When the Relationship Went Sour: Syria and the Eisenhower Administration

By Lesch, David W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

When the Relationship Went Sour: Syria and the Eisenhower Administration


Lesch, David W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


In the summer of 1919, Henry Churchill King, president of Oberlin College, and Chicago businessman and Democratic Party activist Charles R. Crane--that is, the King-Crane Commission--traveled to Syria, Lebanon, Anatolia, and Palestine to meet with local representatives. He was to assess for the victorious Entente delegates gathering in Paris the wishes of the indigenous populations regarding independence in the wake of the defeat and breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. In Syria, an independent state was the overwhelming first choice; however, if independence had to be delayed, the Syrians clear second option was to be put under an American mandate (with an equally clear desire not to be placed under British or, especially, French supervision). Regardless of the fact that the commission's findings were almost totally ignored by the delegates in Paris, which resulted in a French mandate in Syria, the initial expressions of the Syrian population for an American mandate indicated the respect and admiration most Syrians had for the United States at this time, based on the professed Wilsonian commitment to self-determination and the perception that the United States had not been stained by an imperialist past.(1)

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Syrian troops could be seen stationed alongside U.S. soldiers allied together to eject Iraq from its occupation of Kuwait. Granted, the Syrian force was little more than symbolic. It was present not so much for Syria's willingness to befriend the United States but for its animosity toward Iraq. This episode, coinciding with the end of the cold war, signaled the beginning of a less confrontational relationship between Damascus and Washington, exemplified by Syria's participation in the Arab-Israeli peace process brokered by the United States. This more cordial relationship following the Gulf War, however, has been anything but characteristic of the relationship between the two nations over the past forty years. As a function of its cold war alliance with the Soviet bloc and its traditional position as the most vehemently anti-Israeli Arab state, Syria has been perceived by Washington as an implacable foe for most of the period since World War II. This antagonistic relationship evolved during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a period that compelled Syria to adopt policies inimical to U.S. interests and one that still makes a complete U.S.-Syrian rapprochement difficult. It was certainly a far cry from the promising beginning apparent in 1919.

Eisenhower Offers a "New Look"

The Eisenhower administration came to power in 1953, with the intention of implementing its New Look foreign policy in an attempt to correct what it viewed were the deficiencies inherent in the approach of the preceding administration of Harry S. Truman. The latter's foreign policy was essentially defined in the policy paper commonly referred to as NSC-68 (National Security Resolution no. 68), outlining global "containment" of communism. Containing the Soviet Union from expanding its influence beyond that which already existed was the paramount foreign policy objective in both administrations; however, the means by which this was to be accomplished changed when Eisenhower became president. This change had an important impact on the Middle East, and on Syria in particular, affecting the political dynamics that were already producing tensions in the area at the regional and domestic levels.

Following the "loss" of China in 1949 and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, the Republican Party launched a vocal attack on the Truman administration for "allowing" the former to occur as a result of its acceptance of the status quo division of the bipolar world, and in the latter case, for its strategic conception that gave the communists, the initiative in fomenting trouble anywhere it so chose, requiring a costly American military posture to symmetrically respond to these advances.

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