SUEZ, 1956: A Successful Naval Operation Compromised by Inept Political Leadership

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This article was originally undertaken to note the fiftieth anniversary of the Suez Affair, the November 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, which, although originally headed for rapid success, was quickly halted by a combination of political and economic pressure. As work progressed it became apparent that much of what happened fifty years ago, and the political and military thinking (or lack thereof) behind it, has relevance for today's strategic planners. Indeed, as one contemplates the present situation in Iraq, Santayana's oft-quoted axiom-that those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it-remains extraordinarily relevant. Suez was a war of choice in a time of peace, one that, we now know, was largely justified by clandestine political arrangements. It was extraordinarily divisive both politically and among the military leadership, the latter going to unusual lengths in their attempts to halt it. The politicians responsible, anxious to sustain their fictitious casus belli in the face of rapidly moving events, interfered with tactical operations in a manner that went well beyond the political/military relationship normal in democracies. Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from Suez is that flawed political decisions are likely to lead to flawed operational strategy. Nevertheless, as we look at the actual military performance during the invasion, taking into account the constraints imposed, we see near copybook performance by the airmen, commandos, and paratroopers involved. Suez goes down in history as a bad event and carries a bad name, yet froma half-century's perspective it appears that those who fought there, however briefly, performed well. It is to recognize this point that this article concentrates on the operational side of the affair as much as, or more than, on the political.

Following the end ofWorldWar II theMiddle East became an area of increasing tension.Many factors were responsible, but the most significant was the continuing conflict between the new state of Israel and its Arab neighbors. In 1950, Britain, France, and the United States issued a Tripartite Declaration in which they agreed to take action to prevent any violation of the 1947 armistice lines separating Israel from its Arab neighbors. Intended to defuse the situation, the declaration did little to calm tensions, but it did become a central factor in Washington policy making. In the fall of 1955,Moscow and Cairo concluded a major arms contract, at which point relations between Egypt and the West started to deteriorate rapidly. Nevertheless, at the end of the year the United States, Britain, and theWorld Bank offered to fund construction of Egypt's prestigious Aswan High Dam. However, Gamil Abdel-Nasser (Egypt's new head of state) and his proposed dam were equally unpopular with Congress, and on 19 July 1956 the financing offer was withdrawn. A week later Nasser announced that the Suez Canal would be nationalized. The French and British, its principal owners and users, deemed this unacceptable, fearing restrictions on the use of this vital international waterway.1

Although Anglo-French diplomacy throughout the affair appeared at the time to be primarily directed at regaining the canal, events following the nationalization owemuch to the fact that PrimeMinister Anthony Eden of Britain and PrimeMinister GuyMollet of France wanted also to eliminate Nasser, believing, respectively, that he was undermining British prestige in the Middle East and providing support for the Algerians in their rebellion against France. Such feelings resonated withmuch of popular opinion in the two countries; comparisons with Hitler andMussolini were rife. Removing Nasser from power, however, if a potentially valuable collateral outcome of a successful recovery, represented a confusing alternative priority for military planners. Even though the two governments decided within days after nationalization to use military force, they never properly defined their political objectives-regime change or canal access- and could thus give little clear guidance to their military staffs. …