The Magazine

The End of Appeasement

Bush's opportunity to redeem America's past failures in the Middle East.

Feb 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 21 • By MAX BOOT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This is not to suggest that the U.S. record in the Mideast during the past 50 years has been exclusively weak and pusillanimous. There have been occasional flashes of principle and infrequent displays of strength. Some of the more prominent include: Truman's ultimatum that forced the Soviets to evacuate Iran in 1946 and his decision two years later to override all his foreign policy advisers by recognizing Israel; Eisenhower's dispatch of Marines to support the Lebanese government in 1958; Nixon and Kissinger's backing of Israel with emergency arms shipments during the 1973 Yom Kippur War; Reagan's bombing of Libya in 1986 and protection of Gulf shipping from Iranian attacks in 1987-88; and, most recently, George H.W. Bush's resounding victory in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. All these actions are very much to America's credit, and have done much to serve U.S. interests in the region.

Unfortunately America's record of failure is more glaring, starting with the Suez Crisis, continuing in the run-up to the Six Day War, the oil crisis of the 1970s, the Iranian revolution, subsequent terrorist attacks against the United States by radical Islamists, and the failure to depose Saddam Hussein. A broad generalization may stretch the truth but not break it: America was strong in resisting Soviet designs on the region but weak in the face of Arab nationalism and Islamic extremism. Indeed, the United States usually sought to make common cause with Arabs and Persians against the Soviet Union. This may have been a sound short-term strategy--it did contribute to the defeat of the Evil Empire--but its unintended long-term consequence has been to leave behind a poisonous legacy of anti-Americanism, despotism, and corruption that poses a stark challenge to the 21st-century world.


THE PATTERN of American weakness was set early on, during the 1956 Suez Crisis, which serves as a kind of template for everything the United States has done wrong in the region for the past several decades. In the immediate run-up to the crisis, the United States tried unsuccessfully to court Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had emerged as the leader of the group of Egyptian army officers that overthrew King Farouk in 1952. President Eisenhower thought he could lure Nasser to the Western camp by offering him support, such as loans to build the Aswan Dam, which would supply most of his country's electricity. But Nasser spurned the West by taking a prominent role at the Bandung Conference of nonaligned nations and by extending diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China. His radio station, the Voice of the Arabs, blared out a daily stream of vituperation against the West and its friends in the region, while Nasser's agents tried to subvert these "lackeys of imperialism." Like most dictators, Nasser gave top priority to getting his hands on copious stockpiles of weapons. When Washington, not wanting to fuel a regional arms race, refused to provide them, he turned to the Soviet bloc.

In 1955 the Kremlin agreed, through its Czech puppets, to supply Nasser with an awesome array of weaponry including 200 jet airplanes and 100 tanks. This would have tilted the regional balance of power sharply against Israel, which possessed only 20 jet aircraft of its own. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion asked Washington to guarantee Israel's security and supply it with weapons to counter the growing Egyptian threat. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, refused. Their policy was centered on the Alpha Project, one of countless American attempts to broker peace between Israel and its enemies. In their pursuit of this chimerical goal, Eisenhower and Dulles decided that Israel would get no security assistance from the United States until a full settlement had been reached with the Arabs.

Such a settlement is still elusive almost 50 years later, but in the meantime Israel faced a pressing danger. The Israel Defense Forces estimated that Czech weapons would begin flowing to Egypt by November 1955, and that it would take six to eight months for the Egyptians to assimilate the inflow. Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan calculated that Egypt would be ready to attack Israel by late spring 1956. Already the danger loomed; Nasser was sponsoring guerrilla raids into Israel, blockading the southern Israeli port of Eilat, and not allowing Israeli shipping access to the Suez Canal.