Above photo: The Suez Canal in 1956, scene of Britain’s first great post-war humiliation. AFP.
The ongoing pandemic-proxy-war on Iran may be the Empire’s point of no return.
“Suez has not so much changed our fortunes as revealed realities.”
– British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, remarks to the Cabinet, prior to his resignation (1957)
Decaying empires behave badly. Late-stage imperial states easily fall prey to perilous insecurity and irrationality and tend to lash out like wounded, cornered animals. Perhaps it must be so: naught but a collective macro-reflection of the human condition. Unfortunately, many thousands – often millions – of innocents tend to die at the denouement of empire. “Dirty wars” usually ensue during the imperial endgame. That time is near, it seems, for the American hegemon. There’s hardly “dirtier,” or nastier, proof of “bad behavior” than recent reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (unsuccessfully, thus far) urged President Trump to use this pandemic opportunity to bomb Iran; or of the administration’s persistent devotion to lethal “maximum pressure” sanctions certain to multiply the Corona-mortality of innocents.
Imperial admission, at least, is a positive first step. Though a few holdouts no doubt remain, finally, most folks – be they bullish or bearish on the project – now admit that the U.S. is (and long has been) an empire. The “curse of Rome,” the Founders shared fear that their cherished republic would turn imperial, has long infected our nation and run its logical course. Still, the internal bleeding of foreign warring and domestic decay can remain invisible until some outward – and oft-absurd – crisis glaringly illustrates that, in fact, the proverbial emperor “has no clothes.”
Such was the case for our, culturally and linguistically common, recent imperial forebears: the British. The seminal setting for the embarrassing exposure of John Bull – as it shall likely be for Uncle Sam – was the Middle East. The anvil upon which Albion’s illusions cracked was the land of the pharaohs: Egypt, specifically in the Suez. Correspondingly, “Columbia” – always fittingly depicted in Roman garb – will instead meet her demise in the land of another faded empire: Persia, or modern Iran. The similarities are as staggering as they are unsettling.
Undoubtedly, historical analogies are tricky affairs. Replete with inherent pitfalls of assumptions, and slippery stretched-parallels, they must necessarily proceed with caution. Nevertheless, as Washington wistfully heads for yet another bout of ill-fated, combative chauvinism against Iran, the connections – and potential consequences – with an earlier Anglo imperial past are just stark enough to demand some comparison.
Delusional Destiny in the Suez
So what of Suez? Well, Britain’s once remarkably vast, globe-spanning imperial enterprise – upon which, literally, for a time, “the sun never set” – had suffered a long, gradual decline ever since two catastrophic world wars (1914 and 1939) exhausted the empire’s military-fiscal capacity and its public will. The signs were everywhere; it was all so obvious for even marginally informed geopolitical observers. Only logical hindsight couldn’t account for Britain’s contemporary Conservative leadership. After all, a veritable Kipling-esque imperial hero (he’d participated in, 1898, the last ever full-scale British cavalry charge, for God’s sake), Prime Minister Winston Churchill was back in office just before the crisis. By his side, stood his wildly handsome and cultivated, boy-wonder, presumptive successor-protege, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Sir Anthony (though he was knighted only after) had even married Churchill’s niece. Neither master nor pupil would relinquish the imperial dream without a fight.
Recall that during his earlier term, during the late war, Winston had famously, and obstinately, declared that he had “not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Less remembered is Churchill’s immediate follow-on rejoinder: “For that task, if ever it were prescribed, someone else would have to be found…” On this point, Britain’s “Last Lion” proved correct. For it was upon Eden – if against his will – that the ignoble task would fall. The Suez Crisis would do the heavy lifting.
With Britain having already been forced to grant Indian independence (1947) – having thus lost the Empire’s “Crown Jewel” – the then quasi-colony of Egypt, and its strategically (and economically) vital Suez Canal, seemed ever more central to the Churchill-Eden imperial old guard. Therefore, when, recently-coup-installed, President Gamal Abdul Nasser “nationalized” significant Western stakes in the canal, then Prime Minister Eden immediately settled on force. Perhaps Eden simply refused to believe that Britain’s world power-illusions were through, and the stage was set; the fiasco writing on the wall.
