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Lessons of Suez and Iraq



Farhang Jahanpour

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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 Gulf.

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 day.

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 such articles:

"… More 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 recent months.
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:

"The Iraqi 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, etc.

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 under occupation.

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.

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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 situation.

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.


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