Mary Dejevsky: The shadow of Suez hangs heavy today

The warnings they sound about the lopsided relationship with Washington are the same
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The Independent Online

Mine is the generation that grew up in the shadow of Suez. The Second World War ("the war", as it was always known) was the blight on our parents' youth; our psychological inheritance was Britain's humiliation at Suez.

And for years, that was all Suez seemed to be: an ill-defined national humiliation that supplied the assumed context for almost everything out there in the wider world. Again and again, you would catch the name in overheard conversations, along with phrases such as "must never happen again", "Eden wasn't up to the job" - and, with barbed English anger, "The Americans sold us down the river". I dimly recall "east of Suez" as a point argued at stultifying length on the BBC, usually accompanied by the word "withdrawal".

Only much later did I learn what all the fuss was about and why Suez became the national trauma it did. It was soon enough, though, to appreciate the choicer parallels between then and now. And while it is hardly Tony Blair's fault that the latest low point in Iraq coincides so exactly with the 50th anniversary of Suez, the many echoes suggest that Suez might not have purged quite as many demons from Britain's foreign policy as many believed at the time. Indeed, it might have even have conjured up one more.

The Suez crisis began when the young and forceful President of Egypt, Gamal Abdul Nasser, seized control of the Suez canal after the US and Britain refused to help fund the Aswan dam. Britain and France mounted a joint operation, hatched secretly with Israel, to regain control of the canal and overthrow Nasser. When the operation ran into difficulty, President Eisenhower refused to support it, ordering Britain to withdraw and threatening to withhold crucial credits to the strapped British government unless it did.

The parallels with Iraq are many, if not a complete match. Like Saddam Hussein with his refusal to give up even fictional weapons of mass destruction, Nasser seemed to nurture ambitions that threatened vital western interests: the canal that carried their warships and their oil tankers and linked Britain and France to residual parts of their respective empires. Then, as before the Iraq war, the would-be interventionists tried to obtain UN cover, dubiously claiming that they were acting in self-defence: the legitimacy of both operations was always in doubt. Then, as before Iraq, a good deal of secrecy obscured the British government's decision making. And then, as now, post-invasion planning was lamentable.

Nor do the parallels stop there. At Suez, as in Iraq, the western countries fatally overestimated their own capabilities. They seemed not to appreciate how much they had been weakened by the war they had ended barely a decade before. They also miscalculated the likely response of the population in the countries they were invading - and showed great reluctance to heed the advice of respected experts.

They failed to anticipate, too, how far a failed operation would change the regional balance of power. Britain and France withdrew from Egypt, having bolstered the very leader they had sought to depose. In Iraq, while Saddam Hussein was quickly ousted, Iran and Iraq's militant Shia clerics have moved into the vacuum. The outcome was the very opposite of what was intended. And both 50 years ago and now, the immediate crisis diverted the West from what might have proved to be more positive intervention elsewhere: in support of the Hungarian Uprising then, and preventing Afghanistan from falling back into Taliban clutches now.

There are, of course, crucial differences. Fifty years ago, the wider background was the Cold War, Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and communism in the ascendant. President Bush might like to see his "war on terror" in a similar light, but in Europe most of us would probably beg to differ. A second key difference is that the invaders then were Britain and France, both clinging hopefully to the relics of empire. The US, fearful for its oil supplies and naval reach, was instrumental in ending the conflict. Fifty years on, the US was the chief instigator, with Britain as a very junior partner.

With hindsight, the Suez crisis fed all Britain's post-war neuroses. It demonstrated once and for all that Britain was not the power she had been in 1939. It also illustrated in a particularly cruel way the changed balance in our relations with the United States. And, as the snatches of conversation remembered from childhood suggest, it convinced ordinary Britons that the days of empire were over. We were a medium-sized country that had to accommodate itself to its lesser status. Withdrawal from east of Suez, so contentious at the time, was the logical, and inevitable, consequence.

But Britain's politicians and diplomats learnt another lesson as well. It was that our future lay beneath the sheltering wing of the United States, and that the alliance should never be taken for granted. The modern vernacular expression of this is the instruction given to our man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, before he took up his post. He was to "get up the arse of the White House and stay there". We await more diplomatic memoirs of the crucial year before the invasion of Iraq, but from the outside this looks like a reasonable summary of British policy, as pursued by the Prime Minister as arrangements for invading Iraq were finalised.

Yet perhaps this was the very lesson that Britain should not have drawn from the Suez disaster. Perhaps the more useful lesson might have been that the United States was the coming superpower, that its interests would increasingly diverge from ours, and that, in extremis, Washington was not to be relied upon. We might then have seen our future beckoning from across the Channel rather than the Atlantic and have been more amenable to joining the embryonic European Union. The Treaty of Rome was signed the following year.

Suez and Iraq are separated by half a century, yet the warnings they sound about the wisdom of the inevitably lopsided relationship with Washington are essentially the same. Yet all the time I hear senior diplomats, past and present - yes, and politicians - laud the transatlantic alliance as the natural priority for Britain, and Washington as the capital where the crème de la crème of British diplomacy should continue to be posted. The EU is still on the margins of Britain's diplomatic map.

If we can no longer sustain our own empire, the thinking seems to be, we deserve at least the vicarious status that tugging at American coattails will supply. Must it really take another Suez or another Iraq, to cure our elite of their delusions of global grandeur? Was it not quite enough of a humiliation the first time around?