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Under the Shadow of Suez: Imperial Lessons Left Unlearned PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Monday, 24 July 2006 13:39

Under the Shadow of Suez: Imperial Lessons Left Unlearned

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- Tom Porteous - Suez was a disaster for Britain. But it was a disaster from which it drew the right conclusions -- a change of policy was necessary. And for which the man responsible paid the price. The United States is experiencing its "Suez moment" today in Iraq, and in the regional consequences of Iraq. But, for the reasons outlined above, it is not drawing the right conclusions. It is not shifting its policy. And those responsible have not been held to account.

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Tom Porteous reminds that fifty years ago the Suez Crisis forced England and France to shift their policies radically, and in a few years their colonialism ended. Porteous draws lessons from that watershed event for contemporaneous events.

The Unlearned Lessons of Suez

Tom Porteous

Agence Global
July 24, 2004

Copyright ? 2006 Tom Porteous / Agence Global
[Republished at PEJ News with permission of AG]


Fifty years ago this week Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Britain, still an imperial power and arbiter of Middle East politics, responded with a tripartite plot: Israel invaded Sinai and provided the pretext for an Anglo-French intervention aimed at seizing the canal and toppling Nasser's still fragile regime. The collusion was transparent and flagrant.

The Suez Crisis was a disaster for Britain. Republican U.S. President, Dwight Eisenhower (who a few years later warned of the "U.S. military industrial complex") condemned the aggression and the intervention collapsed within weeks. Britain, France and Israel beat an ignominious retreat. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign. Nasser emerged as the nationalist hero of Asia and Africa. The drama marked the end of Britain's hegemonic influence in the Middle East and beyond.

Within a few years the British Empire was no more and France had withdrawn from North Africa, abandoning its violent struggle to oppose the nationalist forces in Algeria. It had been Nasser's support for Algeria's nationalist forces -- "terrorists" in the eyes of the French government -- that put the French in the Suez plot.

After Suez, both the British and the French understood clearly that their imperial rule was unsustainable without massive cost in blood and treasure. Fearing the spread of communism and Soviet influence and encouraged by their American allies who feared the same, they saw that their best strategy lay in drawing the sting of nationalism by granting independence to former colonies under "moderate" leaders (often yesterday's "terrorists") with whom they could do business.

Do the lessons of Suez apply today? In the broadest terms, they do. Nationalist forces opposed to hegemonic or colonial occupation and repression cannot be suppressed forever, or even for long, by military means. Empires come and go and it helps if they understand the limits of their power and withdraw peacefully following negotiations, concessions and the establishment of a sustainable new order.

But the situation in the Middle East today, where another new order is clearly in the making, is far more difficult than it was fifty years ago. I can think of at least four important reasons for this -- and there are probably others.

First, an orderly end to British global hegemony after Suez was paradoxically made possible by the emergence of the bi-polar "order" of the Cold War. Today Iraq has exposed the vulnerability of U.S. power in the Middle East and elsewhere. But there is little to replace the uni-polar hegemony of the United States other than the multi-polar disorder we have seen emerging over the past few years throughout the world. We might like to fantasise about the possibility of an emerging multi-polar harmony, but in practice events are showing that this will be very difficult to achieve. A withdrawal of the United States from the Arab world (a key demand of its opponents) would be unlikely to lead -- like the withdrawal of Britain and France in the 1950s and 60s -- to a reduction of violence.

Second, there is a strong belief among U.S., Israeli and some European leaders that the world now faces a massive and existential threat from a violent Islamist ideology, and that this needs to be defeated at all costs, just as Nazism and Soviet communism needed to be defeated. This belief is in part self-serving because it justifies a refusal to make concessions where there are legitimate grievances -- like Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. But it is also self-fulfilling because the more nationalist/Islamist aspirations are suppressed in the name of a Long War against Islamist terror, the more this fuels the anger and resentment which underlie the appeal of the Islamist message.

Third, the overwhelming military might and sophistication of the U.S.-Israeli alliance in the region has led to the emergence of an "asymmetric warfare" which pits non-state actors against strong states. One consequence of this kind of warfare is that it causes large numbers of civilian casualties --some the victims of terrorism but mostly the victims of U.S.-Israeli military tactics -- further fuelling the anger and resentment on both sides. Another consequence is that it gives weight to the West's nightmare scenario that the enemy -- terrorists and their "state sponsors" (like Iran) -- will gain control of nuclear weapons.

Fourth, since 1956, Israel has grown more powerful, more insecure, more fearful and less confident. This is a dangerous combination. Unable to wean itself from dependence on Washington, unable to integrate politically in the region, Israel cannot accept the vulnerability of U.S. power in the region. Locked in a strategic embrace the two allies cannot contemplate the rapidly changing political landscape around them, and seek vainly to shape the region by military power according to their perceived interests. Ultimately they will fail. But the United States can get up and leave. Israel cannot.

Suez was a disaster for Britain. But it was a disaster from which it drew the right conclusions -- a change of policy was necessary. And for which the man responsible paid the price. The United States is experiencing its "Suez moment" today in Iraq, and in the regional consequences of Iraq. But, for the reasons outlined above, it is not drawing the right conclusions. It is not shifting its policy. And those responsible have not been held to account.


Tom Porteous is a syndicated columnist and author, formerly with the BBC and the British Foreign Office.

Copyright ? 2006 Tom Porteous / Agence Global

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Released: 25 July 2006
Word Count: 879
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Advisory Release: 25 July 2006
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, The American Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by William Beeman, Richard Bulliet, Juan Cole, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Last Updated on Monday, 24 July 2006 13:39
 

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