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The US Middle East Policy During The Suez Canal Crisis


The Suez Crisis, the event in which the rise of the global leadership of the United States was registered, was an understanding of the dynamics of the Middle East after 1950. The nationalism movement created by Egypt during the Nasser period and Arab socialism brought vitality to the region. Britain’s imperialist activities in the Middle East for many years opposed Nasser's administration and also increased tensions in the two opposing sides of the Cold War, the US and Soviet influences in Middle East. The interests of the two superpowers who are in the race in each area have also clashed in the Middle East. In this period, American policy was to cut off Soviet exodus in the Middle East and provide the infrastructure for future goals. The US did not pursue strict policies with the intention of not bringing the Arab states closer to the Soviet side, and even stood in front of Britain to intervene and almost  undertook a mediator mission. However, these policies remained far away from American expectations and the US could not improve its image in the eyes of the Arab states. However, the Suez Crisis raised America’s responsibility outside the European continent and paved the way for the rise in this context.


In the world, for maritime convenience, and for the straits and canals a great deal of military and economic direction has always been interesting. Specifically, the Suez Canal, which meets this direction, is a very strategic point with its ability to link the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea. The canal is a very important symbol for Egypt’s recent history and people. “It started in the mid-19th century on the construction of the “Channel Project” with the concession granted to the French government by Said Pasha of the Governor of Egypt. This project was deceived by the French “Suez Canal Company” established at that time and the right to operate for 99 years was transferred to this company. The canal, which is open to the transit of the vessels of all countries, was sold to the British by Hidiv Ismail in 1875, with 45% of the Egyptian feeling of external borrowing. Thus the administration of the canal was maintained by British-French partnerships. With the Istanbul Treaty signed in 1888, the British had a special status on the channel management. “[1] The economic support of Great Britain over Egypt gradually turned into political patronage.  After World War I, King Fuad, who came to power in 1922, proclaimed the independence of Egypt. However, British troops in Egypt did not withdraw from the country until 1946, leaving the other parts of the country on condition that they have the Suez Canal region in their hands.  “As a result of the coup d’état carried out by the officers led by General Necip and Colonel Nasser in 1952, King Farouk was forced to leave the country and declared the Republic in 1953. Camal Abdel Nasser was elected as the President in the elections held in 1956. President Nasser has established an economic order based on socialist principles in the country and has gradually become one of the founders of the Non-aligned Movement, which has gradually entered into economic, political and cultural relations with the socialist bloc countries.”[2] Nasser, who had a strong personality that inspired love in humans, attained a charismatic character by appealing to Arab nationalism. Nasser’s leadership characteristics have had profound effects on Egypt and other Middle East countries. This intelligent man who has used the unifying feature of nationalism has continued his propaganda with the ideal of “United Arabic Countries” in the Middle East and in fact has become a very important actor in the formation and development of the national consciousness of the people. The leader who undertook the mission of economic development of Egypt, the Aswan Dam aimed at funding the idea and project, and the nationalization of the Suez Canal, has been appreciated by the public and has also strengthened Nasser’s nationalism.  Moreover, the position of Nasser against the Western and imperialist states has strengthened their internal politics.  In order to understand the Suez Canal crisis and its infrastructure, it is necessary to understand the ideology of populist leader Nasser, the political situation of Egypt and the wars of interest of the great powers.

The Cold War Era: The US and Britain, Soviet Union, Egypt

The Second World War (1939-1945), which caused great devastation, weakened continental Europe in particular from the economic and military front. At the end of the war, a bipolar world order was designed by the US and Soviet Russia which countries prepared for world leadership. The race, given by two superpowers in every field, has also continued in the interests of the Middle East. In the period when we could call it democracy and communism, other countries had to make their politics as a side to these ideologies, but the business was somewhat different in the Middle East region. The post-1950 Egyptian-led “non-aligned movement” increased the conflicting interest of the American and Soviet bloc in the region. In this sense, the Suez Canal Crisis was one of the most important events of the Cold War era. Despite being on the winning side of the Second World War, the British state, which remained far from the old empire, still thought of itself as the active force of the Middle East. For many years, British influence in Egypt has been shaken by the emergence of Nasser, the Great Britain government has invited other NATO allies, mainly the US, to act on this issue. But when it came to the Middle East as well, the US refrained from assuming the protective role that it had in Europe.