Nonetheless, until the British colluded with another old empire (France) and a distinctly new one (Israel) to jointly bombard and invade newly independent Egypt in October-November 1956, it was possible to miss the (however obvious) signals of impending collapse. Though technically an initial tactical success, the combination of international outrage and abandonment by an angry American ally forced Britain (and its co-conspirators) to rapidly submit to a status quo ceasefire. It was both reeling, reality rejoinder and an earnest embarrassment. Speaking in the midst of the drama, Britain’s Labour Party opposition leader, Hugh Gaitskell, declared that Eden’s government had “committed an act of disastrous folly whose tragic consequences we shall regret for years.” So it had and so they would.
Suez proved the final farcical gasp of an empire on fumes. The invasion’s high-Imperial Age flagrancy, it’s obtuse tone, was so out-of-touch with “polite,” prevailing practices, that even President Dwight Eisenhower blanched. Ike was a longtime colleague and old friend of Eden’s (from their World War II days), but, even so, the normally measured former general fumed. In peculiar (if mistrustful) concert, of sorts, with the Soviet leadership – in an almost singular Cold War example – Ike publicly rebuked (at the UN), then unilaterally threatened, his old chum. Furthermore, in a widely broadcasted address to the American people, the president treated the Brits to an (admittedly polite) unsparing lecture befitting a petulant child. The speech, and the entire strange affair, would, only recently, have been unthinkable. Suez counted as one of history’s hindsight-pivot-points. The world scene had certainly changed; it may again soon.
Uncanny Commonalities, Tragic Consequences
Let us then identify, and juxtapose, both (potential) parallels between, and repercussions of, what Britain faced in Egypt and America may suffer with Iran:
The joint U.S.-Soviet reprobation, in league with the less powerful states populating the UN General Assembly, of the Anglo-French (and Israeli) intriguers, mustn’t be embellished. Ike loathed the Russians, and this was, after all, the height of the Cold War. Both sides were even then – and would continue – toppling governments and bombing or invading plenty of “disagreeable” states. It’s just that, by 1956, overt military occupations (excepting, later, Vietnam and Afghanistan, naturally) seemed decidedly passé. Still, both superpowers, and more easily ignored lesser global actors, had definitively turned on the once paramount imperial states.
In today’s Corona-Age, should Trump persist in his imperious defiance of sovereign Iraqi legal requests for U.S. military withdrawal, proceed with escalatory bombings (of “Iranian-linked”) targets there, maintain demonstrably macabre sanctions on Tehran, and – if a patently influential Pompeo gets his way – attack the Islamic Republic itself, not even the great United States can ineluctably count on international immunity. Having alienated itself – through nearly two decades of wars, wanting in “distinction,” and of dubious legality and morality – in much of the world, and facing the steady growth of (perceived) Russian and (real) Chinese power and influence, America could face a moral, and economic, embargo capable of eventually shutting down the war machine.
Were ethical outcry all it faced, even a weakened Britain might have weathered international scorn and proceeded on course. But the truth is that, by 1956, Washington held cards even the vaunted Transatlantic “special relationship” couldn’t trump: preeminence in the international monetary institutions (it had carefully constructed during the war), and a controlling stake in London’s massive debt, which held Britain’s precarious economy hostage to American whims.
When the surprise Anglo-French-Israeli invasion led to a severe “run on” the (already weak) pound, cooler heads in Eden’s cabinet realized that only an emergency IMF-loan could save Britain’s “Sterling Bloc,” Ike categorically denied the request. In fact, his Treasury Secretary cooly informed his counterpart, Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold MacMillan, that “You will not get a dime from the US Government until you have gotten out of Suez.” What’s more, the U.S. – then (as, again, now) a major world supplier – even threatened to impose a petroleum embargo, with a deployed UK military desperately in need of the stuff. MacMillan apparently threw up his arms and exclaimed, “Oil sanctions – that finishes it!” Then, he proceeded to sternly advise Eden to relent.
