Is President Biden thinking more like former President Obama or President Eisenhower over 70 years ago?
It is difficult to answer this question because time has played a crucial role in shaping the two presidents' political visions for the Middle East. President Obama’s position did not change from start to finish. He wanted an agreement with Iran and to transform or modify old alliances up until the last day of his presidency. He made this clear when asked in his last days why he had taken a course that angered the allies, but he criticized them by calling them "free riders" and asked them to share the region with Tehran. Unlike President Eisenhower, who began with a cold political vision toward the allies and ended up with a warm one five years later.
President Obama's story is relatively new and well-known, but what about President Eisenhower's story? In his important book "Ike's Gamble: America's Rise to Dominance in the Middle East", political analyst Michael Doran, explains the details of this dramatic shift in foreign policy in the attempt to win over an unreliable ally, while losing loyal friends to a different position.
When Eisenhower arrived at the White House in the early 1950s, he saw the world this way: The colonial powers were leaving the Middle East, while nationalist liberation movements were on the rise, and he had to choose between the two camps if he wanted to preserve the interests of the United States, those on the way out, or those on the way up.
Eisenhower faced two problems at the time, the first being that the powers on the way out, as he imagined, were Washington's allies, the French, the British, and the Israelis. At the same time, he wanted to win President Abdel Nasser as an ally, thereby luring him into a circle of US influence away from the Soviet Union.
The Eisenhower administration trusted that friendship with Abdel Nasser meant its ability to influence all the revolutionary forces and win them over to the American side. In addition, prominent members saw Kamal Ataturk as a modern, reformist Arab leader. The other issue is their eagerness to guarantee the flow of oil into Europe (a third of which passes through that area) that was desperately needed to carry out the Marshal Plan after World War II. So, they wanted to create a friendly Middle Eastern environment, led by Nasser, that would not cause them trouble, by approaching the revolutionary forces at the expense of the traditional forces and weakening them if necessary.
The most significant sign of trying to win a new friend at the expense of old ones came with the 1956 war. Eisenhower firmly intervened to stop this blitzkrieg and punish its masterminds who plotted it behind his back. Eisenhower is known to have regretted this decision because he believed that restoring the Suez Canal and ousting Abdel Nasser would have spared him the problems he later faced in the Middle East.
That is why he fully supported Israel's Six-Day War. Eisenhower's determination to win a new friend's affection made him reject British Prime Minister Anthony Eden's pleas to back his country. Britain was about to enter a real crisis that caused Eden to suffer a nervous breakdown and ended his political future. Eden rebuked the Israelis and Ben-Gurion on the air (that incident made Ben-Gurion realize the United States' rising importance and pushed him closer to it despite his disagreements with it).
The Eisenhower administration’s many concessions to win Abdel Nasser failed. Still, after years of attempts, Eisenhower realized that he was making a grave political mistake and that Abdel Nasser was stalling and buying time and would not be the trusted friend Washington hoped to have, which was evident when he openly joined the other axis.
Doran argued that there is a firm belief among some veteran politicians that an agreement is always on the horizon if some concessions are made, leading to a dangerous illusion. The other side is not looking for an agreement but is pursuing a different strategy. In his view, this position leads to losing allies' trust and does not win over potential friends.
Eisenhower changed his convictions years later, and strongly aligned himself with the allies and cooperated closely with them. Their cooperation shaped the beginnings of the so-called world order. We have now lived under this world order with a great deal of stability for more than 70 years, despite the revolutionary forces' attempt to destroy it and replace it with a different one.
Eisenhower clearly expressed his new conviction when he sent troops to Lebanon in 1958. Some members in his administration feared that his intervention was similar to the tripartite one he had previously prevented, but did not care about public opinion at the time. A National Security Agency member warned him that the intervention would end in bloodshed, but then said it would be better to be with the allies when that happens. A total shift from embarrassing and weakening the allies to supporting them.
President Obama never changed his mind, unlike Eisenhower, for whom reality was a great teacher in this regard. The question now revolves around Biden, Iran, and us. Which scenario are we headed towards? Will we follow Obama’s suit, who maintained his beliefs until the end of 2015 when he signed the nuclear deal, or Eisenhower, who changed his beliefs after 1956? Or is there a third path we cannot yet see?
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.