The Road From Suez


As the debacle of Suez began to take shape, Anthony Eden faced defections in his own cabinet. Winston Churchill heaved himself up to defend his protege with a letter dated November 3 1956. The letter, reproduced above from the next day issue of the New York Times, remains a remarkable document. One barely concealed subtext is the British attitude toward the Middle Eastern states; “We created them and we are damn well entitled to tell them how to behave”. There is a touch of blasphemy in that attitude, for even God himself, over the course of the Old Testament, had failed to extract obedience from humanity, once a wisp of divinity was breathed into it at creation.  It is doubtful that Churchill expected subsequent history, both quickly and over time, to render his expectations foolish and ridiculous. Her Majesty’s government action proved anything but “resolute”, as even the name of the operation (“Musketeer” or “Mousquetaire”) hinted at its foolishness (The Israelis called it “Kadesh” in their habit of evoking history to justify both the noble and ignoble). Nor was the action crowned with “victorious conclusion”, as the three countries quickly evacuated their troops within a few weeks. His confidence in the “American friends” proved empty, as the hard-eyed realist from the Midwest implicitly responded “What do you mean ‘we’, old imperialist?”. But the saddest prophecy of all was his expectation that in the “long run” Suez would benefit “World peace, Middle East and [British] national interest”. It would be both easy and churlish to scoff at Churchill now.

Whatever clarity and sense Ike possessed on the weekend of the vote to reelect him, seemed to have evaporated quickly afterwards. Ike saw the demise of imperial hard power and moved to assume its dolorous mantle, as proven by landing troops in Lebanon in 1958. But his words preceded his actions. A couple of weeks after the disaster, Winston sent a groveling letter to his dear friend Ike. It began with a profession of fatigue “There is not much left for me to do in this world and I have neither the wish nor the strength to involve myself in the present political stress and turmoil.” After much junior-grade predictions about the perfidious nature of Nasser and the Soviet Union, he concluded with a plea for forgiveness “Yours is indeed a heavy responsibility and there is no greater believer in your capacity to bear it or well-wisher in your task than your old friend,Winston S. Churchill”. Ike responded generously, opening his letter with a sympathetic “I agree fully with the implication of your letter that Nasser is a tool”. He cited public opinion in the US which never fully embraced imperialism “When Nasser took his highhanded action with respect to the Canal, I tried earnestly to keep Anthony informed of public opinion in this country and of the course that we would feel compelled to follow if there was any attempt to solve by force the problem presented to the free world through Nasser’s action.” And concluded with a promise to forget what went right for America in Suez and move closer to assuming the mantle of the British Empire “So I hope that this one may be washed off the slate as soon as possible and that we can then together adopt other means of achieving our legitimate objectives in the Mid-East”. There was a hopefulness in the phrase “other means”, that time and circumstance would quickly undo. The US would spend far more treasure, and bring more fearful lethality than the British ever did in attempting to achieve “legitimate objectives”. America tried to end “internecine wars” (for example in 1990); it also tried to bring “benefits of justice” (for example in 2003), and all to no avail. In fact, America’s standing the region was at its zenith in 1956, when a century of missionary activities left it with enormous “soft power” among the natives.

Churchill’s letter shows how even a legendary leader can come to grief when thinking about and acting in the murkiness of the Middle East. Many of the nations that owe their “origin and independence” to the British have largely ceased to exist. Those that actively built their national identity out of stark opposition to the British (Egypt, Turkey and Iran) seem to fare better. History has largely answered Churchill’s choice “We had the choice of taking decisive action or admitting once and for all our inability to put an end to the strife

The road from Suez led to many places; the Sinai, Damascus, Sana’a, Camp David, Beirut, Baghdad, Benghazi, and finally to Mosul and Raqqa. There seems to be no shortage of thinkers and politicians willing to re-enact Churchill’s script, and one leader, at the end of his term, barely standing against the rush to lunacy. The British imperialist, T. E. Lawrence sought to build a dream palace for the Arabs, but little did he know that it would attract its share of Westerners.

— Maged Atiya


What If The June 1967 War Never Happened”

What if Israel held back in June of 1967 and the tensions tied down?

That war started a cascade of events that still shape the current Middle East. It is impossible to sort out all the various threads and counterfactual alternatives had the war not happened. The best we can do is focus on a few of the broader issues.

