A Suez story

British, French, Italian, and United States minesweepers have passed through the Suez Canal and are searching the northern end of the Red Sea for mines. They are doing so at the request of the Egyptian government.

Countries outside the Arab community do not go around these days playing games in Arab waters on their own initiative for their own purposes without consideration of the wishes of the Arab countries. The outsiders in this case carry their invitation cards when their warships pass through the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Suez into the Red Sea, a body of water bounded on all flanks by Arabs.

From 1882 to 1952 the Suez Canal was in fact as much a property of the British Empire as the Panama Canal ever was of the US. Egypt itself was part of the British Empire. If minesweeping had been needed in the Red Sea, it would have been done by British ships without help from others, and with slight if any regard for Egyptian wishes.

The change from British control of the canal was a wrenching experience for all concerned, including the Anglo-American relationship. The story of the strain on that relationship has never yet been fully told or widely appreciated.

British ships joining in the minesweeping at Egyptian invitation show that the Suez crisis of 1956 belongs now to history. Egypt owns the Suez Canal. Its sovereignty is respected. But the process by which this condition came into being brought down a prime minister.

From Oct. 31, 1956, when the British and French bombed Cairo, until Jan. 9 two months later, when Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned, the government of the US refused to discuss either credit or oil with any British official. Britain's gold reserves drained away. Oil stocks reached the danger mark. President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted on total withdrawal from Egyptian territory of all of the invading forces - British, French, and Israelis.

The special Anglo-American relationship was repaired and survives down into these times in the form of American help to the British in the Falklands war and British support for most of President Reagan's foreign policies, including deployment of the new weapons in Europe, which otherwise would have been impossible.

The repair work was difficult. Much of it was done behind the scenes. Among those who labored particularly in this task were two British career diplomats who had disapproved of the Suez venture and regarded the American relationship as being essential to Britain's post-imperial era. They were Harold Cacci and Paul Gore-Booth.

Both considered resigning over Suez but chose to stay on to help repair the damage. Both were granted life peerages. Mr. Cacci was sent to Washington at the peak of the crisis to start the repair job. He returned to London four years later as head of the diplomatic service. He was succeeded in that post by Lord Gore-Booth in 1965. For the next four years the work went on, burdened by British economic difficulties which were made manageable largely by the cooperation the work of these two professional diplomats helped to secure from Washington.

Lord Gore-Booth was notable at the Foreign Office for having been in the lead in foreseeing the decline of the empire in the post-World War II era and the resulting need for Britain to find postwar security in a continuing association with the US and postwar economics scope in a closer association with its European neighbors on the Continent - particularly with France and Germany.

One of the most difficult tasks in statesmanship is for an imperial power to divest itself of empire without bloodshed and then find a new and different context for both its security and economy. Britain is not the only country ever to accomplish this feat, but it is the largest to do it successfully. Paul Gore-Booth (who passed on last June) played a major role in this transition and deserves a larger niche in history than is usually accorded to career diplomats.

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