
nationalism and strong anti-Western feelings that persist to the present
The fifth consequence was that only two years later it encouraged the
Ba'thists to topple the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq and install a revolutionary
and brutal government that continued until just three years ago.
But perhaps the most disastrous and enduring outcome of that ill-fated
event was that it undermined faith in Western democracies among the people
in the Third World. The deception and the lie by seemingly honourable
and reputable Western leaders persuaded many that all those claims of
democracy, civilisation and higher ethical standards were false and empty.
At first, the excuse was that as Israel had attacked the Suez Canal from
Sinai, Britain and France entered the conflict in order to separate the
Israelis from the Egyptians. Later, it became clear that the plot had
been hatched by Britain, France and Israel at Sèvres, on the outskirts
of Paris, to carry out Operation Musketeer to invade Egypt.
One can argue that in many ways the consequences of the ill-fated invasion
of Iraq are going to be more serious and more enduring. The Suez fiasco
resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister Anthony Eden, something
that has not happened in our time. However, despite the high-sounding
reasons such as the establishment of democracy and liberating the Iraqi
people, which were put forward as afterthoughts when earlier reasons were
proved false, the Iraqi invasion was about domination and intimidating
other states. In a recent book, titled After Suez, Adrift in the American
Century, Martin Woollacott compares the two episodes and writes: "Like
Suez, the intervention in Iraq in 2003 was intended not only to bring
down a hostile leader but to have an exemplary effect on the whole region.
Like Suez, it was intended to demonstrate a capacity to dominate and control."
The Suez invasion had those dreadful consequences because it was based
on a lie, there was a moral breakdown. The consequences of the illegal
war in Iraq will be more disastrous – not only for Iraq with its
half a million dead, destroyed infrastructure, unemployment, the looted
treasures, humiliation, sectarian warfare, continued violence and probable
break-up of the country– but for us and for the rest of the world
as well. Already, close to 3,000 US and Coalition forces have been killed
and tens of thousands wounded, and the US reputation in the rest of the
world has been shattered. The failure of the Iraqi venture will not only
be due to poor planning, an inadequate number of troops, corruption, embezzlement,
torture, etc, but also because like the Suez crisis it too was based on
a set of lies and deception.
We have not forgotten that only a few years ago, the Western media was
full of what has turned out to be completely false propaganda about Iraq.
Not only was Andrew Gilligan driven out of the BBC for quoting Dr David
Kelly as saying that the intelligence had been 'sexed up', but the editor
of the Today Program, the Director General and the Chairman of the BBC
were also forced to resign for a report that turned out to be correct.
There were literally hundreds of articles in most reputable and even in
liberal Western newspapers that alleged the existence of weapons of mass
destruction as a matter of fact. The following article by Michael R. Gordon
and Judith Miller in the New York Times provides just one example of many
than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass
destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has
embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush
administration officials said today. In the last 14 months, Iraq has
sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which
American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges
to enrich uranium. American officials said several efforts to arrange
the shipment of the aluminum tubes were blocked or intercepted but declined
to say, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence, where they came
from or how they were stopped. The diameter, thickness and other technical
specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence
experts that they were meant for Iraq's nuclear program, officials said,
and that the latest attempt to ship the material had taken place in
The attempted purchases are not the only signs of a renewed Iraqi interest
in acquiring nuclear arms. President Hussein has met repeatedly in recent
months with Iraq's top nuclear scientists and, according to American
intelligence, praised their efforts as part of his campaign against
the West… "The jewel in the crown is nuclear," a senior
administration official said. "The closer he gets to a nuclear
capability, the more credible is his threat to use chemical or biological
weapons. Nuclear weapons are his hole card. "The question is not,
why now?" the official added, referring to a potential military
campaign to oust Mr. Hussein. "The question is why waiting is better.
The closer Saddam Hussein gets to a nuclear weapon, the harder he will
be to deal with."
