n the middle of Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki defended a diplomatic move by Secretary John Kerry that had generated open fury in Jerusalem and at least five Arab capitals by suggesting to reporters that the firestorm had been whipped up by an Israeli misinformation campaign. “It’s simply not the way that partners and allies treat each other,” she complained. Then she declared that Kerry was Israel’s strongest supporter and a close personal friend of Israeli officials—and had been mediating at their invitation.
That last bit of gaslighting was too much for Matthew Lee, the curmudgeonly dean of the press corps at the State Department. “The Israelis fought tooth and nail, didn’t want him anywhere near this,” Lee said, and started listing individual Israelis one by one, asking her which ones Kerry was friends with. The official State Department transcript then reads, almost unkindly, “(Laughter.)”
Kerry had embraced a Turkish-Qatari ceasefire proposal that demanded capitulation to Hamas, at the expense of an Egyptian-sponsored draft Israel had accepted. It united Israelis across the political spectrum with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, and the Palestinian Authority in appalled horror. The Israeli cabinet unanimously and publicly rejected the proposal, the Egyptians made it known they wouldn’t forget the U.S.’s kneecapping them, and Hamas’s Fatah rivals issued a statement saying that any Palestinian who wanted to be represented by Turkey or Qatar could go live there. And the Obama administration blamed Israel.
There are several explanations for the crisis, but the broadest is this: U.S. foreign policy has always been hampered by solutionism. Instead of managing problems across decades by balancing scheming rivals and mercurial allies, we throw resources at problems until they go away. But that can’t explain why Kerry would choose a solution that aligned the U.S. against its traditional partners.
Michael Doran’s Ike’s Gamble, a riveting account of President Dwight Eisenhower’s conduct in Middle East, offers a key historical insight: Modern American diplomats have, going back to the beginning of the Cold War, been simply awful at distinguishing friends and foes in the Middle East. Doran, who is a Hudson Institute senior fellow and a former National Security Council senior director, describes Eisenhower’s trajectory as “nothing if not a lesson in the dangers of calibrating the distinction between ally and enemy incorrectly.”
The Middle East alliance most conspicuously recalibrated and miscalibrated has been the one America has with Israel. Doran assembles piles of notes, logs, and diaries documenting deep hostility toward the Jewish state among Eisenhower and his advisors. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was at the center of a cohort of officials who considered the Truman administration’s decision to recognize Israel one of the greatest mistakes in American diplomatic history. They acutely resented the existence of the new state and blamed U.S.-Israel ties for whatever challenges Washington now faced in the Middle East, from U.S.-Arab relations to anti-communist challenges. Their goal was to move the U.S. toward “impartiality,” a euphemism for creating distance between the U.S. and Israel.
By the end of his time in office, Dwight Eisenhower understood the folly of trading allies for enemies in general, and of creating distance between the U.S. and Israel more specifically.
Alongside anti-Zionism, the Eisenhower administration was also animated by an anti-imperialism that—when translated into policy euphemisms—had the U.S. playing an “honest broker” between America’s British ally and former British colonies in the Arab world openly hostile toward American interests. Early in his administration, Eisenhower abandoned an understanding provided to London by the Truman administration, in which the United States had committed to supporting a package deal whereby Britain gave up its leverage over Egypt only in the context of guaranteed concessions elsewhere. The reversal chilled British Prime Minister Churchill’s faith in U.S. assurances, to the detriment of America’s position, a dynamic that Doran extensively unpacks.
Ike’s Gamble is not just about how Eisenhower sold out the U.S.’s Israeli and British allies, but to whom he sold them out. The book charts years of efforts to curry favor with Gamal Abdel Nasser, who took over Egypt in a coup in 1952. To do so, the U.S. pressured Britain on its management of the Suez Canal, sought to force Israeli territorial concessions in the Sinai Peninsula and Negev desert, provided Egypt with development and security aid, and built Nasser a mass communication infrastructure that would enable him to reach the entire Arab world. Those efforts only emboldened Nasser, who responded by nationalizing the Canal Zone, organizing attacks against vulnerable Israeli territory, forging military ties with the Soviet Union, and using his radio station to demonize the West and its regional allies.
A central thesis of Ike’s Gamble is that by the end of his time in office, Eisenhower understood the folly of trading allies for enemies in general, and of creating distance between the U.S. and Israel more specifically. That wisdom eluded the Obama administration, which enthusiastically pursued many of the exact same moves. President Obama boasted early in 2009 that he would create daylight between the U.S. and Israel, and he quickly reversed letters of guarantee from George W. Bush providing assurances to Israel should Israel withdraw from the Gaza Strip in exchange for concessions on West Bank communities. The reversal chilled the Israeli prime minister’s faith in U.S. assurances, to the detriment of America’s position. Seven years into the Obama administration, top officials from his State Department were still posting Israel-lobby conspiracy theorists over social media, and even the president spoke darkly about “donors” torquing American politics on behalf of policies critical to Israel.
In between, among many other things, was the diplomatic row that Kerry sparked over the Gaza war cease-fire. It eventually subsided, armed hostilities continued for another few weeks, and then the Israelis began systematically to conduct decapitation strikes until Hamas capitulated. For his part, Kerry moved on to Iran talks, and a summer later he sealed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which legalized Iran’s nuclear program and unleashed it across the region.
Ike’s Gamble can be read as most immediately aimed at the sources and consequences of the American diplomacy toward Iran. Doran is one of a small group of scholars who argued years ago that far from the Obama administration pursuing what seemed to many to be an incompetent series of failed initiatives to bolster traditional American allies and constrain Iran, Washington was pursuing a coherent and consistent program of realigning with Tehran and eschewing old alliances. Subsequent gleeful published boasts from top figures of the Obama administration have confirmed the theory.
Now, after half a decade of the Obama administration’s subordinating almost everything to Iran diplomacy, Doran writes, “there is no period in twentieth-century Middle Eastern history that rhymes more powerfully with the present than the Eisenhower era.” On the ground and day by day, the region seems to have dissolved into a chaos of all against all. But from just a little above, the meaningless distinctions vanish and the environment emerges clearly as all against Iran.
The next administration will have to choose which side to take. The superb Ike’s Gamble makes the case that it must be America’s traditional allies, especially Israel, and that any other option—including and especially outreach to avowed enemies of the United States—will end in catastrophe.