Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), chosen by President Obama to serve as secretary of defense in his second term, likes Ike—Dwight D. Eisenhower, elected president in 1952 and 1956 with “I Like Ike” as his slogan. Washington Post syndicated columnist David Ignatius noted in a January 10 column (“How Obama can be like Ike”) that Hagel had given copies of a new Eisenhower biography to friends.
Ignatius wrote that among instructive lessons for nominee Hagel and his potential boss, President Obama, was “Eisenhower made an open break with Israel in 1956 during the Suez crisis. He knew this was politically risky, but [biographer Evan] Thomas [Ike’s Bluff] notes his frustration with Israeli military threats. … I’d guess Obama has similar worries about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to take unilateral military action against Iran and his reluctance to make peace with the Palestinians.”
Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula in ’56 to stop Egyptian-backed terrorism, in coordination with a British and French assault to regain control of the Suez Canal. The Eisenhower administration forced all three to withdraw.
In a letter to The Post (unpublished), CAMERA pointed out Ignatius did not tell readers that in 1965 Max M. Fisher, who became a prominent Republican Party fund-raiser and Jewish community leader, visited Eisenhower at his Gettysburg farm. According to Fisher’s biographer, Peter Golden, the former president said “ . . . looking back at Suez, I regret what I did. I never should have pressed Israel to evacuate the Sinai …. If I’d had a Jewish advisor working for me, I doubt I would have handled the situation the same way. I would not have forced the Israelis back.”
As for contemporary Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, Ignatius mentioned neither Netanyahu’s public endorsement of a two-state solution nor repeated Palestinian rejection of the prime minister’s calls to resume negotiations unconditionally.
The columnist asked if Washington and Jerusalem are “headed for a 1956-style break? That would be bad for both sides, but the atmosphere is poisonous.” CAMERA’s letter observed that if the atmosphere is poisonous, it might improve if commentators, policy makers and others reflected—when it comes to Israel, Iran and the Palestinian Arabs—not only on Eisenhower in the White House, but also after it.
Although CAMERA copied its missive to Ignatius, he returned to the incomplete Eisenhower-Suez analogy barely two weeks later. In a commentary in the January 27 print edition (“Reviving Eisenhower’s doctrine”) he wrote that “it’s impossible to read [David A.] Nichols’ book [Eisenhower 1956: The President Year of Crises; Suez and the Brink of War] without thinking of recent tensions between the United States and Israel over the threat of Iran’s nuclear program.”
A second CAMERA letter to the newspaper on this point, this time not only to the letters editor and Ignatius, but also to Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson Diehl and Op-Ed Editor Autumn Brewington, went unpublished.
Nevertheless, a more complete look at the real “lesson of Suez” did appear on The Post’s Op-Ed page. In “Following a flawed map” (February 1), Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Studies wrote that “what Hagel likes best about Eisenhower is the former president’s management of the Suez Crises. For Hagel, it is more than a shining example of past American leadership. It is a guide for future presidential behavior.”
But according to Doran, who also is writing a book about Eisenhower and the Middle East, “this analogy omits a key fact: Ike came to regret those policies. ‘Years later,’ Richard Nixon wrote in the 1980s, ‘I talked to Eisenhower about Suez; he told me it was his major foreign policy mistake.’ By 1958, Ike himself had realized his error and reversed course.
“Two primary considerations prompted Eisenhower’s reevaluation. First, the Suez policy simply did not work. By distancing the United States from Israel and the Europeans, Eisenhower believed he was stabilizing the region and laying the foundation for a strategic accommodation between the Arabs, as a bloc, and the United States. But the anticipated benefit never materialized.”
Nixon, of course, had been Eisenhower’s vice president. According to Doran, Nixon as president, and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, absorbed Eisenhower’s lasting conclusions from the Suez Crisis:
The Arabs don’t behave as a bloc, even where Israel is concerned; that the upheavals that accompanied Nasser’s rise had nothing to do with Israel; and that Arab states’ Cold War alignment with the Soviet Union resulted from their own internal conflicts.
Is reported tension between the United States and Israel over Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program like that between Washington and Jerusalem over the 1956 Suez campaign? Analogies can be useful, when they’re complete. That’s something neither of Ignatius’s two January columns on
Hagel’s enthusiasm for Ike’s Suez policy were.