The Significance of Suez 1956: A Reference Point and Turning Point?

This is the third in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

DR KATE UTTING

From a British perspective 60 years after the crisis, Suez has an almost iconic status, often used as a short hand for everything ‘wrong’ in foreign policy and decision making. It is said to be the moment when Britain’s status and reputation as a global power ended and with it a decline of British moral power and prestige, the ultimate exemplar of Albion’s perfidy. In this way ‘Suez’ evokes a specific response which intends to tap into a shared meaning that is still used today.

For example, in the context of the Brexit debate, Matthew Parris wrote in The Times on 15 0ctober: ‘As in a bad dream, I have the sensation of falling. We British are on our way to making the biggest screw-up since Suez and, somewhere deep down, the new governing class know it. We are heading for national humiliation, nobody’s in charge, and nobody knows what to do. This Brexit thing is out of control’.

In Britain and the Suez Crisis, the historian David Carlton argued that ‘No event in the post-war period has so divided the nation as the Suez crisis; in none has the government so adamantly obscured the truth, and there has been much controversy as to its effect on Britain’s standing in the world. In consequence, many will see 1956 as one of the turning points in Britain’s post-war history’.

In these ways then Suez is both a reference point and a turning point.

 

Background to the Suez Crisis

So what was the crisis about? What was at stake that produced what Enoch Powell later called ‘a national nervous breakdown’?

First of all, it was not about the Canal Zone or the Suez Canal Company and if it had been it could have been solved peacefully, through the UN. Instead it was a multi-crisis at the international, regional and state levels, and only Nasser’s removal would resolve the crises because he was perceived to be at the centre of them all.

But was it really mainly about prestige? We are used to arguments that suggest Britain’s interests in the Middle East and the maintenance of her informal empire was linked primarily to the control of important resources and the security of essential military facilities. Britain did not seek to retain its military presence in the Middle East to protect oil. In 1956 there were 16 plans for unilateral British action in the region. Fifteen plans were for national evacuation operations and only one was for a conventional war: to support Jordan against Israel. Neither did Britain seek to remain in Egypt because of the importance of her military facilities. This may have been the case in the Second World War and the early post-war period, but by 1956 the Suez base was considered to be of no military importance in peacetime. Yet the British still refused to meet Egyptian demands for evacuation because, significantly, they feared this would be seen as being forced out and, therefore, as damaging to their prestige and influence in the rest of the Middle East.

Traditional accounts of Britain and the causes of Suez highlight British defence of her longstanding interests and influence in the Middle East dating back to the 1870s to protect the vital trade and communications route through the Suez Canal to the remainder of the British Empire in the Far East. In these versions, the main threats to British influence were the lack of resolution to Arab-Israeli dispute, the rise of Arab nationalism and the threat of communism.

When Nasser became President of Egypt he seen as positive and treated as a client of the west and key to a number of British and American policies in the Middle East. For example, Egypt was central to Anglo-American Cold War strategy in the Middle East which aimed to create a Middle East defence organisation along the lines of NATO. For the United States this would act as a bulwark against Soviet penetration in the region. For Britain it would have the added advantage of formalising Britain’s bi-lateral arrangements in the region and become an umbrella collective defence organisation of existing British defence interests with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Britain and the United States also sought a resolution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, through plan ALPHA, essentially an early version of a land for peace deal: territorial compromises and an agreement to recognise borders.

But in 1953 American policy was re-evaluated. John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State toured the region and concluded that the British role in Middle East defence and Anglo-Egyptian relations hindered rather than served Western interests. He believed that the lack of settlement on the Suez Canal base undermined potential Arab unity and alignment with the west.

Nasser was increasingly perceived to be a threat to western interests. While the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement gave Britain 20 months to withdraw their troops from the Canal zone and the right to reactivate the base if the freedom of the Canal was threatened by external powers seemed to indicate a resolution to the problem of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, Nasser undermined the British sponsored Middle East defence organisation the Baghdad Pact, by pressuring Jordan not to join.

