Photo Credit:
Michael Doran

 If the U.S. were only more understanding of Arab grievances, our position in the Middle East would vastly improve. So goes a popular theory. Crafting foreign policy based on this premise has repeatedly failed, but many politicians seem mysteriously drawn to it nonetheless.

One of the first to chase this chimera was President Dwight Eisenhower. As former White House adviser Michael Doran writes in a new book, “Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East” (Free Press), Eisenhower believed that propping up Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s at the expense of Great Britain and Israel would convince him to ally with the U.S. against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Nasser had other ideas, though. He took all the U.S. aid he could get and then turned to the Soviet Union. A decade later, he tried destroying Israel in the Six-Day War.


Doran, a senior director in the National Security Council under George W. Bush from 2005-2007, currently serves as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute where he specializes in Middle East security issues.

The Jewish Press: According to your book, the United States essentially built Nasser into the powerful Arab leader he became. Please explain.

Doran: When Eisenhower came to power in 1953, there were 80,000 British troops in the Suez Canal zone and the Egyptians and the British were on the brink of a war. The United States thought if war broke out, it would find itself on the side of a dying European imperialism suppressing Arab nationalism, which would be disastrous, it thought, for the Cold War. So, to make a long story short, what Eisenhower did is force the British to get out of Egypt, which handed Nasser his first big political victory.

Two years later, during the Suez Crisis in 1956 – when Israel, Britain, and France attacked Egypt – Eisenhower again handed Nasser a victory by bringing Britain to the brink of economic ruin. Nasser had very cleverly filled boats with concrete and sunk them in the Suez Canal, and then, working with his allies in Syria, he blew up the oil pipeline running from Iraq to the Mediterranean. Sixty-six percent of Europe’s oil went through the Suez Canal and the other 33 percent went through this pipeline, so Nasser managed to cut off all the oil to the British. But when Anthony Eden, who was the prime minister of Britain, asked Eisenhower for North American supplies of oil, Eisenhower said “No.” The markets got wind of this and the bottom dropped out of the pound.

So Eisenhower used extreme economic measures to force the British and French out of Egypt and then put very powerful diplomatic pressure on the Israelis to evacuate the Sinai with almost no concessions by the Egyptians. These moves handed Nasser an incredible political victory over the three enemies of Arab nationalism, if you will, and turned him into a figure of mythic power in the Arab world.

You write that we didn’t just support Nasser diplomatically; we actually provided him with propaganda expertise.

Yes, that’s one of the most surprising and fascinating aspects of the miscalculation. Behind the scenes, the CIA started treating Nasser as a close ally of the United States even before the agreement between the British and the Egyptians of October 1954. Nasser duped the Americans. He understood how important he was to them – that they really needed an Arab ally who would help them organize the Arab world [against the Soviets], and he led the Americans to believe that he was going to play that role.

So Eisenhower and Dulles, the secretary of state, started giving Nasser all kinds of support that they should’ve withheld until they really knew where he stood in the Cold War. They gave him beneficial press in Western outlets we had influence over; they gave him the most powerful broadcasting equipment in the Middle East; and they actually sent Paul Linebarger, who was an expert on black propaganda, to Egypt to help develop the content of Nasser’s propaganda.

There was a revolution in communications taking place in the Middle East at the time, and the transistor radio allowed an Arab leader with a powerful broadcasting system to beam his voice into every household in the Arab world. Nasser was the first to capitalize on that, and the United States helped him.

And despite all this help, Nasser nevertheless turned to the Soviet Union.

Correct. By September of 1955 – that’s just one year after the Americans helped Nasser get all the British troops out of Egypt – Nasser brokered the Soviet-Egyptian arms deal and received a huge amount of weaponry from the Soviet Union. Then Nasser turned his propaganda machine to the Arab world and said that we, the Egyptians, are working with the Soviets to drive the British from the region and defeat Israel. In general, Nasser took our broadcasting equipment and used it to broadcast anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda, which destabilized the Arab allies of the West in the Cold War, particularly Jordan and Iraq.

So the theory Eisenhower had when he first came into office – that by distancing himself from his allies he was going to open up a space for cooperation between the United States and Egypt – [was incorrect] and what actually happened was he opened up a space for Soviet-Egyptian cooperation and destabilization of the whole Middle East.

We didn’t turn off our propaganda support for Nasser, though, until March of ’56.

Why did we wait so long?

One of the more interesting aspects of the story is the role Nasser’s anti-Israel policies played in his relations with the United States. When Nasser made the arms deal with the Soviets in September of 1955, he managed to convince the Americans that it wasn’t a move against them, and he does that by playing the Israel card. He tells them he has to get weapons from the Soviet Union in order to defend himself against Israel, which he depicts as extremely aggressive.

He says, “Look, I’m a moderate, but I’m surrounded by extremists and the extremists expect me to defend Egypt against Israeli aggression. If I don’t accept these arms from the Soviet Union, they will topple me, and you’ll get then somebody’s who’s more extreme than me. So you should play along with me and allow me to do this.”

And the Americans bought it because they themselves came into power with the sense that Israel was an albatross around their neck and that Israel was the source of their problems in the Arab world. They bought it to such an extreme that their response to the Soviet-Egyptian arms deal in ’55 was funding for the Aswan High Dam, which was Nasser’s flagship development project. So Nasser aligned with the Soviet Union, and the United States responded by offering him a huge gift.

Nasser may have ultimately duped us, as you put it, but he is hardly the only Arab leader to have done so over the years. Time and again, Arab leaders have smiled while saying one thing to U.S. officials and then doing something completely different afterward. Don’t Western leaders realize Arab leaders operate in what might be called a culture of deviousness?

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Elliot Resnick is the former chief editor of The Jewish Press and the author and editor of several books including, most recently, “Movers & Shakers, Vol. 3.”