As for the pesky debt, well, after the ceasefire, MacMillan announced before the House of Commons that the U.S. Treasury Department “would recommend to Congress that it immediately waive $143 million in interest payments on a World War II loan,” that were soon due. This was Extortion 101. In sum, according to MacMillan, the entire Suez adventure had ultimately been undone by the “inherent weakness of our postwar economy.”
No doubt, each situation is unique. Yet, with a national debt of $23 trillion and counting – Beijing, incidentally, serving as Washington’s largest banker – with the Chinese (and Indian) economies potentially set to take the top spots, and the Asian Dragon vacillating between the one and two positions of American trade partners, U.S. preeminence and fiscal (thus, also, foreign policy) freedom are hardly forever secure. The economic Corona-collapse will inevitably (if necessarily) balloon that debt and further weaken the American position.
Someday soon, brazen U.S. militant unilateralism – against, say, increasingly Russia/China-friendly, Iran – may incur (even more) serious costs. In fact, just as Suez aggression drove Nasser ever further into Soviet arms – not a foregone conclusion, by the way – so implacable U.S. bellicosity towards Iran will only solidify Tehran’s (not altogether natural) ties with Russia and China, and risk a major escalatory war that’s all but certain to wreck American power.
In 1956, Eden’s reflexive resort to force in the Suez defies simplistic explication. His actions, as all usually do, had many motivational fathers. One, it seems, involved the tenor of the times, within Britain writ-large, and Eden’s mind, alike. After WWII, and especially Indian independence, broad segments of the British public succumbed to a collective, irrational psychosis that repeatedly plagues cripplingly insecure hegemons faced with multipolarity and relative decline. As Lawrence James, the esteemed scholar of the British Empire’s rise and fall, observed of the times, “Britain appeared powerless and on the run, something which was galling and inexplicable to generations who had grown up in a world in which no one had defied Britain with impunity.”
Much the same could be said, of course, for those like Pompeo, Trump, and other senior U.S. leaders raised during the Cold War and later buoyed by the triumphalism of America’s “victory,” therein. In the Britain of 1956, the resultant popular chauvinist sentiment was best – and with shocking contemporary relevancy – encapsulated by a columnist for the London Times, who wrote that “The people…still want Britain great again.” Sound familiar?
Furthermore, just as the two presidents’ Bush once obsessed with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and as the Pompeo-Trump nexus is with Iran’s “Ayatollahs,” so Prime Minister Eden was once consumed with Egypt’s Nasser. Sir Anthony had made his name by famously (and somewhat admirably) resigning as foreign minister (his first of three such stints) in protest of the government’s appeasement of Nazi Germany. And, while he never explicitly compared Nasser to Adolf Hitler (though after the canal nationalization, even the socialist Daily Herald ran the headline “No More Hitlers!”), Eden remained informed – for the remainder of his life – by the supposed lessons of Munich. For example, in March 1956, he wrote Ike that regarding Nasser (and his Soviet ties), “…a policy of appeasement will bring us nothing in Egypt.” Any threat, any at all, real or perceived, must be snuffed out in its infancy. Such was the prevailing thinking.
Beyond the Munich metaphor, Eden threw every pejorative analogy – except the kitchen sink – at Nasser. Egypt’s leader could become, the prime minister wrote the U.S. president, “a kind of Moslem Mussolini.” In an even more extravagant embellishment, he dubbed Nasser a “Caesar,” who aimed to install himself “from the Gulf to the Atlantic.” Such ubiquitous utterances divulge one clear story: Eden loathed Nasser. This became yet another, perennially perilous, personal vendetta.
