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Learning from Suez

October 30, 2009

NoteI hope you enjoy this “golden oldie” from 2007, Originally titled 5 Lessons from the 1956 Suez Crisis:


After the nationalization of the Suez Canal in July 1956 by Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, the British and French, along with Israel launched Operation Musketeer, on October 29 and the 31st of that same year. Militarily the air-land-and sea campaign was a glorious success, but politically it was a failure as the 2 new superpowers forced the three victorious allies to back down. The Middle East hasn’t been the same since, and from this we get these 5 lessons:

  1. Don’t abandon your allies. Britain and France were wrong in launching the operation without first consulting their most important ally, the USA. Yet, America was equally at fault for siding against their partners to be humiliated by coercion from the Soviet Union, and for leaving the Canal in the hands of a dictator. Britain would eventually withdraw from the region, leaving a power vacuum that America had to fill, and France soon quit NATO.
  2. Seapower is still essential. Even in the age of jet fighters and the atom bomb, the allies proved that naval forces were still vital, as did the Korean War 6 years earlier. Seven Anglo/French aircraft carriers participated in the operation, including the first use of helicopter-borne assault troops. Britain would relearn this same lesson 26 years later in the Falklands Conflict.
  3. Don’t give in to dictators. Prime Minister Anthony Eden rightly likened Nasser’s power grab to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930’s. The principle reason for launching the Operation was not just securing the Canal for the West, but forestalling future war and instability in the region. Considering the trouble we find ourselves currently in the Middle East, the reasoning was a sound then as it is now.
  4. Israel is the West’s best friend in the Middle East. Musketeer couldn’t have been pulled off so smoothly without military support from the Israelis, who quickly seized the East bank of the Canal. Besides being a superpower in the region, Israel shares common European values, and didn’t need to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept democracy. Any diplomatic agreement with the Arabs that threatens the security of Israel should be avoided at all costs.
  5. Don’t underestimate the British. By 1956, Britain may have been a weakened Empire, but the amazing strike on the Egyptians so far from her shores proved the Royal Navy was still a force to be reckoned with. The Argentines would repeat the folly to their chagrin in 1982, Saddam Hussein in 1990 and 2003, while Iran currently is headed down the same disastrous path.

Due to pressure from the Eisenhower Administration, and missile threats from Khrushchev, the British and French were forced into a shameful withdrawal. Afterwards, the UK began a drastic cutting of her armed forces, while speeding up the decolonization process. Nasser would give birth to a new Arab nationalism that has shaped our modern world, mostly for the worse. The Soviet Union, which got away with squelching Hungarian freedom at the same time, felt emboldened to demand further concessions from the West, eventually leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Ike would later say he regretted the decision to abandon the Allies at Suez.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. alan goodger permalink
    March 20, 2010 11:59 am

    Yes The British Armed forces were let down by the U.S. at that time , only to regret doing so after the event? what I( would like to know is Why did our so called friends& allies let us down in the first place & how the U.S.S.R. Had the cheek to put it’s five eggs in acting the almighty. they had their way in Hungary & sent troops in Plus took no notice National condemnation of what they got up too?? It’s a case of being two faced, i.e. we can beat up Hungary Or polish but you should’nt attack suez canal& yet most of Egypts Weapons were
    Russian AK47 Rifles etc I was in Suez in the 1950’s&what the media & so called Allies did was
    Out of Order& bad for morale!! If they had backed us suez would have been Victory & not a humiliation & Gen Nasser would have had to back down Plus the Canal would not have been blocked to Shipping through Nasser’s sinking of Shipping in the canal. After all said & done The French & british Built that engineering feat to decrease cost of exported goods & the like to cut out having to sail around the Cape of Good Hope Then see some Idiot Do the unthinkable &reverse the very rason for the canal in the first place?? Mad Aint it?????