It is not fanciful to say that the war killed Nasser. Stress from dealing with the defeat, and its after effects, such as the 1970 “Black September” Jordanian civil war, shortened the life of the man. He passed away at 52, a very young age by the current standard of Middle Eastern autocrats. Where would Egypt, and the broader region, be if he lived to ripe old age, or even into his 60s. One possibility is that Nasser would have finally given in to Soviet pressure to move Egypt so close to its orbit as to be another Cuba. Nasser would be an aging Castro, and Cairo would sport traffic jams with 1950s American cars. Equally likely Nasser would have not given in, as his entire political and emotional persona was tied up with keeping “foreign” bases out of Egypt. An opening to the US would have been in the offing for a couple of reasons. First, the 1968 election in the US brought in Nixon; Henry Kissinger’s sponsor. The two men would have itched to deliver a strategic blow to the Soviet Union. Second, Nasser did not replace Zakaria Mohieddin (America’s man among the Free Officers) as Vice President until after the 1968 student riots. He brought in Sadat to appease the Islamists. Had Zakaria remained close to Nasser he would have likely pushed for better relations with America, and perhaps economic liberalization to offset the stagnation of the mid 1960s. There were also other forces at work. By 1967 Arabism was failing Nasser and tiring him. The Yemen conflict with Saudi Arabia was economically debilitating. The relations with Algeria, Iraq and Syria all had deteriorated. He had already made enemies of most of the other Arab countries. He was also fearful of any penetration of the Army by the Muslim Brotherhood. Without Arabism or Islamism to provide the outline of policy, Nasser was likely to fall back on the Egyptianism of the 1920s, with its deeply Anti-Arab sentiments. The closest actual historical parallel would be South Korea of the 1960s. Would authoritarian Egyptianism have been tamed into something resembling a liberal order? Perhaps, especially if an opening to the West occasioned liberalization of the economy.

What would have happened to Palestine had the West Bank remained in Jordanian hands? It is possible that King Hussein, ever the wily operator, would have moved to create a confederation that would ultimately result in a friendly Palestinian state, especially as Nasser’s Arabism cooled and the need to use the refugee issue against Israel lessened. It is also possible that the rising Palestinian population within Jordan would have de-stabilized the Hashemite Kingdom. In both cases, the Palestinian national aspirations would have found a better outcome.

Beyond Egypt and Palestine, the 1967 war helped the rise to power of a wily General by the name of Hafez Al Assad. If he remained an army man from a small Latakia clan, Syria would have evolved in a very different direction. The messy politics post union with Egypt would likely have taken a very Lebanese direction. Lebanon, in turn, could also have averted its civil war, which was the outcome of the increased Palestinian population in the country, and meddling by the Syrian regime.

And what of Israel? Where would the country be had it not won a major victory that boosted its pride, enlarged its borders and altered its politics. Would it have emerged as an economic powerhouse in the region anyway, or would the Labor party have kept it a narrowly socialist economy? Would the country have retained the left-of-center ethos of the early Zionists, or in time moved rightward anyway? What would be the evolution of an Israel; smaller, within less secure borders, less cocky and in the shadow of a less hostile Egypt?

But of course the 1967 war did happen. The last half century brought momentous changes to the region. Will the next half century be spent in reversing those changes, or ameliorating their effects?  We may never know the answer, until June 4 2067. 

— Maged Atiya




The Syrian Refugee Vote – A Warning

The French President declared that France was at war immediately after the November 13 terrorist attack on Paris. Across the Ocean, the American President offered wholehearted support but insisted that “we are not at war with Islam”, echoing a statement by his predecessor George W Bush 14 years ago in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack. But the political environment in the US grew more sour with despicable demagoguery. Dr Ben Carson riffed on “rabid dogs”. Donald Trump urged all measures including “registration” of Muslims . Other Republican politicians castigated them, but in uncertain tones. It is ironic that the attack in far away Paris aroused more backlash than another, 14 years ago on American soil, that claimed 20 times more lives.

Of greater concern was the US House of Representatives vote by the nearly veto-proof margin of 289-137 on a measure to tighten the vetting of Syrian refugees. President Obama opposed the measure, but more members from his party deserted him on this vote than on the Iran deal, where they were lobbied heavily and expensively. It would be a mistake to blame this vote on prejudice and Nativism gone wild. This is a warning that we should take seriously. Many Americans, including those of a liberal bent, are unsure about the wisdom and risks of admitting a large number of refugees, even while cherishing the American ideal of welcoming all immigrants and refugees. After all, it took no more than a few young men to place Paris and Brussels under siege. This is not the first time where the tortured Middle East presents the US with a difficult choice between its ideals and its interests. This is a moment that calls for far-sighted leadership, still missing at the moment. Many politicians, of both parties, but predominantly Republicans, found it an occasion to appeal to fear. The President has taken the moral high ground, but failed to advance arguments that convince and comfort.

