Israel’s primary adversary is acquiring powerful new weapons that will overturn the military balance in the Middle East. But it needs at least a year before its weapons will be fully functional. In the meantime, the Israelis are signaling that they are contemplating a preemptive war. In Washington, however, the president does not share Israel’s sense of alarm. The fears of the Jewish state, he believes, are exaggerated. Its preparations are a tool for goading the United States into a policy that is more attentive to Israeli interests.
While arguing strenuously against the use of force, the president launches a series of diplomatic initiatives designed to reduce regional tensions. The negotiations, however, produce no tangible results, and the Israelis grow increasingly disaffected with Washington. They are, however, by no means alone. The French also regard American policy as starry eyed. Paris and Jerusalem grow closer. Before long, they begin clandestine security cooperation, which quickly turns into joint planning for war—behind the back of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The scenario in question is, of course, the prelude to the Suez war of 1956. Israel’s adversary at the time was not Iran, but Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. In September 1955, Nasser signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, which provided him with sophisticated arms in unprecedented quantities. The new weapons, however, were unfamiliar to the Egyptian military, which needed time to absorb them into the ranks. Meanwhile, Nasser organized terror attacks against the Israelis while sponsoring revolutionary movements aimed at driving Britain and France from the Middle East. Eventually, the British also despaired of American policies. They fell into direct alignment with the French.
The situation that President Obama now confronts is uncannily similar. There are enduring patterns to American relations with the Middle East, and President Obama would be well advised to study the war that erupted on Eisenhower’s watch. He should treat it as a cautionary tale—not least because the two European powers and Israel launched parallel invasions of Egypt in October 1956.
Eisenhower was taken totally by surprise, and he felt betrayed. He took the extraordinary step of voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations against his own allies. Imposing severe sanctions on the Europeans, he brought the British to the brink of economic collapse. He demanded, with near-total success, that all invading forces evacuate Egypt unconditionally.
At the time, Eisenhower entertained few doubts about his harsh treatment of American allies. But eventually he came to regret it. In a conversation with Richard Nixon in late 1967, he admitted that Suez was “his major foreign policy mistake.” Gritting his teeth, Ike said that “saving Nasser at Suez didn’t help as far as the Middle East was concerned. Nasser became even more anti-West and anti-U.S.” According to Nixon, Eisenhower also agreed “that the worst fallout from Suez was that it weakened the will of our best allies, Britain and France, to play a major role in the Middle East or in other areas outside Europe.”
Today, the Obama administration is displaying the same certainty that Eisenhower exhibited in 1956. “We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” an obviously perturbed Secretary of State John Kerry recently said in response to criticism. “I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe.” Journalists who are sympathetic to the administration are even less restrained when expressing their frustration with ungrateful allies. “We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on,” Thomas Friedman wrote in defense of Kerry’s policies.
To be sure, allies are not always right. But the negotiations with Iran in Geneva produced the remarkable spectacle of France, Israel, and Saudi Arabia simultaneously castigating the United States. Perhaps it is time for the Obama administration to step back and plan a course correction.
Yet the White House shows not the slightest sign of self-doubt. Why? Eisenhower’s experience is instructive. Ike’s biggest mistake was to believe what Nasser said to the United States behind closed doors. Nasser presented himself to Washington as a moderate surrounded by radicals. He professed a strong desire to cooperate with the United States. His alignment with the Soviet Union, he explained, was a response to Israeli provocations. He suggested that patience and a few key concessions would give him the capital he needed to steer Egypt into a strategic alignment with the West.
Obama undoubtedly places Iran in an identical frame. President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are signaling to the United States that, if it will compromise on the nuclear program, a historic reconciliation is possible. “I think everybody would love to see Iran rejoin the community of nations and be a constructive contributor to things,” Kerry said in a recent interview. For Kerry and Obama, Iran today is what China was for Nixon in 1968—not an adversary, but a potential friend.
For Israel and Saudi Arabia, however, Iran is nothing if not an enemy. The Middle East political landscape is today defined by, in addition to Israel, two warring alliance systems. Call them the horizontal and vertical axes. Iran leads the horizontal axis, which also includes Syria and Hezbollah. Despite the crippling sanctions on Iran, the horizontal axis’s power is on the rise in the region, much to the alarm of the vertical axis—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, Jordan, and Turkey. The two axes intersect violently in Syria.
For America’s allies the conflict in Syria is a zero-sum game, the defining battle for the future of the regional order. Much to their consternation, however, Washington refuses to take a side. The Obama administration has given Iran a pass in Syria, much as Eisenhower turned a blind eye to Nasser’s regional ambitions. In a recent interview, Kerry was asked whether, in his talks with Iranian officials, he had raised concerns about their support for Hezbollah. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re not in a larger discussion. We’re not having a geopolitical conversation right now.”
But the powers of the region remain very much prisoners of the map. Iran is no exception. Like its rivals, it regards the Syria conflict as zero-sum. Israel and the vertical axis are therefore convinced that Iran’s goal is simply to neutralize America. It offers the promises of a historic reconciliation—at some distant point in the future—so that today it can pursue its regional ambitions with a free hand.
With stunning success, Nasser pursued an identical strategy. This fact leads one to wonder whether Israel today has a war option analogous to the one that it exercised in 1956. It is not at all clear that it does. But the number of American allies who are disaffected with the Obama administration grows by the day. It would be a grave mistake to assume, as the Obama administration seems to be doing, that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others will sit down quietly and trust Washington to look after their best interests. Expect the unexpected.
Michael Doran is the Roger Hertog senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East.