“After India, Egypt was the most important legacy of Great Britain’s imperial past.”[3] Naturally, Britain was very insistent on the problems of Egypt and Suez Canal, but the cold war realities restricted the possible movements of Britain alone. The US did not want to hurt both the long-term interests in the region and lose the friendship of Britain. For this reason he was acting as a mediator in the Egyptian-British conflict at the beginning of the 1950s. It was also a source of credibility for the United States, its founding values, and the liberating role it played in the two major world wars. They believed that these features would create a positive image on the Arab states. Therefore “in 1950s the US come to believe that British Impreial policies were hinderingon improvement in Arab perceptions of the West. Washington began to pressure London to modify its policies. The US became increasingly irritated with British imperialism in the region”[4]The US certainly did not want to be associated with the colonial legacy of Britain, believing that this would cause third world countries to become closer to Soviet Russia. For this reason, the Korean War, which took the policies of the Middle East slowly, became a turning point. The United States, which explains the spread of communism with the “Domino Theory” and sees it as a survival issue for democracies, has restructured its policies in the Middle East and has brought in Abel Nasser to keep it nice. America wanted to use the most important cold war strategy, the “containment policy”, against the Soviet Russia in the Middle East. Also, “The Eisenhower administration developed a counterrevolutionary and antinationalist premise. The US pursued an an anticolonialist policy in the Middle East.”[5]

After the Geneva Summit in 1955, the Soviets concluded a cotton sale arms contract to Egypt. This was perceived as the expansion of the interest of the Soviets towards the Middle East. “It was impossible for the Soviet leaders to understand that the first arms sales to a developing country would flaunt Arab nationalism, remove the Arab-Israeli dispute altogether, and consider the Middle East a major challenge to Western sovereignty.”[6] The US was aware that an aggressive policy to be pursued would harm long-term US interests, although it was disturbed by the sale of arms and therefore the Egyptian-Soviet rapprochement. For this reason, the policy of keeping Nasser alive continued. The Aswan Dam project was very important for Nasser, whose mission was to develop the goal of Egypt the economic point of view. The dam, which will be built on the Nile River, will regulate the watering of the Nile valley. The Nile River has been one of the most important living resources of the Egyptian people since ancient times. It would also be an important symbol in Egypt’s nationalist politics. As a matter of fact, Western leaders have stared at this project because the economic support for Egypt’s Aswan Dam was an important opportunity to win Nasser, and in this way they could prevent Soviet exodus in the Middle East. In addition, allies have planned to make financial pressure on Egypt and make them dependent on them. Egypt, on the other hand, was pursuing a two-way foreign policy in this period, trying to get more help from the US by shifting towards the Soviets, despite the satisfactory work of the United States. The Aswan Dam, which was supported by the US to moderate Nasser and win it, was not able to reach its aim but was used as a bargaining tool to the Soviet side.  In May 1956, Egypt’s diplomatic relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China were not favorably welcomed by the US and abandoned the project financing. Nasser, seeking new resources for building the dam, found the solution in the nationalization of the Suez Canal.”For Western countries, this decision meant that the balances in the Mediterranean would be ruined. The decision to nationalize the channel brought with it economic consequences as well as negative political consequences. Prior to the crisis, 75% of the European oil requirement was provided by the Middle East, 50% of which was passed by the Suez Canal. Great Britain provided 85% of its oil requirement on the Suez Canal. With the decision, the door to a major oil crisis was opened.”[7] Nasser’s initiative to nationalize the Suez Canal was hugely welcomed by Great Britain and the government began to form a secret war plan. Their aim was undoubtedly to ensure dominance over the canal and force international status to be accepted. Although the US was a close ally of Great Britain, this crucial outlook was quite different. While Great Britain was preparing for war after the nationalization of the channel, the United States, headed by Eisenhower, did not see it as a cause of war, but believed that the problem should be solved peacefully. The US took more and more steps towards long-term relations with the Arab states and therefore the Middle East. The Soviet influence, which was relatively active in the Middle East, was also creating a deterrent. The Western powers, seeking solutions from the diplomatic roads with the pressure of the United States, were ready for battle plans, especially in Great Britain, and were even negotiating secret alliances with Israel for the reluctance of America. The Britain government run the risk of military intervention in Egypt but “during the crisis, Eisenhower expressed views that France and Great Britain would be opposed to an intervention in Egypt. The US government was against the rule of Nasser but  Eisenhower found that a possible intervention by Great Britain and France was unacceptable.Eisenhower, thinking that such an attempt would increase the Soviet infiltration of the region, said in September 1956 that using force in Great Britain’s Prime Minister Eden would intensify the dangerous situation in the region. The United States has not considered the issue of nationalizing the channel as an international law problem, unlike Great Britain and France, which are the channel’s shareholder countries. He argued that the establishment and operation of the channel company was in the framework of Egyptian law, and that nationalization should also be considered in this framework. “[8]


