Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis—Suez and the Brink of War, David A. Nichols.

Simon & Schuster New York, 2011

In July 1956, the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, which was run by a company controlled by Egypt’s former colonial masters, Britain and France. This sparked a chain of events that led to the brink of war. Meanwhile, the US president who could influence the course of events, Dwight Eisenhower, had just suffered a serious intestinal blockage, which followed a heart attack the previous September. At the same time, Eisenhower was campaigning for re-election later that November, a rematch of the 1952 race against Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

President Eisenhower recognised that the Suez Canal was the world’s most important waterway; two thirds of the oil used in Western Europe flowed through the canal. Yet he was also adamant that war not take place. “I don’t see the point in getting into a fight, to which there can be no satisfactory end, and in which the whole world believes you are playing the part of the bully,” he told his advisers at the height of the crisis. When England, France and Israel secretly conspired to attack Egypt in retaliation for Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal, on the eve of the 1956 presidential election, Eisenhower refused to support the US wartime allies. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that they [the British and French] would be so stupid as to invite on themselves all the Arab hostility to Israel,” he complained. “What are they going to do? Fight the whole Muslim world?” Meanwhile, the Soviet Union took advantage of Western disunity by ruthlessly crushing the Hungarian rebellion and even threatening intervention in Egypt.

Historian David Nichols, the author of this excellent book, Eisenhower 1956, is sympathetic to Eisenhower’s caution, but at the time some Americans believed that the British prime minister Anthony Eden and the French were right. Senate majority leader (and future president) Lyndon Johnson told Eisenhower: “We should let the British and French know they have our moral support to go in [to] resist aggression.” But Eisenhower stood firm, not only opposing the British-French-Israeli invasion, but going out of his way to thwart it in the United Nations. According to Nichols, Eisenhower recognised the circumstances determined where he could act and where he must be restrained.

All of this represents a refreshing change from the accepted wisdom in Washington about the appropriate US role in the world, especially in the post-Cold War era. From liberals on the left to neo-conservatives on the right, the widespread belief is that the US, as the sole remaining superpower, should act immediately in response to a global crisis. Action is evidence of courage, purpose and decisiveness. The can-do leader is the admired leader; the injunction ‘Don’t just stand there, do something’ is the normal response to a crisis.

But Eisenhower, as Nichols makes clear, was cut from entirely different cloth. As a five-star general seasoned in war, Ike believed that in a range of circumstances there was sometimes virtue in inaction (‘Don’t just do something, stand there’). He heeded some of the most famous advice ever given to diplomats and policy makers: Talleyrand’s “Above all, gentlemen, not the slightest zeal,” a dictum which represented a profound distaste for busyness. So, whereas the hyperactive Eden engineered the disaster of the Suez crisis, the cautious Eisenhower kept America out of this debacle which cost the other Western powers dearly in terms of prestige and credibility.       

According to Nichols, “Eisenhower, the military man was not militaristic. He did not think that there were military solutions to many problems.” For Ike, “military credibility” could deter Soviet communism; war, on the other hand, was “a last, not a first resort.” As the President would later reflect: “The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground during my administration. We kept the peace. People ask how it happened—by God, it didn’t just happen.”

The September 11 terrorist attacks gave new momentum to America’s historic missionary impulse to, pace John Quincy Adams, go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Not surprisingly, Eisenhower’s foreign policy attitude has been at best regarded with incomprehension, at worst as cynical, during much of the past decade. Caution and prudence were frowned upon; assertiveness and busyness were praised. Yet it has become increasingly evident that a policy of global interventionism or leadership is not sustainable—even if the necessary economic resources for such a policy were available. Bloodied by quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, crippled by a $14-plus trillion debt and near-double-digit unemployment, shattered by the financial meltdown, and suffering from a crisis of confidence, the US is struggling to assert its leadership across the globe. In this environment, Washington is leaving the realm of necessity and entering the realm of choice, where the key word is not ‘and’ but ‘or’ and the key question is not ‘how?’ but ‘why?’

This is what, in essence, President Obama’s unnamed adviser meant in his highly controversial remarks to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, when he said that America was “leading from behind” in Libya. The expression drew an overwhelmingly hostile response. It “sounds rather pathetic” (Maureen Dowd). It “just doesn’t work in today’s world” (David Ignatius). It’s “not leading; it’s abdicating” (Charles Krauthammer). “Leading from behind,” editorialised the Washington Post, merely reflects “extraordinary US passivity” and a “pattern of torpidity” during the Arab Spring.

But the point that Obama’s adviser was trying to make, surely, is similar to the one that shaped Eisenhower’s world view during 1956. It is not, as the critics charge, that passivity is a foreign policy virtue, but that—depending on the circumstances and the nature of one’s interests—it sometimes makes sense for even a global hegemon such as the US to keep out of harm’s way. Some might say that such an attitude is alien to the American psyche. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, however, put it best in the Wall Street Journal at the height of the Libyan crisis this year: “In America, applause for the moderate will be moderate; approval for the restrained will be restrained. But Ike was at his greatest when he was not waging war.”

Indeed, one of the disconcerting things about Obama’s critics, like Eisenhower’s critics in the mid-1950s, is that they seem to favour intervention generally and on principle, rather than as a drastic course to be turned to only when truly important interests are at stake and softer measures have failed. Indeed, for many US policymakers the attraction seems to be the activity itself, and the assertion of US will and ‘leadership’ it represents.

Such a mindset is not confined to merely neo-conservatives. It was not Paul Wolfowitz, but Madeline Albright who declared: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.” And it was not Dick Cheney, but Hillary Clinton who claimed: “We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved... For the United States, global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity.”   

After one reads Nichols’s book about Eisenhower’s actions in 1956, however, one is left with this important message for the next generation of policymakers: that in coming years the US should use its position of vast power with restraint and prudence. To the extent American leadership remains a rallying cry, it should be about achieving specific goals, not open-ended diffuse ones. Perhaps this is why “leading from behind”, inadvertently, might not be such a bad thing. It serves to encourage a sense of limits at a time when the American people are not willing or able to pay for a Pax Americana. If this is indeed the case, the current president could no worse than reading David Nichols’s celebration of restraint.