Academic journal article The Historian

Suez Reconsidered: Anthony Eden's Orientalism and the Suez Crisis

Academic journal article The Historian

Suez Reconsidered: Anthony Eden's Orientalism and the Suez Crisis

Article excerpt

SIR ANTHONY EDEN (1897-1977), First Earl of Avon, Prime Minister, and foreign minister, is best remembered both for his masterful conduct of foreign policy across three decades and for his role in the debacle of Suez while Prime Minister in 1956. While his activities from the 1930s to the 1950s are often taken as objects of study in themselves, (1) far fewer specialists consider Eden's early life as having had a profound influence upon his conduct during the Suez crisis, and even fewer still spend more than a few paragraphs on his collegiate education. (2) It is somewhat perplexing that this is so, for in the light of recent scholarship on Orientalism, Eden's training--in Oriental Languages at Christ Church, Oxford between 1919 and 1922, when he took a first-class honors degree--takes on a whole new dimension of importance. While there was no single overriding factor behind Eden's statecraft during those fateful months in 1956, considering Eden's Orientalism offers a new insight both into his beliefs about the Arab world in general, and his dealings with Egypt, and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in particular, before and during the Suez crisis.

Traditionally, no connection has been drawn between Eden's time at Oxford and his later political career; Victor Rothwell has noted that "the quest to find evidence in Eden's early life and his private life which 'explains' his political views and actions is frustrating," before going on to devote half a sentence to Eden's educational background. (3) Sidney Aster, in his brief but well-balanced Anthony Eden, comes closest by noting that "[h]is studies at Oxford gave Eden an abiding interest in eastern affairs and a feeling of complete confidence when confronted with the problems of that area," while however noting that Eden "carried this learning very lightly." (4) David Carlton similarly hypothesizes that Eden was "no doubt led by his studies to feel sympathy for Turkey, Persia, and various Arab states." (5) Other writers, however, have been content to dismiss the folly of 1956 as a result of Eden's deteriorating health stemming from a botched gall-bladder operation in 1953, his ineptitude in Cold War politics (a shockingly baseless assertion), or his personal rage at Nasser. (6) Such explanations of foreign policy failure not only downplay Nasser's own achievements, but they also alternately paint Eden as sinister, incapable, or intolerant, of which he was none. Rather, Eden made the error of misunderstanding his foe, and in so doing locked himself into a position where the only possible end was defeat for himself or for Nasser.

This study seeks a more complete understanding of the Eden-Nasser dynamic. It does so first by exploring the ideas of Orientalism and Orientalists; second, by discussing some of the experiences from Eden's university years that reflect his education in classics rather than the reality of the Near East; third, by looking at Eden's early career up to and including his first and only meeting with Nasser in 1955; and finally, by discussing how misunderstanding led to intransigence--the same intransigence that led to collusion and then collision. As with any work that postulates intangibles (like attitudes) as prudential factors, the evidence must be circumstantial and the logical conclusions tentative, but, if only as possible avenues for further research, they are surely worth offering.

Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism in 1977, a major shift has occurred in the study of imperialism. Said's thesis, that a self-propagating Orientalist school of thought created a European portrait of non-Europeans--the essentialized "Other"--as a negative mirror of themselves, has been applied widely despite criticism of its monolithic tone. (7) Orientalists, Said asserts, formed a self-propagating school that deigned only the self-defined commanding heights of culture (poetry, literature, and antiquities) as worthy of study, while relegating the larger mass of people to obscurity and invisibility as degenerate factors. …

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