As a consequence of the circumstances of the Second World War, the US had a relative strength compared to other states and found itself in a relentless race with Soviet Russia, which has the ideology of communism. Having assumed the role of Western world leadership by isolationism policy, the US perceived communism and therefore the Soviet Union as a direct threat to its national interests.Concerned about the spread of communism with belief of the Domino Theory between in third world countries, the US began to pursue a policy of restraint against the Soviets outside the European continent after the Korean War.

Under these Cold War conditions, the Middle East region, especially Egypt, seemed to be very important within the two superpowers, and the “nonaligned movement” which dominated the region brought confused situations. Britain was also claiming territory for its past heritage. The United States is acting as a mediator in the region because of its friendship with Britain, and in the face of its long-term goals, it is also opposed to harsh politics and military intervention. The US, which avoided imperialist behavior and thought that it would bring nonaligned countries closer to the Soviets, so chose to follow soft power policy. The incompatible policies that the United States watched in this seemingly zero-sum game made war inevitable. Alliance with Britain, France and Israel led to a military operation in Egypt after the nationalization of the Suez Canal, but the United States certainly stood in front of the operation, opening the way to Egypt’s diplomatic victory.

After the Suez Canal Crisis, Western states were unable to act as they wished in the region without obtaining definite support from the US and they did not have the old strength against the US and Soviet Russia. Moreover, the position of the Soviets against the US increased the blending of the Soviet Union among the Arab States.  “Eisenhower believed that Middle East oil was essential for the economically and militarily. So, the Eisenhower administration become the first to focus on Middle East as a prime region for American foreign policy. The US aimed to produce coherant program of global, regional, and local objectives. Its Middle East policy which emerged between 1952 and 1956 failed to support these goals.”[9]Despite all the hunger that they had caused, the Suez Crisis revealed America’s rise to world leadership. Also, after the Great Britain and France were removed from their historic role in the Middle East, America saw that the responsibility of the power balance in this region had been put on their shoulders. “[10]



  1. Serbest, Bürkan.TheQuestion of theNationalization of Suez Channel andtheSuezCrisis. Bishkek:MANAS Journal of SocialStudies, 2017
  2. Kissenger, Henry. Diplomasi: Sınırlandırma Politikasının Üzerinden Atlanması üzerine: Süveyş Krizi. Istanbul:Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları ,2016
  3. Freiberger, Steven. DawnOverSuez:The Rise of AmericanPower in theMiddle East. Chicago: 1992

[1] Bürkan Serbest, The Question of the Nationalization of Suez Channel and the Suez Crisis, (Bishkek:MANAS Journal of Social Studies, 2017)

[2] Bürkan Serbest, The Question of the Nationalization of Suez Channel and the Suez Crisis, (Bishkek:MANAS Journal of Social Studies, 2017)

[3] Henry Kissenger, Diplomasi: Sınırlandırma Politikasının Üzerinden Atlanması: Süveyş Krizi (İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2006), 503

[4] Steven Z. Freiberger, Dawn Over Suez: The Rise of American Power in Middle East, 1953-1957(Chicago: 1992)

[5] Steven Z. Freiberger, Dawn Over Suez: The Rise of American Power in Middle East, 1953-1957(Chicago: 1992)

[6] Henry Kissenger, Diplomasi: Sınırlandırma Politikasının Üzerinden Atlanması: Süveyş Krizi (İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2006)

[7] Bürkan Serbest, The Question of the Nationalization of Suez Channel and the Suez Crisis, (Bishkek:MANAS Journal of Social Studies, 2017)

[8] Bürkan Serbest, The Question of the Nationalization of Suez Channel and the Suez Crisis, (Bishkek:MANAS Journal of Social Studies, 2017)

[9] Steven Z. Freiberger, Dawn Over Suez: The Rise of American Power in Middle East, 1953-1957(Chicago: 1992)

[10] Henry Kissenger, Diplomasi: Sınırlandırma Politikasının Üzerinden Atlanması: Süveyş Krizi (İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2006)