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NATO's future

By Joseph C. Harsch / March 23, 1982



If you are worried about the state of the Western alliance I suggest for the sake of perspective that you reread the story of the Suez crisis of 1956.

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In case you have forgotten, that was when the British, French and Israelis entered into a secret agreement to invade Egypt in collusion, without telling Washington and without admitting that they were doing it together.

The plot involved an Israeli military advance into the Sinai peninsula on the false pretext that Egyptian ''fedayeen'' had been raiding Israeli territory. The records show no such raids. Then the British and French, under the pretext of trying to stop the fighting between Israel and Egypt would themselves plunge in - which they did.

The real object was to topple Gamal Abdel Nasser from the leadership of Egypt and regain West European control over the Suez Canal. Israel would keep the Sinai Peninsula as its share of the loot.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the United States. The US was a signatory, with Britain and France, of the ''Tripartite Declaration'' of 1950 under which the three bound themselves to maintain the boundaries between Israel and its Arab neighbors as they existed at the end of the first Arab-Israel war ( 1947-48).

The plot in October 1956 was in direct violation of the 1950 declaration. President Eisenhower felt that the violation of that settlement would seriously damage both American and West European relations with the Arab countries; would cause the Arabs to turn to the Soviet Union for help against Israel; and would jeopardize Western access to the oil of Arabia. He was determined to honor the 1950 declaration.

Britain and France were the two main European members of the NATO alliance. The US Sixth Fleet took up a position just off Suez. There was consideration in Washington of putting the US fleet between the Egyptian coast and the combined Anglo-French invasion force moving toward Suez from Malta. Admiral Arleigh Burke , US chief of naval operations, was prepared, if ordered, for whatever might happen.

The record is not clear as to how close that affair ever came to actual shooting between the US fleet and the forces of the two NATO allies. The US Sixth Fleet was ready.

It did not come to shooting, but President Eisenhower did things immediately after the Anglo-French landing at Suez which the British and French resented almost as much. He demanded an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of the three invading forces from all the Egpytian territory they had overrun. He had the US lead in introducing at the United Nations resolutions for the cease-fire and the withdrawal. And he blocked US credit and Western Hemisphere oil to the three invaders.

The squeeze on the British pound and the shortage of oil in Britain and France forced the British and French to their knees. Anthony Eden had to resign the prime ministership of Britain. The French prime minister, Guy Mollet, followed shortly after. It was rough going, and deeply and bitterly resented in all three of the invading countries.

Israel held out longest against withdrawal, but President Eisenhower was adamant. The Israelis mounted a massive lobbying campaign in the US to allow them at least to keep the Gaza strip. But President Eisenhower threatened to cut off all flow of funds from the US to Israel. Israel also gave in.

The Suez crisis was a shock to NATO. There was a question whether it could be put back together again. The US had in fact forced the resignation of the governments of both Britain and France. Yet NATO did survive, for the simple reason that the British and French needed the alliance at least as much as did the US. The three came back together for mutual self-interest.

NATO is in trouble again today, largely because Washington wants the European members to take stronger action against the Soviet Union than they think is either necessary or desirable. Washington has been operating on the theory that sanctions against the Soviets could influence events in Poland. The European members take the view that nothing they can do would influence the Soviets where Soviet control over Poland is concerned - so why punish their own economies to no avail?

One can differ over whether the Polish affair has put a greater or lesser strain on the NATO alliance than did the Suez crisis of 1956. Personally, I think the Suez crisis was worse. But NATO survived the one, and in all reasonable probability will survive this new test of its validity.