Beyond the pesky fact that neither Iraq, Iran, nor Egypt constituted much more than inflated “tinpot” threats in their respective days, Eden’s brand of leadership compulsion remains inherently treacherous. It fogs decision-making and leads, at a minimum, to ill-advised, unnecessary overreaction. In the Suez Crisis, this played out in Eden’s secret, grandiose plans to not only seize the canard of a canal but to also forcefully impose what we now call regime change in Cairo. The minutes of Cabinet planning meetings indicate agreement on the following resolution: “While our ultimate purpose was to place the Canal under international control, our immediate objective was to bring about the downfall of the present Egyptian Government.” Considering the unpredictable outcomes inherent to an Egyptian regime change and compulsory Anglo-French occupation – in Iraq (2003-) it later spelled civil war – the Eden government’s cavalier attitude seems unfathomable. Yet, in another sense, given the Trump administration’s repeated hints of favoring regime change in Iran – absent any serious discussion of capacity, means, or ends – it is perhaps less so.
Another present connection, one with the most dismal imputations, was the secret, influential Israeli connection in Britain’s escapade. Earlier, in the face of rebelliousness, Churchill – in his typically coarse manner, had threatened – to unleash Israel against Egyptian “terrorists.” Rising from his chair with clenched fists, Winston had instructed Eden: “Tell them if we have any more of their cheek we will set the Jews on them and drive them into the gutter from which they should never have emerged.” Five years on, this is precisely what Eden and the French would do.
The plan hatched was France’s idea. Though both government’s – in London and Paris – had already decided on a military solution, they needed a pretext. Enter an Israel chomping at the bit for a fresh chance to cripple their most powerful of avowed enemies. In October 1956, the three parties secretly met in the Parisian suburb of Sèvres. As befit any criminal conspiracy worth its salt, the British representatives were prohibited from taking notes. However, the participants did eventually type-up and sign a protocol: whereby Israel agreed to attack Egypt, setting the stage for Britain and France to invade on the pretext of “separating the combatants” and protecting the canal.
Eden ordered his copy burned (in a nearby fireplace), but the Israelis kept theirs. Back in England, neither public nor Parliament were appraised of the furtive impending war plan. In December, after the Suez mission had ignominiously ended, the prime minister and his foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, each shamelessly lied before Parliament. Eden carried the fiction to his grave, and the final, “smoking gun,” proof of collusion didn’t emerge for 40 years. Hundreds (perhaps thousands), British and Egyptian, had died on that lie.
In the 21st century, conversely, it has often been Tel Aviv driving the Iran-War-train, an Israeli tail wagging the American superpower dog. Iranian regime change is nothing less than Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dream. For several years, Bibi has worked tirelessly to advance that agenda in Washington, even taking the unprecedented step of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress – in the midst of an Israeli election cycle – to oppose then-President Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran. The White House wasn’t even notified of the plans. Now, with an administration chock full of Iran hawks in power – Netanyahu deemed Trump “the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House” – and Coronavirus crippling an already weakened Iran, the stage seems set for outright war. Most striking about this contemporary brand of U.S.-Israeli collusion, is just how public and conspicuous it has truly been.
The tripartite aggression of Britain, France, and Israel in the Suez also had real moral costs. It was this – the sullied reputation of the West in the still very Cold War-contested postcolonial states of Africa and Asia – that Eisenhower feared as much as anything. So severe was the loss of Western legitimacy in the wake of Suez, that it, in a sense, papered over and lent some undeserved “top-cover” for the near-simultaneous Soviet invasion of Hungary. In the Middle East itself, it also had the ill-effect of launching the Nasser mystique both at home and abroad.
Thus, as Nasser’s “heroic,” “triumph” over the imperialists – with amply decisive U.S.-Soviet diplomatic and economic assistance – made him a Pan-Arab legend, and solidified his domestic position, so Tehran’s obligatory defiance of Washington is likely to boost it’s often troubled image on the “Arab Street,” and detrimentally empower domestic hardliners. Worse still, the Trump team’s cruel sanctions and escalatory violence may even shift Iran’s nuclear calculus and reignite its quest for a bomb. Lastly, the impending loss of America’s already paltry moral high ground will rob Washington of credibility to condemn the bad behavior of other states: whether it is oppression by China in its Muslim (Uighur) West, run-of-the-mill North Korean dissident-repression, or even Iran’s very real domestic crimes.