Such statements were not limited to the media. In his radio address to
the nation on 8 February 2003, just over a month before the invasion of
Iraq, the president categorically asserted:
regime has actively and secretly attempted to obtain equipment needed
to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Firsthand witnesses
have informed us that Iraq has at least seven mobile factories for the
production of biological agents -- equipment mounted on trucks and rails
to evade discovery.
The Iraqi regime has acquired and tested the means to deliver weapons
of mass destruction. It has never accounted for thousands of bombs and
shells capable of delivering chemical weapons. It is actively pursuing
components for prohibited ballistic missiles. And we have sources that
tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders
to use chemical weapons -- the very weapons the dictator tells us he
does not have."
We have not forgotten the 'dodgy dossier', with an introduction by the
British Prime Minister Tony Blair alleging that Saddam could launch his
weapons in 45 minutes, information that was allegedly provided by Iyad
Allawi, who was later installed as Iraq's prime minister. The following
day a British tabloid newspaper devoted its first page to an article with
the heading "45 minutes from Armageddon."
We had the Secretary of State Colin Powell's audio-visual performance
at the UN. Unfortunately, many of the reasons given for the invasion have
now proved to have been non-existent. Other embarrassing details keep
popping up like unquiet ghosts--the aluminium tubes, the Niger uranium,
the Prague meeting between Atta and Iraqi intelligence, the alleged ties
to Al Qaeda, the trailers that were supposedly used as mobile laboratories
for chemical weapons, the drones that could be used to spread chemical
weapons, the huge stockpiles of chemical weapons under some hospitals,
Not only have weapons of mass destruction not been found, the establishment
of democracy has also proved more elusive than anticipated. It is clear
that one cannot impose democracy by dropping bombs and missiles on others.
Referring to last year's election in Lebanon, President Bush said: "We
cannot accept that there can be free democratic elections in a country
under foreign military occupation." He was referring to the presence
of a number of Syrian troops who had incidentally been invited by the
Lebanese government to protect the Christian minority. I believe President
Bush is right. Even the best elections under military occupation must
be regarded suspect. The same is true about Iraq or any other country
In fact, lying and violence seem to be complimentary to each other. As
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: "Anyone who proclaims violence as his
method inexorably must choose lying as his principle." James Madison
was referred to as the "father of the Constitution," and he
also helped frame the Bill of Rights. His warning to the American people
at the dawn of the republic has proved very prescient:
“Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most
to be dreaded because it compromises and develops the germ of every
other. As the parent of armies, war encourages debts and taxes, the
known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the
few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the executive is extended
... and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing
the force, of the people...'
Not only do wars bring death and mayhem to the countries that fall victim
to them; they also boomerang and afflict the countries that initiate them.
The quality of life, civil society, the rule of law, individual freedoms
all suffer as the result of foreign adventures. The Patriot Act has robbed
many Americans of many rights that they held dear. They have suddenly
discovered that their emails will be read, that their telephone calls
will be monitored, that even the books that they borrow from libraries
will be scrutinised. Now we have the strange phenomenon of the US Congress
passing a bill about the extent to which suspects can be tortured, and
empowering the president to set the limits to torture, in contravention
of the Geneva Convention.
There have been many restrictions on the lives of the British people that
were formerly unimaginable. Richard Thomas, the watchdog entrusted by
the government to protect people's privacy, recently sounded a strong
warning that Britain is "waking up to a surveillance society that
is all around us". The information commissioner warns that technology
is already being extensively and routinely used to track and record the
everyday activities and movements of Britons, whether they are working,
resting or playing. He also warns that such "pervasive" surveillance
is likely to spread in the coming years.
The invasion of Iraq failed the moment it started, because it undermined
international rule of law and replaced it with the law of the jungle.
The unilateral invasion, without UN sanction, has made a mockery of international
regulations, and can only encourage other countries to violate those laws.