There is also a religious angle to this refugee issue, which adds an unfortunate dimension to the controversy. Jeb Bush urged that we should “focus on Christians who are in the greatest danger”, while the clumsy Cruz simply urged admission of only Christians. President Obama rightly called out both men on their comments insisting that the US does not apply religious tests. But while doing so he also failed to address the larger issue. Many Americans favor giving preferential treatment to Christians because they feel they are in bigger danger and less likely to face assimilation problems. Few bothered to ask Jeb Bush about the policies of his brother, whose venture in Iraq contributed to the decline of the Christian community there, but who gave little thought of increasing immigration quota for them. In framing the Syrian refugee problem in a religious rather than a national construct US leaders played into the very same ills that caused the dissolution of both Iraq and Syria. Again, this should have been a moment for leadership from Syrian-Americans and Muslim-Americans, asserting the primacy of national over religious identity. But that leadership seemed dormant.

An interview on MSNBC with Dalia Mogahed highlights the problem of leadership and identity. The producers of the show chose Ms. Mogahed, who is Egyptian born, to speak about Syrian refugees, presumably because she identifies herself as “Muslim-American”, but almost never as “Egyptian-American”, a reflection of what tears up the Middle East. A well-known pollster, one-time assistant to President Obama, and author of a book on “Who Speaks for Islam”, Ms. Mogahed missed a golden opportunity to connect with her fellow Americans and show that she understands their fears and can address them from a unique perspective. Ms. Mogahed blamed the rise in Anti-Muslim feelings on electioneering, and on events such as the Iraq war, hiding behind statistical correlations to avoid the painful but relevant issues. She alleged that the majority of Muslims are silenced by extremists and the mainstream media. She expressed umbrage that Muslims need to apologize for the heinous acts of other Muslims, when it is obvious that they disagree with such acts. That last argument was intellectually defensible and politically tone deaf. She could have advanced the agenda for tolerance by being less hedging and hurt. It is the lot of minorities, unfairly, to have to try harder. This is why Civil Rights leaders wore their Sunday best to the marches. It is why Eastern Christians often silence their Church bells and move their liturgies to Fridays. To maintain harmony in a diverse society everyone has to do more than the minimum necessary, especially in stressful times. These are stressful times indeed. Rather than present a vision of a future Middle East in harmony with American ideals, she left a vague sense of unease about problems from “over there” becoming entrenched “over here”.

But beyond the lack of leadership that addresses problems clearly and honestly, another reason for this spike of Anti-Muslim feelings may simply be “Middle East fatigue”. The US first engaged with the region in the 1850s, when it was still called the “Holy Land”. Even the term “Middle East” is an invention of an American Admiral. For over a century and a half the US influenced the region deeply, often with missionary zeal, and in ambiguous ways, with both sincerely held high ideals, and embarrassingly base actions. Still, the US can claim no more than a small part of the current chaos. The peoples of the region are the true architects of their bed of nails. Today’s events and those of September 11 2001 are separated by nearly four Presidential terms and two Presidents of very different temperaments and policies. Yet neither man has been able to come to grips with the chaos and the resulting terrorism. Americans must be excused for thinking that the Middle East is unreformable and that their energies are best directed elsewhere. Syrian refugees must seem like a reminder of failure, and of its threatening consequences. It is unfair to those currently on the road, and the many more likely to follow once the US policy of removing the brutal Assad succeeds.

— Maged Atiya


Sykes-Picot II

The first President Bush asserted the right of the US to come to the defense of Kuwait when Iraq invaded it in 1990. His reasoning was simple and clear; the invasion was a violation of the Westphalian state order that has sustained sovereignty of nations since the 17th century. It would fall to his successors to violate this very same system under various pretexts. President Clinton ignored it under the “Right to Protect” in the Balkans. The second President Bush violated it to bring democracy to Iraq. President Obama violated it in Libya, also under the “Right to Protect” and in multitude of other places to hunt down terrorists who inflicted harm on US citizens.

President Putin of Russia has outdone all four American Presidents by emulating their contradictory actions within the space of two years; first under the pretext of protecting Russian ethnics in Crimea, and then under the pretext of protecting Syrian state sovereignty and persecuting a war on terrorists who harmed Russian citizens. Putin’s actions seem a burlesque of the American precedent only because of the authoritarian nature of the Russian system; but they are no more deadly and far less expensive. The point is that moral outrage is of little value here. The Levant has turned into a Minoan Labyrinth for great powers (US), former great powers (Russia) and shambling actors (Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia).

This could turn out very badly, even worse than the current chaos, unless good sense is retrieved quickly. The most rational outcome is some sort of imposed peace, respecting current borders, recognizing some spheres of influence, leaving certain undesirable actors, such as the so-called Islamic State, out in the cold, while respecting the interests of others. The US which has shown scant regard for national borders in the last decades needs a revamped policy that considers the desirable long term outcomes in the region. None of the regional or international actors are clean of hand or pure of heart, but proposing a hard-nosed solution may finally wrestle some relief for the suffering civilians. Anything else is a prelude to madness.

— Maged Atiya