Yemen and canal errors: when Australia misread the Suez crisis

Jan 18, 2024
Large container vessel ship passing through Suez Canal Image:iStock

Australia’s assistance in striking targets in Yemen, obediently abiding by the direction of the United States and United Kingdom, had a certain curious resonance to another event that involved foreign shipping, the wounded pride of imperial powers, and meddling Arabs.

From November 2023, the Houthis initiated a number of measures against Israeli shipping and vessels with an Israeli connection in the Red Sea. They were then accused of piratical attacks on international shipping in one of the globe’s busiest shipping routes. That these attacks are intended to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians as they are being slaughtered in Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces is assiduously ignored by the self-proclaimed internationalists of free navigation and carriage.

In 1956, the issue of who should control the flow of international shipping through the Suez Canal drove various Western states, notably the fading colonial powers of Britain and France, to apoplexy. On that occasion, it turned out to be the formidable, hulking figure of the Egyptian President, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who made it a central policy to nationalise that fabled international waterway.

Then, as now, we had the same formula: a gaggle of nations, supposedly representing international principle and protocol (that is to say, financial self-interest), keen to impress upon an Arab state that it should refrain from pursuing nationalist objectives at the expense of freedom of navigation and commerce. Then, as now, international shipping was also an issue, with accusations that Egyptian authorities were blocking vessels of Israeli origin. Then, as now, we had a cameo, interventionist role from an Australian Prime Minister. On that occasion, it was that unreconstructed Britain is Great representative in the form of Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies.

In response to the Suez crisis, US Secretary of State John F. Dulles advanced a proposal that the Canal be placed under international administration. Menzies, deputised as a mediator of a five-nation group, led a delegation to Cairo to sell the plan to Nasser. For his part, Menzies saw this as a chance to keep the Suez Canal free from the intrusions of Cairo. It could “continue to be an international waterway operated free of politics or national discrimination, and with financial structure so secure and an international confidence so high that an expanding and improving future for the Canal can be guaranteed”.

Two meetings lasting 100 minutes conducted between the Menzies’ five-nation group and Nasser on September 5 did little to encourage the Australian prime minister. “So far I am doing all the talking and here we are,” he remarked to the press. Indeed, Menzies had been most loquacious. According to Nasser’s confidante and newspaper editor, Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, the Australian PM, especially over dinner at the Manial Palace, proudly ran a gamut of impressions by the Colonel, among them Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, General Jan Smuts.

Two days later, Menzies, persisting in his state of suspended belief, wrote to Nasser suggesting with teacherly heft that, “The dangerous tension now existing internationally could be relaxed and terms satisfactory to the user nations and entirely consistent with Egypt’s proper dignity, independence and ownership.”

On September 11, the Australian press was burning with Nasser’s reaction to the five-nation Suez committee proposal for international control of the Suez Canal. The underlying issue there was clear: Nasser, and Egypt more broadly, could not be trusted regulating the flow of shipping through the canal, and had to be deprived of any actual facility of control. As reported, the Egyptian leader could only conclude in the letter sent to him that “the purpose is to take the Suez Canal out of the hands of Egypt.”

As the irritated Colonel went on to say, “An act of such a nature is both self-defeating [sic] and of a nature to generate friction, misunderstanding and continuous strife. It would be not the end, but the beginning of trouble.” He reiterated that there was no intention on the part of Egypt to impair free passage of shipping or impose discriminatory measures. Consideration would be given to future requirements regarding navigation, just and equitable tolls and “technical efficiency” issues regarding the Canal.

The Colonel’s initial warming to Menzies as an amusing impersonator was also short-lived. The negotiations were essentially killed off by impolitic remarks made by the Australian PM, who warned that Nasser’s “refusal of an international administration will be the beginning of trouble.” As Heikal observed, “Nasser immediately closed the files on the desk in front of him and said: ‘You are threatening me. Very well, I am finished. There will be no more discussions. It is all over.’”

This precipitated propitiating interventions by the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, the US Deputy Under Secretary of State for Administration Loy Henderson, and an embarrassed apology from Menzies. But Nasser remained unpacified. Again, in Heikal’s description, the Colonel expressed his displeasure to all present: “To tell me that my refusal to accept an international administration will be the beginning of real trouble is a threat and I will not negotiate under threat.”

In the end, the situation was richly farcical, and utterly contemporary in its warning salience. Menzies had been tasked with a mission of inflated seriousness, a dominion caricature acting in an imperial, obsolete role. While the plan for international administration had been the fruit of Dulles’ thinking, Menzies was unmistakably Britain’s intended emissary of warning, a reminder that the old empire still had a healthy pulse. In truth, that order was dying.

There was also another gaping lacuna in Menzies’ understanding of the Suez crisis. It lay in a failure to understand the objectives of the United States. Dulles, for instance, had little interest as to whether the proposal would work. His representative Henderson, as reported in the Australian press on September 5, 1956, seemed unconcerned in this North African carnival of faded empires, colonial surrogates and Arab nationalist usurpers. “I don’t look unhappy, do I?” he declared.

The previous month, US officials had even remarked to their British and French counterparts in a meeting held at Lancaster House in London that Washington “would actually benefit from the added demand for United States oil” because of the crisis. The problem, in other words, sat squarely with the European powers on “whether they wanted to see the tankers go around the Cape with the attendant rationing and dollar cost of oil.”

It followed that the US had little to no interest in forcing the issue with Cairo. This was well and truly confirmed when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower publicly declared that no military action would be undertaken to force compliance. On October 29, with cavalier impudence, Britain and France, in secret collusion with Israel in accordance with the Protocol of Sèvres, invaded Egypt. An enraged Eisenhower threatened to sell off Sterling bonds that may well have tanked the British economy. Britain and France promptly withdrew from the Canal in humiliation. Britain’s Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned.

All this time, Menzies was left as a comically clueless standard bearer for Britain’s mission, which he kept justifying. He remained ignorant of the Protocol of Sèvres and expressed indignation at Eisenhower’s actions. The letter sent to the president was so provocative it required the delicate offices of External Affairs Minister Richard Casey to temper.

The lessons from this disastrous episode for the Canberra mandarins and their political masters are many. Be wary of misguided adventures in the Middle East in the shadow of faded power. Be richly informed about the intentions and machinations of those you collude with. And be wary of the United States, however friendly it purports to be to its allies. Washington’s interests remain indivisible and immune to the heartstrings of friendly association.

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