By Felicity Arbuthnot
In the U.S., the thought of another humiliation on the scale of Viet Nam sends shivers down spines in the corridors of power. In Britain it is the ‘S’ word: Suez, Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s ill fated foray of exactly fifty years ago this month. As the precise anniversary (29th October) approaches, another Anthony (Blair) is in deep trouble and the parallels are startling. From health to hubris, from deceit to dizzying arrogance, the paths of the two Anthonys seem to converge.
In July 1956, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalized the Country’s Suez Canal Company, which operated the Canal, a vital artery for world oil distribution which, for transportation of oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe, cut eleven thousand nautical miles off the journey. Two thirds of Europe’s oil was passing through the Canal by 1955. Israel also had an interest, wanting passage for Israeli shipping, so effectively, Israel, France and Britain entered into an agreement to invade Egypt. A secret meeting to consolidate plans was held at Sevres, outside Paris (so secret that the minutes were destroyed and the discussions did not come to light for some years.)
A plan was devised that Israel would invade, Britain and France would then intervene, placing their forces in control of the Canal Zone. The trio’s project was named: ‘Operation Muscateer’. Eden attempted to influence British public opinion for a new colonial adventure, comparing Nasser to Benito Mussolini – and Adolf Hitler – as later Bush and Blair with Presidents Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and now Iran’s Ahmadinejad. Unlike Bush, however, his predecessor, President Eisenhower, a man with military experience, warned against the attack by telegram to Eden on 5th August 1956 of ‘.. the unwisdom of even contemplating the use of military force.’ But Eden was set on regime change, telegraphing back of the need for: ‘The removal of Nasser and the installation in Egypt of a regime less hostile to the West … must also rank high in our objectives.’
Another uppity Arab had committed the ultimate sin, claiming his country’s assets for his country. British Cabinet minutes for 27th July 1956, of which even the current Anthony could be proud in their dismissal of rulers rights to that they own, read:
‘The Cabinet agreed that we should be on weak ground in basing our resistance on the narrow argument that Colonel Nasser had acted illegally. The Suez Canal Company was registered as an Egyptian company, under Egyptian law and Colonel Nasser had indicated that he intended to compensate the shareholders at ruling market prices. From a … legal point of view, his action amounted to no more than buying out the shareholders …. Our argument must be that the Canal was an important international asset and facility (that) Egypt could not be allowed to exploit for a purely internal purpose. The Egyptians had not the technological ability to manage it effectively … It was a piece of Egyptian property but an international asset of the highest importance and should be managed as an international trust.’ And: ‘We should not allow ourselves to become involved in legal quibbles about the rights of the Egyptian government to nationalise what is technically an Egyptian company.’ Breathtaking Blairism if ever there was. Further, Minister of Defence, Walter Monckton, wrote in his memoirs of : ‘ The Prime Minister only taking into his confidence those with whom he agreed.’ An alleged dominant Blair trait.
Then as now, a number of even those scampered across the deck and plopped into the water, abandoning ship, leaving the Captain to sink with it.
In spite of the fact that Britain had just six weeks of oil reserves, the invasion commenced on 29th October 1956. It was : ‘..successful from a military point of view but a political disaster.’ Eisenhower forced a ceasefire by threatening to sell off US reserves of the British pound which would have precipitated the collapse of UK currency. Nasser’s standing soared – as did pan-Arab nationalism – that of Britain and France waned. Nasser blocked the Canal, petrol rationing was introduced, France slunk off to Lebanon and the British pitched up in Iraq again. Eden resigned. As ‘Gulf war syndrome’ has become synonymous with those serving in 1991 and now in the region, Margaret Thatcher refers to ‘Suez syndrome’ becoming synonymous with political error.
Why do those smart enough to become Prime Minister make such disastrous errors of judgment? In ‘When Illness Strikes the Leader’, eminent psychiatrists Jerrold Post and Robert Robins analyze in fascinating – and chilling – studies from George 111 to Ronald Reagan show the physically and psychologically frail making massive decisions. Eden ‘became highly irritable’, suffered ‘impaired judgment’ was hyper vigilant, suspicious, aggressive and hostile as the crisis dragged on. Highly strung, the writers comment, international complexities reduced him to less than five hours sleep a night and ‘.. this formerly moderate, thoughtful statesman (became) erratic and injudicious, undoubtedly contributing to his disastrous leadership during the Suez affair … he talked ceaselessly and was given to hysterical outbursts whenever Gamel Abdul Nasser’s name was mentioned.’ Bush and Blair’s hysterical claims re Saddam Hussein cannot fail to come to mind.
‘The initially mildly impaired leader, able to work in concert with the inner circle, will over time, become progressively impaired (with wide fluctuations) increasing irritability and rigidity (may lead to ) those in the inner circle who attempt to counter excesses being replaced with the more compliant’, write Post and Robbins.
Last week, political commentator Peter Oborne wrote the unthinkable: ‘While it is very rare for a British Prime Minister to crack up in office, is is not completely unknown.’ Citing Eden he continues : ‘It can now be stated with some confidence that Tony Blair is undergoing the same kind of moral, political and emotional collapse as Eden ..’ He quotes friends who say Blair cannot cope any more, is ‘exhausted’ and ‘Tony has never had any real stamina … he has never been strong.’ (With friends like these ..) Reportedly he may be ringing new age therapist Carole Caplin late to the night and : ‘..the civil service machine has ceased to respond to commands from Downing Street’, with the Prime Minister ‘disconnected from reality.’ If proof was needed of this ‘disconnection’ it is Anthony Blair’s continued insistence that his foreign policy has nothing to do with an increased terrorist threat.
The Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannatt has detonated the political equivalent of a nuke in Whitehall by saying the invasion of Iraq is a disaster, we are unwelcome in Muslim countries as invaders and the ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ P.M.’s part in the Iraq invasion ‘ … effectively kicked down the door.’ One soldier in Iraq emailed a military blog and requested that when Blair was in front of the wall, he pull the trigger. Few others said anything much kinder. Iraq’s horrors make Suez pale, but as with Suez, the world has only contempt for our actions. And as Anthony Blair looks to join Anthony Eden in history’s condemnation, October 29th and the fiftieth anniversary approaches, the Blair projects are in their dying throes – and history sure does irony.
-Felicity Arbuthnot. is a journalist and activist who has visited the Arab and Muslim world on numerous occasions. She has written and broadcast on Iraq, her coverage of which was nominated for several awards. She was also senior researcher for John Pilger’s award-winning documentary Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq.