The Forgotten Alternative

From the Suez to the Gulf there's more to statecraft than meets the eye.

By Harriet Friedmann | 1991-03-01 12:00:00

In the Middle East crisis of '90-'91, Canada has so far abandoned the internationally respected peacekeeping tradition it established in the Middle East crisis of 1956. In the Suez crisis, Lester Pearson invented the idea of a United Nations Peacekeeping force and convinced the Secretary General, Dag Hammerskjold, it would work. As a result, the U.N. prevented war.

In the Suez crisis Canada refused to support the futile attempt by Britain and France to stem their decline as Great Powers. Canada rejected the British idea of placing a U.N. flag on the British-French force already sailing from Cyprus. In the Persian Gulf crisis Canada is helping the U.S. in an equally futile reassertion of global military power. Unlike France and Britain, the U.S. has got the imprimatur of the United Nations.

The Suez Crisis began on July 26, 1956 when Nasser, in an impassioned denunciation of "imperialists," proclaimed the nationalization of the privately owned Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal, a vital artery of world commerce. Except for Egypt's blockade of Israel, Nasser assured free and efficient access to the Canal and compensation to its shareholders. He kept this pledge until invasion made it impossible.

On August 2, Britain and France began plans to invade. The U.S. strenuously opposed military intervention -despite Nasser's recent introduction of Soviet arms to the region; despite the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising at the very moment of the Suez crisis; despite Egypt's five-year blockade of Israel; and despite cancellation of the massive Aswan Dam project. However, the U.S. was unable to find a resolution.

Like the U.S. today, France and Britain wanted the U.N. mantle for their military force. However, with U.S. and Soviet opposition, they expected rejection. On September 12, they took the Canal issue to the United Nations Security. In private negotiations, a proposal was developed. This satisfied all declared interests in the Suez Canal. On October 13, the Security Council adopted the Six-Point Plan. Egypt agreed, but France and Britain did not.

Britain and France wanted to invade all along. Even U.S. financial pressure on Britain's fragile economy would not convince them otherwise. More than four months before the Suez Crisis, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden spurted out his intentions to a member of the Foreign Office: "But what's all this nonsense about isolating Nasser or 'neutralizing' him, as you put it? I want him destroyed, can't you understand?" In reply to objections, he said, "But I don't want an alternative.. .And I don't give a damn if there's anarchy and chaos in Egypt."

Instead, in a secret three-day meeting beginning October 22 at Sevres, France, while the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, the leaders of France, Britain and Israel colluded to invade Egypt. The governments of Britain, France and Israel all expected the U.S. to accept the invasion as a fait accompli. They saw that the U.N. had no military backing to its resolutions -a situation Canada helped correct within a few days.

As planned, Israel attacked the Egyptian army in Sinai on October 29. Israel justified the attack as retaliation for violations of U.N. resolutions barring guerrilla raids and blockade. But Israel could only attack with the guarantee of French-British naval and air support. Also according to plan, the next day Britain and France delivered an ultimatum to Egypt and Israel to withdraw ten miles from the Canal and on Egypt to accept temporary UK-French occupation of the Canal. As expected, Egypt refused. The French-British air forces bombed Canal sites the next day and two days later Israel occupied Gaza and Sinai.

In 1956 the U.N. refused to make Britain and France the agents of the United Nations. Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent sharply rejected Eden's suggestion to place the U.N. flag over the British-French force on its way from Cyprus. In skillful negotiations, the Minister of external Affairs Lester B. Pearson found a way to give Britain and France a way to satisfy the anti-colonial majority in the General Assembly. This gave Britain and France a way to comply without losing face by withdrawing their national forces in favour of a truly international force. As U.S. State Department official Robert Bowie wrote later, "Pearson offered a constructive alternative that turned the indignation of Arabs and Asians [against France, Britain and Israeli towards support of a novel scheme of direct United Nations peacekeeping which side-stepped the question of blame and guilt."

France and Britain were forced into peace. In fact they would not have been any better able to hold on to their colonies by destroying Nasser than by withdrawing. Through revolution or negotiation, the whole region was soon independent.

The U.S. cannot replace the economic power it is losing to Germany and Japan with military power. The Suez crisis confirmed the decline of France and Great Britain as Great Powers without a war. The U.S. is playing a similar game in the Middle East now, with no prospect of success, war or peace. Just as the U.S. economy received its first dose of chronic inflation, negative trade balances, and a bloated military sector from its pursuit of elusive victory in Vietnam, its economy and Canada's will suffer from war in the Persian Gulf.

A political resolution for the whole Middle East was pressed by Canada in 1956, but refused by the U.S. and the United Nations. Consequently, Canada abstained on the U.N. ceasefire vote.

Explaining the abstention in a speech to the U.N., Pearson said, "Surely we should have used this opportunity to link a cease-fire to the absolute necessity of a political settlement in Palestine and for Suez [dispute]. We need action, not only to end the fighting but to make the peace."

Mr. Clark, let's remember the fine moments in our history.

Harriet Friedmann is a professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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