The Suez Crisis and the Fog of Diplomacy


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: What to Make of the Suez Canal Crisis from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.


The Suez War of 1956 is rarely included in the pantheon of crises featured in the study of statecraft. Seminal works on strategy, such as Yale historian Donald Kagan’s On the Origins of War, typically examine more famous episodes, like the outbreak of World War I or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps that is because Suez seems like a blip compared to other conflagrations of the era, such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary or the battle for Berlin. Seen as a “Middle East” war, Suez is sandwiched between the more “decisive” conflicts of 1948 and 1967. Suez also scrambled the traditional Cold War divisions that make for compelling study in other cases: At one point in the conflict, Washington aligned itself more closely with Moscow and Cairo than with London and Paris.

In Suez Deconstructed, Philip Zelikow, a historian at the University of Virginia and former counselor of the Department of State, argues that students of strategy have as much to learn from Suez as its much-studied cousins. In making this case, Zelikow is joined by Ernest May, who was a venerated Harvard historian, and the Harvard Suez Team, a group of six scholars recruited to conduct research for the project. The authors began their work in the 1990s, but were interrupted, among other things, by Zelikow’s service in government and May’s death in 2009. Zelikow has returned to finish the book at an auspicious moment for examining the kind of war that Suez represents — a multi-power crisis, in which states of every size and strength play major roles.

Neither a work of political science nor pure history, Suez Deconstructed instead aims to be a historically rooted how-to manual for statecraft. The book seeks to convey the experience of “masterminding solutions to giant international crises,” Zelikow writes, by providing “a sort of simulator that can help condition readers just a little more” before confronting their own crises. It sets up that simulation by scrambling the storytelling. First, Suez Deconstructed divides the crisis into three phases: September 1955 through July 1956, July 1956 through October 1956, and October through November of that year. In doing so, the authors hope to show that “most large problems of statecraft are not one-act plays” but instead begin as one problem and then mutate into new ones. This was the case with Suez, which began with Egypt purchasing Soviet arms and which became a multipronged battle over an international waterway. Second, the book proceeds through these phases not chronologically but by recounting the perspectives of each of the six participants: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Egypt. The goal — and the effect — is to deprive the reader of omniscience, creating a “lifelike” compartmentalization of knowledge and perspective.

Zelikow encourages readers to assess Suez by examining three kinds of judgments made by the statesmen during the crisis: value judgments (“What do we care about?”), reality judgments (“What is really going on?”), and action judgments (“What can we do about it?”). Asking these questions, Zelikow argues, is the best means of evaluating the protagonists. Through this structure, Suez Deconstructed hopes to provide “a personal sense, even a checklist, of matters to consider” when confronting questions of statecraft.

The book begins this task by describing the world of 1956. The Cold War’s impermeable borders had not yet solidified, and the superpowers sought the favor of the so-called Third World. Among non-aligned nations, Cold War ideology mattered less than anti-colonialism. In the Middle East, its champion was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who wielded influence by exploiting several festering regional disputes. He rhetorically — and, the French suspected, materially — supported the Algerian revolt against French rule. He competed with Iraq, Egypt’s pro-British and anti-communist rival. He threatened to destroy the State of Israel. And through Egypt ran the Suez Canal, which Europe depended on for oil.

Egypt’s conflict with Israel precipitated the Suez crisis. In September 1955, Nasser struck a stunning and mammoth arms deal with the Soviet Union. The infusion of weaponry threatened Israel’s strategic superiority, undermined Iraq, and vaulted the Soviet Union into the Middle East. From that point forward, Zelikow argues, the question for all the countries in the crisis (aside from Egypt, of course) became “What to do next about Nasser?”

Israel responded with dread, while, Britain, France, and the United States alternated between confrontation and conciliation. Eventually, the United States abandoned Nasser, but he doubled down by nationalizing the Suez Canal. This was too much for France. Hoping to unseat Nasser to halt Egyptian aid to Algeria, it concocted a plan with Israel and, eventually, Britain for Israel to invade Egypt and for British and French troops to seize the Canal Zone on the pretense of separating Israeli and Egyptian forces. The attack began just before the upcoming U.S. presidential election and alongside a revolution in Hungary that triggered a Soviet invasion. The book highlights the Eisenhower administration’s anger at the tripartite plot. Despite having turned on Nasser, Eisenhower seethed at not having been told about the assault, bitterly opposed it, and threatened to ruin the British and French economies by withholding oil shipments.