Finally, and – in the near-term – most obviously, the unraveled conspiracy in Egypt disgraced, embarrassed, and ultimately circumscribed the ambitions of Great Britain. The Empire had been exposed, been humbled. Nearly all of the (especially African) colonies still in Britain’s grip were granted independence over the next seven years. Then, in 1967, as a final admission of imperial impotency, and (fittingly) just before the pound was devalued, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced plans to withdraw Britain’s military, and its defense commitments, from all points “East of Suez.” The sun would finally “set” on a now miniaturized British Empire. This was, perhaps, the one silver lining of the Suez affair. London would henceforth focus (even) more on European union and social welfare at home. Call it a bright side in dark times, but a similar fate could await the waning U.S. Empire. In that sense, the fallen Brits may have a thing or two to teach its American cousins about the prudence, and realism, of worldwide hegemony eschewed.
Eden’s (and Trump’s?) Imperial Obituary
History is replete with keen irony: proof positive of truths far stranger than fiction. So it was with Suez. While regime change was London’s secret raison d’ etre from the first, in the end, the only regime changed was Anthony Eden’s. Though donning the brave face befitting his class and station, soon after Suez, a long ill Eden disembarked for “holiday” in Jamaica, but returned to a Parliament (and both major parties) whose confidence he had lost. Citing “poor health,” he resigned in January 1957.
On surface and substance, Eden and Trump could hardly be more different. Though both born into wealth, Eden’s was of the decidedly “old money” variety, and Sir Anthony was every bit the urbane, experienced, consummate insider to The Donald’s coarse, gut-playing, outsider. Still, just as Suez torpedoed Eden’s power and reputation, so might an amplified Iran War doom Trump. If less likely in an American setting, who’s to say the same can’t happen to President Trump, or whichever clothes-less emperor follows him?
Lest the reader (understandably) slip into hopelessness, it bears repeating that after Suez the UK did – albeit begrudgingly, at first – pursue a far humbler foreign policy. Leaving aside, for the moment, its persistently noxious “lap-dog” habit of enabling, or joining in on, American bad-behavior, it might be said that in losing an empire Britain gained the semblance of a soul. No doubt, Brexit calls much into question but left with a curtailed Commonwealth – counting little more than Bermuda, St. Helena, and Ascension Island to its name – Britain turned admirably inward, to Europe and social welfare at home, in the decades after the Suez debacle. While admittedly lagging behind its Western European partners, wealth inequality – even with PM Margaret Thatcher’s austerity regression – generally plummeted, and, with the institution of universal care, health outcomes measurably improved.
Perchance the decline of American empire won’t be all bad. Sure, one could argue that Great Britain’s post-imperial freedom of maneuver was largely secured under the trusted umbrella of U.S. hegemony. Fair enough. Then again, a vast body of increasingly persuasive scholarship reveals that the ostensibly existential “Ism”-threats of the last seventy years – communist or terrorist – have been wildly exaggerated. In fact, the American response to these purported perils has largely been counterproductive: sowing chaos and empowering alleged enemies. In the face of a Corona-crisis that’s found American crony-capitalism wanting, and with growing majorities supporting social welfare provisions like free public college and “Medicare for All,” a touch of – even forced – humility in U.S. foreign policy, and consequent cuts to a ballooning defense budget, opens all sorts of opportunities.
Two, rather stark, views emerging from Britain’s Suez disaster point to divergent paths for the American Empire. The first was a decidedly apocalyptic – thus appealing to Pompeo and his demented bring-on-the-Rapture crowd – “scorched earth” scenario of imperial decline. Just months before the Suez invasion, the Director of MI6 (London’s clandestine foreign intelligence service) allegedly told a CIA agent that “Britain is now prepared to fight its last battle…no matter what the cost, we will win.” Mercifully, no such eschatological milieu transpired in Egypt.
Let us pray it does not in Iran. An alternative Suez coda, came from Eden’s 1977 obituary, which incisively opined that “He was the last Prime Minister to believe Britain was a great power, and the first to confront a crisis which proved she was not.”
America, and Mr. Trump, could use such a dose of sensible sagacity.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.