Dammed If You Do, Dammed If You Don't: The Eisenhower Administration and the Aswan Dam

Article excerpt

This article analyzes the Aswan Dam decision in terms of the interaction between individual perceptions and institutional priorities in the formulation of US foreign policy. The conceptual framework is drawn from the work of Richard Cottam and Richard Herrmann. After a background discussion of the history of both the Eisenhower and Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser Administrations, the article presents an analysis of the Eisenhower Administration's deliberations regarding the Aswan Dam decision. This analysis shows that US decision-makers interpreted Egypt and Nasser's actions according to a set of pre-established perceptions which clearly resulted in policies that contradicted the best interests of the US.

In July 1956, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced the United States' refusal to fund the Aswan Dam in a manner that was intentionally humiliating to Egyptian President Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser. After explaining his decision to Egyptian Ambassador Dr. Ahmad Husayn, Dulles patronizingly suggested that "Egypt should get along for the time being with projects less monumental than the Aswan Dam."1 This decision and its execution began a chain of events that would see war break out three months later, the severe decline in international prestige of Britain and France (two of America's closest Cold War allies), and the growth of Soviet influence over Egypt that would last until the early 1970s.

This episode in US-Egyptian relations is considered to be critical to understanding the subsequent Suez Crisis and the Eisenhower Doctrine.2 Existing analyses of the policy have explored this decision in terms of the greater US reaction towards revolutionary Egypt, Cold War strategic considerations, and with respect to the relationship between Secretary Dulles and Congress.3 Literature addressing the adverse outcomes of US policy towards Egypt or the Middle East at large tends to focus on the failures of US officials to interpret the local concerns of actors in the Middle East and the tendency of US officials to view Arabs as an "Oriental" and inherently emotional group of people, while others focus on the undue deference to Israeli interests in the region.4 This article, on the other hand, endeavors to explore the Aswan Dam decision on its own. Though we acknowledge that other factors may have contributed to US policy towards Egypt, this article will argue that in the case of the Aswan Dam, the Eisenhower Administration was primarily bound by conflicting international and domestic priorities which encouraged decision-makers to adopt a conceptualization of the situation which eased these differences by selectively interpreting available information regarding Nasser and Egypt. Decision-makers, in short, developed a schema to describe Nasser in terms that would provide a rationale for US policy towards Egypt that was geared to prevent that policy from conflicting with other domestic and international priorities. Because the schema was at odds with the objective facts of the situation, the resulting policy decisions led to disastrous consequences for the United States.

This article will analyze the Aswan Dam decision in terms of the interaction between individual perception and institutional priorities in the formulation of US foreign policy. The conceptual framework is drawn from the work of Richard Cottam and Richard Herrmann. After a background discussion of the history of both the Eisenhower and Nasser Administrations, the article will present an analysis of inter-administration deliberations regarding the Aswan Dam decision. This analysis will show that US decision-makers adopted a particular schema to interpret Egypt and Nasser despite available evidence that clearly contradicted the terms of the schema. The article analyzes the Eisenhower Administration's initial strategy of engagement with the Third World, the discussions on how to execute this strategy vis-à-vis the Aswan Dam, and finally the institutional awareness of adverse consequences to US interests should the Dam not be funded. …