Throughout, Suez Deconstructed disorients. As the story crisscrosses from terror raids into Israel to covert summits in French villas, from Turtle Bay to the Suez Canal, names and places, thoughts and actions blur. Venerable policymakers scramble to comprehend the latest maneuvers as they struggle with the weight of history: Was Suez another Munich? Could Britain and France still project power abroad? Would a young Israel survive?

The Lessons Are There if You Look for Them

By utilizing its Rashomon-like structure, the book evokes the harrowing nature of high-stakes diplomacy: the incomplete intelligence, the uncertain signaling among allies and adversaries, and the sheer number of contingencies that leaders must account for in navigating a multifaceted confrontation. But aside from Zelikow’s brief observations, it leaves readers to contemplate these factors on their own. In that regard, Suez Deconstructed is less interactive study than study-by-fire. The approach conveys much about the atmospherics of decision-making, and Zelikow is right to prefer it to platitudes and aphorisms about strategy. But it may be difficult for readers to compose Zelikow’s checklist without further guidance.

Even so, it is possible to extract several key lessons about statecraft. Chief among them is the extent to which policymakers are informed as much by honor and will as by interest. Britain and France, for example, ultimately joined forces to invade Egypt, but they did so for different reasons and with different degrees of resolve. As Zelikow notes, in the mid-1950s, France, recently beaten in Indochina, seemed beleaguered, while Britain “still seemed big,” boasting a “far-flung network of bases and influence.” But appearances could deceive. France was led by men who “had been heroes of the resistance” during World War II and were determined to restore their country’s honor. Outwardly strong, meanwhile, Britain suffered from a gnawing sense of exhaustion.



This imbalance of morale would shape each nation’s actions during the crisis and contribute to Suez’s strange outcome. France’s Socialist-led coalition, Zelikow writes, was “driven by ideas and historical experience.” It possessed a vision of restoring French pride and a dedication to defeating what it saw as “antimodern throwbacks” in Algeria backed by a Mussolini-like figure in Cairo. It was thus undeterred when complications arose and “more creative in [its] policy designs.” But because Washington, Moscow, and Cairo all judged France by its seeming lack of material power and its recent defeats alone, they underestimated its will.

British leaders, equally eager to topple Nasser and more capable of acting independently than the French, nevertheless struggled to overcome their nation’s fatigue. Initially behind the government’s desire to punish Nasser, the British public, as the book details, “[lost] its appetite for military adventure” as diplomacy commenced. British Prime Minster Anthony Eden had long argued for the need to reconcile with anti-colonialism and with Nasser, its chief Middle Eastern apostle. The British public, tired of war, could not long support Eden’s reversal. London ultimately joined French-Israeli strikes not so much out of conviction but to save face — avoiding the embarrassment of abandoning the demands it made of Nasser.

The second lesson that emerges is the centrality of relationships between statesmen, which drove events just as much as, if not more than, money, power, and ideas. One of the central drivers of the war, in fact, was the bond between French and Israeli statesmen. France’s Socialist leaders had all fought in the French Resistance during World War II. They sympathized with Israel, feeling morally obligated to prevent another massacre of the Jewish people and, as one author in the book describes, viewing Israel’s struggle “as a sort of sequel” to the fight against fascism. The Israelis, many of whom were former guerilla fighters themselves, easily related to the French and appreciated their support. Paris and Jerusalem grew closer for practical reasons as well: France sought Israel’s aid in addressing the Algerian revolt. But the relationship extended beyond material interest. As one chapter relates, during French-Israeli negotiations regarding the attack on Egypt, “there was an emotional connection between [the French and Israeli leaders] that documents do not easily capture.” The affection between French and Israeli officials repeatedly propelled the war planning forward.

