Brooks: Hagel Likes Ike - For the Wrong Reason

Thursday, January 31, 2013
By: RJC Executive Director Matthew Brooks

It turns out that Chuck Hagel is a great admirer of President Dwight Eisenhower. Unfortunately, what Hagel most likes about Ike was arguably Eisenhower's least admirable act--his bullying of Israel and his demarche to Britain and France, all in the service of rescuing of Egypt's dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

"Eisenhower Republican" is not a label enjoying much currency nowadays, but Senator Hagel "means it" when he describes himself that way, according to Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius in a column of January 27. According to Ignatius, Hagel kept a bust of Ike in his Senate office "for more than a dozen years," a portrait of Eisenhower adorns the wall of his current office, and he purchased three dozen copies of the recent book, Eisenhower 1956, to give to, among others, President Obama, Vice President Biden, and the man whose former post he hopes to occupy, ex-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Ignatius writes.

The book about Ike, written by David A. Nichols, describes how three of America's staunchest allies, Great Britain, France, and Israel, took military action against a pro-Soviet, terrorism-sponsoring dictator, Nasser--and how Eisenhower forced them to end their operation before they could finish off Moscow's client.

For the West, late 1956 was a grim time, just a few years after the Korean stand-off, and in the midst of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. For Israel, the period preceding the October 1956 Mideast war was an agonizing time, with attacks on southern Israeli border towns by Gaza-based terrorists (not so different from events in our own time), armed and financed by Egypt, claiming the lives of about 250 Israelis between 1949 and 1956, and leaving as many as 1,000 wounded.

One of many incidents that left Israel shaken involved young Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff of the Israeli Army. He visited one of the border kibbutzim, Nahal Oz, in April 1956, and was deeply impressed by the courage and idealism of the pioneers, in particular a young couple whom he met, Ro'i and Amira Rothberg. Two days later, Rothberg was ambushed by terrorists--one of whom doubled as an Egyptian police sergeant--who clubbed him to death and gouged out his eyes. At Rothberg's graveside, a somber Dayan declared, "The longing for peace deafened his ears and he failed to hear the voice of the murderer waiting in ambush."

In Nasser's eyes – as in the eyes of today's Hamas rulers in Gaza – the killers were patriots. "You have proven by our deeds that you are heroes upon whom our entire country can depend," the Egyptian leader declared in an address to a terrorist unit. "The spirit with which you enter the land of the enemy must spread."

Nasser's sponsorship of the Gaza terrorists was only one part of the problem. In May 1955, he signed a huge arms deal with the Soviet Union. Egypt would receive MiG 15 bombers, submarines, antiaircraft guns, artillery, several hundred tanks, and more. Nasser's move overwhelmed Israel's previous military edge over the Arab states, and, given the Egyptian government's oft-declared goal of annihilating the Jewish state, posed a grave threat to Israel.

The British and French, too, were becoming increasingly worried about Nasser, and for good reason. A heavily-armed Soviet surrogate in the heart of the Middle East was an obvious recipe for trouble. Nasser's belligerent speeches and sponsorship of terrorism confirmed fears in London and Paris that the Egyptians were on the warpath. The final straw came in July 1956, when Nasser tore up the Anglo-Egyptian treaty providing for a phased British withdrawal from the Suez Canal (to be completed in 1968) and seized the canal.

Throughout this period, Israel repeatedly appealed to the Eisenhower administration and the United Nations to intervene, to no avail. It became "obvious that [the U.S. and the other Western powers] did not intend to make any effort to uphold Israel's rights," the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Abba Eban, later wrote. Eban recalled "many stormy discussions" with Eisenhower administration officials, who insisted that the Egypt-Soviet arms deal was "more promise than fulfillment."

"Embattled, blockaded, and besieged," as Eban put it, Israel found itself faced with a choice not altogether different from what it faces today with regard to Iran: strike first and risk world condemnation, or wait and risk its very existence. In late October, 1956, the Israelis, the British, and the French undertook a three-pronged strike against Nasser. While the Israelis quickly defeated the terrorists in Gaza and captured the Sinai peninsula, the British and French retook the Suez Canal.

But Eisenhower was furious. Hoping to woo Egypt to become pro-American, and worried about Soviet reaction to the attack, the U.S. president successfully pressured the British and French to withdraw by December. The Israelis, however, were reluctant to leave and face a return to the perils they faced before the war. 'Eisenhower 1956' quotes Ike telling Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: "Foster, you tell 'em [the Israelis], goddamn it, that we're going to apply sanctions, we're going to the United Nations, we're going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing."

Under this pressure, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion finally withdrew from Sinai and Gaza in March 1957, in exchange for a U.S. promise to secure passage for Israeli ships and the stationing of United Nations peacekeeping forces to prevent Nasser from remilitarizing the Sinai. A decade later, Nasser, still a Soviet client, summarily expelled the UN forces, whereupon the White House claimed it could not find Eisenhower's promise about protecting Israeli shipping. Israel learned a bitter lesson from that experience, a lesson it has not forgotten.

And there is a telling postscript to this story. According to businessman and diplomat Max Fisher, Eisenhower privately remarked to him, in 1965: "You know, Max, looking back at Suez, I regret what I did. I never should have pressured Israel to evacuate the Sinai." Likewise, Richard Nixon told Fisher's biographer, Peter Golden, that Eisenhower said he "regretted" pressuring Israel in 1956 and was convinced he had made "a mistake" in doing so.

Sadly, instead of learning from Eisenhower's admitted error, Senator Hagel seems to adore him for it. The senators at Hagel's confirmation hearing may want to consider the danger that if confirmed as Secretary of Defense, Hagel will be in a position to help repeat history, by influencing the current president to pressure Israel into one-sided concessions and extend a welcoming hand to another generation of Gaza terrorists.

Matthew Brooks is the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.