  2. alan goodger permalink
    March 20, 2010 11:55 am

    Yes The British Armed forces were let down by the U.S. at that time , only to regret doing so after the event? what I( would like to know is Why did our so called friends& allies let us down in the first place & how the U.S.S.R. Had the cheek to put it’s five eggs in acting the almighty. they had their way in Hungary & sent troops in Plus took notice National condemnation of what they got up too?? It’s a case of being two faced, i.e. we can beat up Hungary Or polish but you should’nt attack suez canal& yet most of Egypts Weapons were
    Russian AK47 Rifles etc I was in Suez in the 1950’s&what the media & so called Allies did was
    Out of Order& bad for morale!! If they had backed us suez would have been Victory & not a humiliation & Gen Nasser would have had to back down Plus the Canal would not have been blocked to Shipping through Nasser’s sinking of Shipping in the canal. After all said & done The French & british Built that engineering feat to decrease cost of exported goods & the like to cut out having to sail around the Cape of Good Hope Then see some Idiot Do the unthinkable &reverse the very rason for the canal in the first place?? Mad Aint it?????

  3. Mrs. Davis permalink
    November 1, 2009 8:41 pm

    in the long term the US underestimated the effect of allowing Arab nationalism to escalate.

    And instead we should have? And what would the repercussions of that been? Personally, I’d have rather seen stronger support for the Hungarians.

    But we had a President who knew a bit about winning wars, especially in alliance with others. I’m not at all certain we didn’t pursue the least worst course available. The Hungarians are free and the Egyptians have the opportunity to evolve. I’m not sure we realistically could expect more.

  4. - Alex 2.0 permalink
    November 1, 2009 5:35 pm

    Palestine, objective acheived, Brits were still there until the independence of Israel, there was alot of poor descisions with the Brits trying to remain neutral in relations between the Arabs and the Jews.

    Suez, Britain coerced into withdrawing troops, followed by a royal smashing of the Egyptian forces, from a military perspective there was no defeat

    Kenya, Mau Mau defeated… by 1960 it was clear that the empire had become a clearance sale; Independence is irrelevant of the military victory over Mau Mau

    Cyprus, along the same lines of Kenya, EOKA was defeated in 1959, independent state until 1974, EOKA wanted Cyprus ceded to Greece

    By Sierra Leone I was referring specifically to Op Palliser & Barras

    Banner, NEVER heard of that as a defeat before someone tried to persuade me it was a draw last year, didn’t suceed… Not a military victory of sorts, but without the military presence republicans and loyalist would still be fighting in the streets and blowing up each others pubs, outspoken support diminished, the NI I toured in ’78 wasn’t the same one I toured in ’96

    Then theres Falklands, didn’t mention it to begin with because of the obvious outcome but in your wins/losses table you ommited it.

    Aden is a nailed down defeat, Britain pulled out in the middle of the shit.

    – Alex.

  5. Tarl permalink
    October 31, 2009 10:35 pm

    Palestine 1948 – defeat.

    Malaya 1948 – victory.

    Suez 1951-54 – defeat.

    Kenya 1952-60 – defeat.

    Cyprus 1955-60 – defeat.

    Suez 1956 – defeat.

    Aden 1963-67 – defeat.

    Borneo 1962-66 – victory (really not due to anything the Brits did but due to the fall of Sukarno).

    Oman 1962-75 – victory.

    Ireland 1972 onwards – defeat.

    Sierra Leone 2000-2002 – not a British victory (17,000+ other troops were there for 5 years, 200 Brits were there for 2 years, get real) .

    I say the Brits are 3 and 7.

  6. - Alex 2.0 permalink
    October 31, 2009 3:10 pm

    “Um, the UK has been involved in plenty of small conflicts since 1945 and has lost most of them.”

    The British armed forces have been involved in plenty of small conflicts since 1945 and won most of them… Aden, Suez(Military victory) and Cyprus (EOKA were defeated before independence) are the only that spring to mind that could ever be construed as lost, Borneo, Malaya, Sierra leone, Oman/Dhofar & more were definitely victories.

  7. James Daly permalink
    October 31, 2009 1:29 pm

    Um, the UK has been involved in plenty of small conflicts since 1945 and has lost most of them.