If intimate ties catalyzed the invasion of Egypt, so, too, did combustible ones — none more so than the rancor between Eden and Dulles. Eden detested Dulles as moralistic, legalistic, and tedious (as related in Suez Deconstructed, he once described Dulles with the quip, “Dull, Duller, Dulles”). Their mutual disregard plagued U.S.-British cooperation. At key moments, Eden believed, Dulles would intervene with a maladroit statement that would harm planning or undermine British leverage. In early October 1956, for example, Dulles stated that there were “no teeth” to the diplomatic plan that the powers had been devising and that when it came to issues of “so-called colonialism,” the United States would “play a somewhat independent role.” For Eden, feeling isolated, this statement “was in some ways the final blow,” spurring him to join the French-Israeli initiative.

The statesmen of the Suez Crisis were haunted by history as much as they were guided by pride and personality — another striking theme that surfaces in Suez Deconstructed. Zelikow begins his overview of the world in 1956 by stating that “[t]hey were a wartime generation,” nations that had “lived through conclusive, cataclysmic wars, some more than one.” Those experiences permeated their approaches to the crisis. French and British leaders could not help but see Nasser as a 1930s potentate. Indeed, after the crisis, Guy Mollet, the French prime minister in 1956, compared Suez to “Algeria, Spain, and Munich.” As one author in the book explains, “‘Algeria’” meant Nasser’s role in fomenting the Algerian revolt. ‘Spain’ represented the parallel between Israel and the beleaguered Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s,” which was destroyed as the French government did nothing, and “‘Munich’” represented the failure of the democracies to stop dictators in time.” Although the British — policymakers, the press, and the public — did not share the Algerian and Spanish analogies, they, too, saw in Suez “the lesson of World War II: appeasement of dictators led to more demands and, eventually, to war.” For Israel, Nasser’s threat to drive the Jews into the sea was especially haunting. And for Nasser, Dulles’ brusque revocation of the offer to finance the Aswan Dam was yet more colonial degradation. Suez Deconstructed offers a vivid sense of how difficult it is for policymakers to step back from their own experiences, let alone embody the perspectives of their counterparts. It is a rare quality in world leaders to be able to make historical analogies without fully embracing them, thereby becoming trapped.

Applying History’s Lessons to Today

Together, these elements suggest that statecraft, particularly in a crisis, is not an entirely rational pursuit. This is a vital lesson for today’s leaders. For much of the past 70 years, the wars most prominent in the American imagination have been nuclear standoffs and insurgent street fights. The wars of the coming decades, however, are likely to look more like Suez than Berlin or Iraq. They will likely be multi-state conflicts, in which states of every size and strength play major roles. These contests will be byzantine. Like Suez, they will be local skirmishes and global crises simultaneously. They will feature webs of overlapping rivalries and alliances (and rivalries within alliances), strategic and ideological considerations at multiple levels, and high-stakes signaling amid confusion and disinformation.

Such conflicts have already begun to emerge, and policymakers have largely failed to adjust. In Syria, for example, two great powers (the United States and Russia) and three regional powers (Israel, Iran, and Turkey), as well as a paramilitary terrorist organization, Hezbollah, have vied for influence in the midst of a failed state, wracked by civil war, with myriad factions and a lingering Islamic caliphate. In East Asia, meanwhile, claims over islands in the South China Sea could spark a multi-power war in a global economic hinge point — one that could quickly draw in the United States. These conflicts have not become worldwide conflagrations (despite, in the case of Syria, the unimaginable toll on Syrians themselves). But in a time of geopolitical flux, when nations probe wobbly balances and crumbling power hierarchies, the relevance of Suez — a crisis that occurred before the Cold War’s ossification, and in many ways was caused by the uncertainties of the pre-Berlin-Wall world — becomes all too apparent.

To navigate this environment, policymakers will need to grapple with everything from budgetary constraints to new forms of power projection. But at bottom, they will need to recall the elements that have long moved leaders and nations, but have recently been forgotten: pride and emotion, personality and temperament, context and history. In other words, they will need to understand that statecraft is not only about impersonal forces — it’s about intangibles. The Suez crisis is an ideal history from which to glean that understanding, and Suez Deconstructed gives readers an enlightening and engrossing opportunity to gain it before facing a crisis of their own.



Jordan Chandler Hirsch practices law in Washington, D.C. He was formerly a Next Generation National Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a staff editor at Foreign Affairs.


Image: U.S. Navy photo