I’m reading Makovsky and Ross, Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East on the folly of linkage in the Middle East (i.e., solve [sic] the Arab-Israeli conflict and all the other pieces will fall in place). There’s a particularly illuminating passage on Eisenhower’s insistance that Israel, Britain and France withdraw from the Suez Canal after taking it in response to Nasser’s nationalization of it in 1956.
Eisenhower apparently thought that in so doing he would bring Nasser over to the American’s side, “make friends” as it were with the young, dynamic leader, apparently the leader of a new, modernizing force in the Arab world. America, the anti-imperialist, ready to shake the Zionists out of their conquests — surely Arab nationalists would appreciate that.
Not. Nasser’s response was to become increasingly interested in, and within a couple of years, outright allies of the Soviets — just the nightmare that Eisenhower was hoping to avoid with his strong-handed intervention. The authors conclude:
Eisenhower ultimately regretted the policy he pursued in the Suez Crisis. A decade later, in a meeting with Richard Nixon in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania [where Eisenhower retired], he said his action had prevented Britain and France from playing a constructive role in the Middle East. Nixon recalled, “[Eisenhower] gritted his teeth as he remarked ‘why couldn’t the British and the French have done it more quickly.’ ” Eisenhower went on to observe that U.S. actions to reverse the crisis for Nasser’s benefit “didn’t help as far as the Middle East was concerned. Nasser became even more anti-West and anti-U.S. We agreed that the worst fallout from Suez was that it weakened the will of our best allies, Britain and France, [from playing] a major role in the Middle East or in other areas outside of Europe.”38
Ironically, the same Nixon who at the time was thrilled that the United States had thus distanced itself from the Europeans and Israel would later describe American policy during the Suez Crisis as “the greatest foreign policy blunder the United States has made since the end of World War II.”39 And at the center of it lay the misleading notion of linkage.
While linkage may indeed have been at the center of the policy thinking involved, I’d like to suggest some honor-shame psychology that lay behind Nasser’s behavior that explain why such thinking backfired, something that our current president should certainly take into account.
In the zero-sum world of honor, being indebted to another is a humiliation. This is so widespread a phenomenon, that we have a saying: “No good turn goes unpunished.” A French friend of mine was once asked to explain French anti-Americanism on a TV interview. “The French will never forgive America for saving her twice,” she replied. Nail on head.
For Eisenhower to expect that Nasser would be grateful to the USA for helping save him and his prestige in the Arab world by forcing Israel, Britain and France to back down, misread the dynamics of both Nasser and Arab nationalism.
Not that Eisenhower and his advisors were expecting some kind of friendship. This was realist politics: I rub your back, you rub mine. It was rational for Nasser to appreciate US interests, and to cultivate so powerful a friend.
But when honor is more important than rational self-interest, when the adoration of vast crowds of cheering Arabs throughout that world, who consider you a hero, no because you are playing rational power-politics, but because you are manipulating and confronting outsiders, especially in the West, then reciprocity is not in the cards.
Nasser addressing the masses in Hims, Syria, 1961.
The same phenomenon happened in Iraq in 2003. Americans expected cheering in the street when they came to liberate the people from Saddam’s tyranny. Even as they would admit privately that were the US troops to leave it would be a disaster, Iraqis would nonetheless shout loudly that they wanted the US out. Admitting gratitude, acknowledging dependence, recognizing publicly that the US had done what the Iraqi people had been incapable of doing… such things were unthinkable.
Of course, such things are equally unthinkable to many anti-American progressives, who are more than ready to “explain” Arab responses as rational — “of course Nasser went with the Soviets, Eisenhower demanded too much,” or “of course the Iraqis hate the Americans, look how many Iraqis American troops have killed.”
And, I suspect, we find similar glosses at work today in the Obama administration. It’s not that Obama doesn’t understand how important matters of honor are to the Arabs and Muslims. He has shown them elaborate demonstrations of respect. Indeed, lest he bruise their honor and harm his charm offensive, he’s gone out of his way to snub the Israelis, even at the cost (unanticipated, perhaps, but nonetheless costly) of the Israeli left, who should be cheering on his anti-settlement policies, but who view his failure to visit Israel as a sign that he is not a friend.
The problem for Obama is that he expects the Arabs to show gratitude for his initiatives and, having made friends (as “realists” like Walt and Mearsheimer recommend), he’ll then be able to extract concessions. “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” All the evidence, however, suggests that the more Obama cultivates the Arabs, the more intransigent they become, the more “proofs” of loyalty they will expect from Obama in extracting what they want for Israel.
How long will it take Obama to figure this out? And what will he do when he does? I don’t know, but the Gates-gate affair suggests he has a quick learning curve when it’s important, and he can admit a mistake when it’s clear he’s made it. So there’s hope. As one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell reads, “he who has suffered you to impose upon him, knows you.” The Arabs think they “know” Obama, and that he’ll be easy to manipulate. Maybe he’ll surprise them.
And if and when he does wise up, I suggest the following move. He goes to the Arab leaders, especially Abbas, and says:
Look guys, you had your chance. I played nice, and it just made you more intransigent. It’s not lke your claims on every inch of 1967 borders are anything but a concession of world opinion in the hopes of making you reasonable, getting you to go for “land for peace.” When you had a chance to claim it in 1964 when you founded Fatah, you had no interest in it, only in destroying Israel. So don’t expect the rest of the world to support your claims forever.
Instead of encouraging you to work towards a settlement, all our efforts have just made you more intransigent, and proved what the Israelis have claimed for a long time, that you’re not interested in peace with them, but “peace” without them, not the “peace of the brave,” but the “peace of the grave.”
I said in my Cairo speech that the Palestinian situation was intolerable. I meant the situation of being without a nation. You’ve proved me wrong. You don’t think it’s intolerable since every chance you get — including the one I’ve offered you — you think up some new demand, some new reason to say “no.” Obviously, you’re in no hurry to change your condition. Indeed, I’m beginning to suspect that those who say you’re more interested in destroying Israel than taking care of your own people are right.
So here’s the new rules. Every day you delay, the Israelis build more settlements and lay more claim to the lands you want. If you want to stop the Israeli settlements from growing, get to the table and start negotiating seriously. Otherwise, when you finally get around to it, what you get from the West Bank will be far less than what you could have now. The ball is in your court. Grow up.
Alright, I don’t expect to get called in to be a White House speechwriter anytime soon. But a guy can fantasize about real leadership, can’t he?