From the moment he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama tried to repair America’s standing in the Middle East by demonstrating his sincere concern for the grievances and aspirations of Arab peoples. He gave interviews to Arab news outlets. He issued New Year’s greetings to the people of Iran. He delivered a speech in Cairo in which he acknowledged America’s past wrongs, and he called on Israel to accept the legitimacy of Palestinian demands for a state. Mr. Obama did almost everything liberal critics of the policies of George W. Bush wished him to do. And he failed. Or rather, he found that the Arab world was afflicted with pathologies that placed it beyond the reach of his words and deeds.
Had Mr. Obama had the chance to read “Ike’s Gamble,” Michael Doran’s account of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s statecraft before, during and after the Suez Crisis of 1956, he might have saved his breath. Mr. Doran, a scholar and former State and Defense Department official in the George W. Bush administration, describes a seasoned, wily and prudent president who aligned the United States with what he understood to be the legitimate hopes of Arab peoples, even at the cost of damaging relations with America’s closest allies—and made a hash of things.
Mr. Doran illuminates a narrative with which very few non-specialists will be familiar. His tale begins at the moment in the early 1950s when America was reaching its zenith. The United Kingdom was reluctantly acknowledging the end of empire, and the United States was filling the vacuum in the Middle East. Neither Eisenhower nor his fervently anti-communist secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, understood this transition in strictly geopolitical terms; both believed that the liberating American faith in national self-determination and consent of the governed would supplant Britain’s self-aggrandizing colonialism. Both morality and national interest dictated such a course. As Dulles said in a prime-time televised address in 1953: “We cannot afford to be distrusted by millions who could be sturdy friends of freedom.”
The familiar story—and it is all too true—is that Cold War competition led the United States to side with friendly but despised dictators in the region like Iran’s Reza Shah Pahlavi. Yet at the same moment that the U.S. was plotting to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader in favor of the shah, leading policy makers were infatuated with Egypt’s immensely popular revolutionary leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Eisenhower and Dulles saw in Nasser the kind of nationalist leader whom America needed to recruit to its side in order to demonstrate that postcolonial nations were better off in the democratic than in the communist camp.