- Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East by Michael Doran
Michael Doran tells a very interesting story, one with valuable lessons for contemporary American foreign policy. Ike’s Gamble is therefore timely, because it serves as both a critique of the Middle East policy of the recent administration of Barack Obama and as a warning for the new administration of Donald Trump as it considers its options regarding the region.
Doran’s main argument is that under President Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, the United States misread regional politics so completely as to undermine American interests there. Washington ended up abandoning America’s closest allies, Great Britain and France, as well as Israel. This, in turn, helped strengthen both the cause of radical nationalism in the Arab world and cemented Egyptian president Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser’s power and prestige in the region and in the world. While the Cold War pushed Washington to expect full support from its allies and clients, Nasser and the radical nationalists wanted, at best, to maintain an arms-length relationship with Washington, at worst to leave the United States out of regional politics.
The story unfolds over 13 chapters, while the conclusion summarizes the argument and discusses specific lessons for [End Page 324] American presidents. The story is also about British leaders such as Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, Nasser, American diplomats, and Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, while others enter the stage at specific moments.
But dominating the stage is Ike. We learn at the beginning of the book that the problem was Ike’s approach to the Middle East. What Doran calls his “honest broker” mindset (pp. 9–12) — that the United States should not take sides in the clash between Britain and France on one side and the pan-Arab nationalists on the other, or in the Arab-Israeli conflict — in fact translated into support for Nasser’s own positions. It was not out of any malice toward Britain, France, or Israel, but rather because Ike believed that tying America to the new generation of Arab nationalists who were implacably opposed to Western influence and to Israel was bowing to reality; and doing so would show the Arabs that America was their friend, which in turn would help bring them into the American camp as Washington confronted Moscow.
The honest broker approach did not work. The approach ignored or downplayed the emerging inter-Arab conflicts and Nasser’s own regional ambitions. The crises of 1955–56 prompted Eisenhower to question his assumptions, but the aftermath of the Suez War that followed convinced him the nationalists were not looking for an honest broker but were pursuing their own goals at odds with America’s.
Indeed, Ike turned 180 degrees. The July 1958 coup in Iraq against the monarchy, which followed soon after Eisenhower forced Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, buried once and for all the notion that Arab states would move into the American orbit. Because the coup-makers called themselves Free Officers and proclaimed they were inspired by Nasser, Eisenhower finally realized that his gamble had failed. Nasser’s influence expanded, and radical nationalism spread across the region. Worse, in Doran’s words, Nasser was America’s Frankenstein monster, unleashed by the support of Eisenhower — diplomatic and material, such as communications infrastructure for radio broadcasts — but that had escaped American control and was now working directly against American interests in the region.
Ike later expressed regret for helping push the British out of the Suez Canal Zone, per Nasser’s own demands, and by late 1958 he saw Israel as an ally rather than a distraction — a military power that could help defend friendly Arab states such as Jordan against an attack from radical pan-Arab nationalists. He decided at this point that managing inter-Arab conflicts was the appropriate policy.
The lessons that Ike only learned at the end of the 1950s, which Doran argues matter for America today, are: First, each president...