By Martin Woollacott
The events of 50 years ago marked the end of the British Middle East. For the US, there are uncomfortable parallels
"Large differences between the two projects make that too simple a conclusion. But what does link Suez and Iraq is the degree to which those who ruled Britain in 1956 and those in power in the United States in 2003 were obsessively preoccupied with "position" at a time of shifting power relationships. This hazy concept too easily goes beyond national interest to demand an unnatural degree of respect and deference from others at just the moment when they are becoming less ready to offer either. The canal in 1956, just as with WMD and even terrorism in 2003, was a detail. The essence was the panicky feeling in western capitals that control was slipping and had to be re-established.
The irrationality of western fears about Arab nationalism and Soviet influence in the 50s had its parallel in America in 2003 when the real dangers represented by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were both exaggerated and conflated. Like Suez, the intervention in Iraq was intended to bring down a hostile leader and have an exemplary effect on the whole region. Like Suez, it was intended to demonstrate a capacity to dominate and to control. And, like Suez, it has failed in that respect, even though this time the leader was toppled. The difference is that in 1956 a damaged Britain could fall back on the United States, enabling it to recover some influence and to go on to support American policies that were in most ways a continuation of its own. Obviously, there is no great kindred power waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces in 2006. The United States is not remotely as weakened as Britain was in 1956, but it is clearly ill-equipped to deal with the regional crisis it precipitated by intervening in Iraq.
But as a means of demonstrating dominance, which is where Iraq closely parallels Suez, the project has already failed. American primacy in the region has not been cemented by Iraq, but undermined, just as British primacy was undermined by Suez.
It is possible that the Iraq war and occupation will in retrospect mark the beginning of the end of the American Middle East, just as Suez marked the end of the British Middle East. Like Britain in 1956, America faces a region-wide array of movements that aim at reducing western control and influence. In this respect there is no essential difference between the more secular Arab nationalists of Eden's day, in all their varieties, and Islamists and secular nationalists today, in their equal diversity. In addition, the growing power of China and India and the residual influence of Russia - and the increasing interest of these nations and many others in the region's energy resources - give some local states more room for manoeuvre than they have had since the end of the cold war."