    Except most of them havent been traditional pitched ‘win/lose’ wars, rather messy ‘withdrawal from Empire’ affairs. Take Northern Ireland – thats not the kind of war you can ever ‘win’, complete with victory parade et al. But by making it impossible for the opposition to achieve their objectives then we’re achieving ours. Northern Ireland, Malaya, Borneo… nothing would have been achieved by steamrollering in and malleting everything in sight. Thats were expertise in counter-insurgency, fighting in built up areas comes in. And in the one conventional war the it has been involved in post 1945, the Falklands, the UK succeeded when no-one gave them a chance.

    As for foreign policy, in the short term UK and France misjudged world opinion, but in the long term the US underestimated the effect of allowing Arab nationalism to escalate. That short term/long term distinction is important I feel.

  8. Tarl permalink
    October 31, 2009 9:34 am

    american policy was never the sharpest when it came to the middle east

    Um, in this specific case, American policy was most definitely much sharper than Anglo-French policy.

    The UK has been involved in plenty of small conflicts since 1945 and it helps keep things sharp.

    Um, the UK has been involved in plenty of small conflicts since 1945 and has lost most of them.

  9. October 30, 2009 10:17 pm

    American policy has been and remains one word: oil

  10. - Alex (the new'un). permalink
    October 30, 2009 7:38 pm

    “but once you get past the SEALs & maybe Delta, they’re just not all that creative.”

    Once you get past SEAL & Delta they’re not SF they’re just big headed, MEU, Rangers, Green Beret, much the same as in the UK SFSG isn’t either (even if they were the Marine inside me would never allow me to accept 1para as SF)

    – Alex.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 30, 2009 7:12 pm

    Still, the American response was a sin of omission. It wasn’t our responsibility so much, but I think we have suffered much since for not acting against this rising problem quickly.

  12. James Daly permalink
    October 30, 2009 6:24 pm

    I also think that us – meaning Britain and France – were guilty of not understanding that our global influence was nowhere was it was prior to WW2, and that we couldnt simply act without US approval. Militarily it was a success, politically a debacle.

    I also think there is a lot of sense in what Graham has just said. The UK has been involved in plenty of small conflicts since 1945 and it helps keep things sharp. The British Army’s experience in Northern Ireland has been invaluable in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  13. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 30, 2009 5:33 pm

    Points 4 & 5 are particularly salient, I think. Israeli has more SUCCESSFUL war-fighting experience then any country in the West over the last 60 years. They win the battles & the wars & they’re well-schooled in unconventional tactics & intelligence gathering. The Brits may not have the raw horsepower they used to have but they’ve got some of the best & most imaginative spec forces operators going. And they’re conventional forces aren’t exactly weak, either.

    One of America’s big problems, I think, is we over-won our wars in the first half of the century & became complacent, bureacratic & inflexible. We rely too much on gee-whiz tech (I blame Tom Clancy…actually, I say that only half in jest). Our spec forces guys are pretty awesome in their own right, but once you get past the SEALs & maybe Delta, they’re just not all that creative.

    I think part of the problem is that until very recently. the US hasn’t really had to deal with asymmetric warfare conducted in America against America. We’re vulnerable to it because we have so little experience with it. Europe, like Israel, has been dealing with unconventional warfare on its own turf for a very long time. Helps you focus.

  14. - Alex (the new'un). permalink
    October 30, 2009 4:22 pm

    there is a particular Eden quote which has relevance to the subject

    “Ah, Enoch, dear Enoch! He once said something to me I never understood. He said, “You know, I’ve told you all I know about housing, and you can make your speech accordingly. Can I talk to you about something that you know all about and I know nothing? I want to tell you that in the Middle East our great enemies are the Americans.” You know, I had no idea what he meant. I do now.”

    and by cutting of the armed forces I’m assuming you’re referring to the dismantling of operations and withdrawal East of Suez? the particular strategy is the basis for the descision to phase out fixed wing aviation in the Royal Navy taken in the late 60s

    – Alex.

  15. October 30, 2009 6:06 am

    yes, well american policy was never the sharpest when it came to the middle east

    yours sincerely

    Alex

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