Suez and Saddam

Avi Shlaim

The Guardian, 19 February 2003

The failure to stand up to Adolf Hitler is increasingly being invoked as a reason for standing up to Saddam Hussein.  In a clear allusion to the appeasement of the 1930s, Tony Blair insisted that, “all our history – especially British History – points to the lesson that if international demands are not backed up with force, the result is greater insecurity.”  But to compare Saddam to Hitler is to greatly inflate his importance and the danger he poses to international order.  A much closer parallel is the Suez crisis of 1956.  Anthony Nutting, who resigned over Suez, called his book No End of a Lesson.  Tony Blair would be well advised to ponder some of these lessons before embarking on another imperial adventure in the Middle East.

Anthony Eden thought that he was applying the lessons of the 1930s in dealing with Gamal Abdel Nasser and the result was a fiasco that brought his own career crashing down.  Eden demonised Nasser, personalised the issues, and went to the length of colluding with France and Israel with the aim of knocking Nasser off his perch.  The chiefs of staff had deep misgivings about the war.  One senior officer exclaimed: “The prime minister has gone bananas.  He has ordered us to attack Egypt!”  Britain attacked Egypt without the authority of the UN and it was roundly condemned for its aggression.  There is, however, one important difference between 1956 and the current crisis.  Over Suez the US upheld the authority of the UN and led the pack against the law-breakers.  Today the Bush administration is hell-bent on the use of force to topple Saddam, with or without UN sanction.

Tony Blair would be taking a huge gamble if he ignores public opinion and joins George Bush in an imperialist war to oust the Iraqi dictator.  Wars rarely go according to plan and they invariably have unintended consequences.  The Suez war brought to an end Britain’s moment in the Middle East.  Eighteen months after the attack on Egypt, Britain witnessed the defenestration of her royal friends in Baghdad.  A war on Iraq today could go badly wrong, result in heavy casualties, fuel terrorism, and end up by destabilising the entire region.  As the moment of truth approaches, Tony Blair would do well to reflect on the lessons of Suez.  Politicians, like everyone else, are free to repeat the mistakes of the past, but it is not mandatory to do so.