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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Book Review: Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East, By Michael Doran


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  -George Santayana


The Near East Report does not usually review works of history. With the bookshelf relating to Israel, the United States and the Middle East already groaning under the weight of masses of unread tomes purporting to provide policy guidance for the here and now, why take time for a book that examines the Eisenhower administration’s experience in the Middle East over 60 years ago? For one very good reason: For all the talk of the Arab Spring having turned the Middle East upside down, many of the challenges facing the United States in the region today are not without precedent. We do not need to take Santayana’s warning literally to nevertheless recognize that some examples from history provide such striking parallels for today that we ignore them at our own peril.


Ike’s Gamble explores how America replaced Great Britain and France as the dominant outside power in the Middle East following World War II. The author—an accomplished scholar and Washington think-tank denizen who also served in the George W. Bush White House and Defense Department—focuses on one large overriding question: What were Eisenhower’s regional objectives and how did they evolve over time?


The key protagonists—the president and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles—worried that Washington’s close association with former colonial powers in the Middle East and with the new state of Israel were “millstones around our neck” (page 74) that prevented Arab nationalists (incarnated by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt) from supporting the United States. They wanted to ally with Arab nationalism to achieve the larger U.S. Cold War goals of excluding the Soviet Union from the region and cementing Western access to oil deposits.


Doran expertly dissects how Eisenhower’s strategy of making concessions to Egypt during the mid-1950s failed utterly to sate Nasser’s nationalist and anti-Western appetite. Washington did nothing when Nasser acquired arms from the Soviet bloc; pressured London to leave the Suez Canal in 1955; and used the United Nations to force Israel, France and Great Britain to scuttle their military operation to retake the canal after Nasser nationalized it in the famous 1956 “Suez Crisis.”


Nasser convinced Eisenhower and Dulles that he was at heart a pro-Western “moderate” who had to take radical anti-Israel, pro-Soviet and Third World postures to keep his extremist domestic rivals at bay. Eisenhower and Dulles calculated that, given room to maneuver, Nasser would eventually side with Washington against Moscow and become a bulwark of stability in the Middle East.


It was not to be. Nasser thanked Eisenhower for saving him at Suez by redoubling his radicalism at home and abroad. He employed propaganda and subversion to undermine the region’s authentically pro-Western Arab states (Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq); allowed the USSR to finance the Aswan High Dam—his presidency’s greatest domestic achievement; worked to position the so-called Non-Aligned Movement behind Soviet goals; took a consistently hardline against Israel; and turned both Egypt and Syria (which briefly merged into one state under his control) into anti-Western authoritarian redoubts armed and supported by Moscow.


Doran’s tale, fortunately, is not just one of policy failure. Eisenhower eventually concluded correctly that Nasser’s goals were inimical to U.S. interests, which Egypt directly sabotaged by fomenting unrest in Jordan and helping kill the Baghdad Pact, a league of pro-Western nations including Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. This process culminated in 1958 when Eisenhower landed U.S. troops in Lebanon to prevent this crucial ally from succumbing to Nasserite subversion. 


In short order Eisenhower refashioned a Middle East policy along completely new lines. He replaced efforts to court the entire Arab world with the more modest—but achievable—goal of aligning the non-radical states with Washington. He substituted appeasement with strength, justifying intervention in Lebanon with the need “to take a strong position rather than a Munich-type position” (page 229). 


Most tellingly, Eisenhower abandoned the discredited “linkage” theory, which asserted that Israel caused most of the Middle East’s problems and that Washington could either befriend Jerusalem or the Arabs—not both. By 1958, Eisenhower was already arguing in policy meetings that Israel was an asset in helping the United States defend Jordan from Nasser and was musing in his diary that, “I know of no reason why we should not make…a treaty with Israel” (page 163). In his later years Eisenhower regretted having forced Israel to evacuate the Sinai Peninsula precipitously in 1956, telling Richard Nixon that Suez “was his major foreign policy mistake” (page 242).


What is the relevance of Eisenhower’s Middle East learning curve for today? Doran is too scrupulous an historian to make the lessons explicit; however, Ike’s Gamble implies the following lessons for a new administration:

  • Judge your adversaries by their deeds, not their words.  Today the Iran-Russia-Syria-Hezbollah axis is playing the aggressive anti-Western role in the Middle East once filled by Nasser, the radical Arab nationalists and the Soviet Union. Iran’s development of an independent nuclear program and its subversion in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen pose similar threats to the United States, Israeli and allied Arab interests. The soothing rhetoric from Iran surrounding the nuclear deal was a negotiating tactic; since then both Tehran and Moscow have accelerated their brazen attempts to dominate the region.

  • Beware of “moderates” bearing gifts.    Nasser falsely claimed that he needed to take anti-Western or anti-Israel actions to placate domestic “extremists.” Likewise, so-called Iranian “moderates” and their backers abroad argue that they can curb the regional imperialism pushed by Iran’s “hardliners” only if Washington and Europe help by engaging commercially and diplomatically with Tehran. It didn’t work with Nasser and it is not working with Tehran.

  • Washington can befriend both Israel and the Arabs.    Eisenhower originally saw good U.S.-Israel relations as a “millstone” that would encumber cooperation with the Arabs. Later he realized that Washington could work with Israel while maintaining strong ties to Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The Arab-Israeli dispute was not at the core of Middle Eastern politics in the 1950s and is even less so today, when Israel has formed a tacit alliance with the Sunni Arab states arrayed against Iranian expansionism.     


Perhaps the most significant lesson to be gleaned from this book, however, is that while Washington must not fritter away military, economic and diplomatic strength through thoughtless intervention overseas, the consequences of hoarding—rather than prudently employing—our power when justified by our interests can be costly. In today’s Middle East, a resource-weak but aggressive and nimble Russia-Iran alliance has exploited the situation to enhance its influence to the detriment of the United States, Israel and our Arab allies.  


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