Nasser’s opposition to Israel threatened to renew the armed conflict in the Middle East. As a result his requests for military equipment from the west were refused. In July 1955 he turned instead to the Eastern bloc with an agreement with Czechoslovakia. Crucially, however, while there was western agreement that Nasser had to go, it was for very different reasons. For the United States it was because Nasser stood in the way of Middle Eastern unity in opposition to the USSR and Britain because Nasser was undermining Britain’s position in the region and the rest of the British empire. Opposition to Nasser’s policies led to Britain and the US withdrawing their promised finances of the Aswan High Dam in mid-July 1956. Nasser found an alternative source of income in his nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company on 26 July.

That evening when the news came in Eden was having dinner with the King and Prime Minister of Iraq and said Nasser had to go because he could not be allowed to ‘have his hand on our windpipe’ and ‘knock him off his perch’. But this was not going to happen quickly or decisively due to problems with military capabilities and readiness.

In private preparations were made for the use of force, including collusion with Israel and France for a pretext for the use of force which led to the Sevres Protocol on 22 October. In public, however, Britain pursued a diplomatic settlement thorough negotiation: a Maritime Conference of 22 Nations in August and the American sponsored Suez Canal Users’ Association in September.

The military operation ended abruptly when the UN called for a cease-fire on 2 November. The conflict led to a run on the pound and a sudden decline in Britain’s gold reserves. Although loans from the IMF would have eased the pressure, American backing for this was essential and so Britain had to bow to Washington’s demand for a ceasefire. The British had miscalculated, holding faulty perceptions of US policy: believed they would support or at least be indifferent, hoping at least for benign neutrality. Eisenhower summed up when he addressed the National Security Council on 1 November “How could we possibly support Britain and France and in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”

 

Results of the Suez Crisis: a Turning Point?

The crisis led to a change to the regional balance of power for while the Egyptian air force destroyed, Nasser emerged as the only Arab leader capable of challenging the west. Israel gained for although did not depose Nasser, the UNEF guaranteed freedom of shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba and this gave Israel a Red Sea port. France applied her lessons when de Gaulle became President 18 months later with a European focus to French foreign policy. Part of de Gaulle’s veto British entry into the EEC can be explained by the Suez experience, not allowing Britain to be a Trojan horse of American interests. France withdrew from the military structure of NATO and refused to support American policy in Lebanon and Vietnam.

Globally it can be argued that the crisis formalised the dominance of the two superpowers and established a balance of power that remained effective until the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Some see Suez as confirmation that Britain was hopelessly overstretched, that if a global role was to be retained it would have to be subordinate to superpower interests. The limits of post-war British power were demonstrated and the further British decline as an imperial power in Middle East, Africa and South East Asia was presaged. Others look at the relationship between Suez and the British decision to join the EEC, as if that decision was a result of Britain acknowledging and adjusting to a new reality – where it had lost an empire and was seeking a new role.

Margaret Thatcher certainly saw Suez as both a turning point and reference point. She believed the impact of Suez on British policy making thereafter, a “Suez syndrome”, was negative: ‘having previously exaggerated our power, we now exaggerated our impotence’. And she drew on Suez to enhance her foreign policy achievements: “The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat”. (The Downing Street Years).

It is also important to remember that at the time British policy assumptions remained the same. Britain still saw itself as a great power and still aimed to maintain global influence. And while Britain continued to exercise influence globally, on decisive issues it would do so only in close consultation with the US. In this way Britain continued to exercise its influence and remained active in the Middle East. British power may have diminished, but her interests remained the same. Britain remained concerned about Arab nationalism, communism and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Britain used military force in 1958 to intervene in support of Jordan and Kuwait in 1961, counterinsurgency campaigns were fought in Aden and Dhofar and Britain remained active and engaged even after the East Suez decision down to 1991 and beyond.

Whether or not Suez is a turning point or a reference point, it magnified British unpreparedness to undertake a limited war and the incoherency of British ends, ways and means. The fear that a failure to tackle Nasser would be disastrous for British prestige ended in disaster and ignominy. And in this way Antony Nutting was surely right to suggest that enduring significance of the crisis is its No End of a Lesson.

Image: Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956, via the Imperial War Museum.

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