It has increased anti-American and anti-Western sentiment not only in
the Muslim world, but throughout the world. A recent poll showed that
in Europe and even among America's closest allies, the British, a majority
of people believe that President Bush is more dangerous than Kim Jong-il
of North Korea or President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad of Iran. Only Osama bin
Laden got a higher ranking.
But perhaps the greatest damage caused by the illegal invasion of Iraq
has been the intensification of Islamic militancy and international terrorism.
Instead of creating a democratic oasis in the heart of the Middle East,
Iraq has become a training ground for terrorists. In the same way that
terrorists trained in Afghanistan caused havoc in the rest of the world,
culminating in the horrendous events of 9/11, the terrorists that are
being trained in Iraq could cause mayhem in the region and beyond. America's
brutal invasion of Iraq far from intimidating other countries and making
them compliant to American wishes, has persuaded many countries that if
they wish to avoid the same fate as that of Saddam Husayn they have to
get stronger and stand up to the West. The ongoing nuclear impasse in
North Korea and Iran is the best example of that way of thinking.
Far from rearranging the Middle East to American and Israeli liking and
resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the plight of Israel is now more
precarious than ever before. The failure of Israel's devastating invasion
of Lebanon has shown the limits to the use of force, and indeed the growing
strength of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon has made the any
meaningful and lasting settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict less likely,
if not impossible.
The future may have many more surprises in store as the result of the
Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, which we cannot predict at the moment.
In the same way that the Suez venture sounded the death knell of European
empires, the invasion of Iraq that has over-stretched American forces
and depleted her treasury could herald the beginning of the end of the
United States as the sole super-power. The brief period of the unipolar
US hegemony that came about after the collapse of the Soviet Union might
give way once again to a multilateral world order, in which US power is
checked by China, India, EU and maybe Russia.
What is certain is that resort to force to bring about regime change and
occupation has failed, and the international community must try to find
other ways of resolving conflicts. Violence always breeds more violence.
Mahatma Gandhi said that he would accept that violence would prevail over
violence only if someone could prove to him that darkness would prevail
over darkness and could expel darkness. In fact, he said that violence
was not natural and instinctive to man. If it were, there would not be
any need for war academies and barracks to teach violence and train killers.
Violence, hate and anger are destroying us. Non-violence is very powerful,
its strength comes from public support.
Many far-sighted politicians and even military leaders are seeing the
futility of this continuing cycle of violence. In an interview last month
the head of the British Army General Richard Dannatt said with great clarity
and honesty that "our presence [in Iraq] exacerbates the security
problems". His remarks have opened the floodgates to debate both
in Britain and in the United States. In the Untied States the report by
all the 13 intelligence organisations has admitted that the war is already
lost and that continued occupation will only prolong the agony. Many leading
American generals are now openly voicing their unease about the deteriorating
A CNN poll suggests that only 20% of Americans think the war is being
won, barely half the figure for a year ago. The loss of both the House
and the Senate in the recent mid-term elections has shown that the vast
majority of Americans have seen the futility of continued bloodshed and
demand change. The change of Donald Rumsfeld, the hard-line US defence
secretary, and his replacement by the pragmatic and realist Robert Gates
is a very good sign indeed and may start healing some of the wounds. The
new commission formed under James Baker has forced even President Bush
and Vice-President Cheney to admit that the mantra about 'staying the
course' is no longer valid, and they are already looking for ways of getting
out of the quagmire. All this is too late for half a million Iraqis who
have lost their lives as the result of that neocon-driven war, but it
may lead to the resumption of a more pragmatic and a less ideological
policy in Washington.
Nevertheless, the Iraqi debacle will prove to be a more costly venture
for Britain than Suez and a greater disaster for the United States than
Vietnam. We may not have seen the end of the tragedy yet.
© TFF & the author 1997 till today. All rights reserved.
Tell a friend about this TFF
Message and your name
free TFF articles & updates