An Arab leader defies the west and a plan is devised to invade his country and remove him. But everything goes wrong. The invasion is bungled, provokes outrage at home and abroad, and spawns a progeny of unintended consequences. Its western authors are derided and humiliated.
No two international crises are identical. But the similarities between Suez in 1956 and Iraq in 2003 are uncanny. In each case a British prime minister took precipitous action to overthrow a Middle East leader deemed to be an intolerable threat to western interests. In each case that threat was grossly exaggerated. In each case the prime minister misled the nation and kept much of his cabinet in the dark. In each case he acted with scant regard for international law – or for the morning after.
End of an era
In 1956 the prime minister was a Conservative, Anthony Eden, and the defiant Arab leader was Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser. Nasser had had the temerity to nationalise the company that operated the Suez Canal, thereby taking control of a vital international artery. Convincing himself the Egyptian ruler was a threat on a par with Hitler, Eden plotted with France and Israel to invade Egypt and overthrow him. But in this case regime change failed.
The United States was appalled at Eden’s action, and the duplicity that surrounded it, and forced him to withdraw. Far from being toppled, Nasser survived and became the hero of the Arab street. The Suez war, brief as it was, had long-lasting effects. It achieved the opposite of its objectives, strengthening Arab nationalism and weakening the British and French empires, whose end was nigh. The era of European colonial power was about to be replaced by an era of superpower rivalry, as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for mastery of much of the world, including the Middle East.
Almost half a century later, a Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, plotted with George W. Bush to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, deemed to have weapons of mass destruction, primed for use, and to be in league with Al-Qaeda – both claims which turned out to be false. But Saddam, unlike Nasser, was overthrown, his country was plunged into anarchy and sectarian strife, and the regional balance of power was overturned, to Iran’s advantage. We have been living with the consequences – which include the emergence of ISIS, or Islamic State – ever since.
Getting in, getting out
“No end of a lesson” was the title of Anthony Nutting’s book about Suez. (Nutting resigned from Eden’s government, as Robin Cook did from Blair’s.) The same is true of Iraq. Both wars tell us hard truths about the Middle East – and about ourselves – if we are willing to grasp them.
The five great disasters of British foreign policy in the last seventy years were all in the Middle East – Palestine (1948), Iran (1953), Egypt (1956), Aden (1967) and Iraq (2003). Two were fateful withdrawals (Palestine and Aden) from situations which Britain was unable to manage, and as such were painful imperial humiliations. Three were fateful interventions – the overthrow (by covert means) of a popular prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadeq; the attempted overthrow (through military means) of Nasser; and the overthrow (through invasion and occupation) of Saddam Hussein – which, whatever their short-term purposes, led to a train of unwanted consequences.
Regime change, in other words, has a history; it was not invented after 9/11. In Europe’s imperial heyday, toppling rulers was taken for granted. By the time of Suez, as Eden discovered, it had become an anachronism (world opinion would not sanction it, and its short-term benefits were usually outweighed by longer-term costs). By the twenty-first century it should have become (at least in its full-blown form, à la Iraq) unthinkable.
Be careful of what you get into, and be careful of what you get out of, a seasoned American diplomat, Ryan Crocker, has warned. It sounds banal. But how often has the warning been heeded? The Middle East seems to serve as a standing invitation to outside meddling of the most ignorant kind.
As to Britain, still struggling to define its post-imperial identity, the Iraq war has been deeply corrosive. As Neal Ascherson argued with eloquent passion on its fifth anniversary, the war damaged the very fabric of our politics: we were lied to; we did not know who to trust; official reports were dismissed as whitewash. Now, finally, more than a dozen years after the invasion of Iraq, and at inordinate expense, we have the Chilcot report. Is a spoonful of catharsis too much to hope for?
This piece was originally published on Open Democracy.
Roger Hardy worked for more than twenty years as a Middle East analyst with the BBC World Service. He is the author of The Muslim Revolt (2010) and is a Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies in Oxford. His most recent book, The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East, was published by Hurst in August 2016.