Was Afghanistan Britain's worst failure since Suez? It's a comforting fiction

The withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country’s subsequent collapse to the Taliban is Britain’s “biggest foreign policy failure since Suez” according to Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee that grilled the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, hierdie week. This analogy, which has been used by many others after the Kabul debacle, harks back to events in 1956. And it’s had a lot of use over the decades since. Much in the same way we have seen this week, those who’ve cited it see Suez as a catastrophic national humiliation – yet, simultaneously, they betray a certain lack of awareness about Britain’s role in the world.

There were Suez references in Hansard in the late 1960s over Britain’s involvement in the Biafran war; there were more in 1982, as MPs debated what to do after the Argentinian president, General Galtieri, invaded the Falklands; and then a huge increase after Tony Blair’s decision to back the Iraq invasion in 2003, which doesn’t really seem to have abated.

Sedertdien, Suez has frequently been invoked over Brexit: Jo Johnson, when he resigned as a minister in November 2018, described the lack of a favourable withdrawal deal as a “a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”.

The Suez crisis occurred when Britain, France and Israel conspired to invade Egypt after its leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalised the Suez canal, which was owned by British and French shareholders. But both the US and the Soviet Union objected strongly to the invasion; so, despite their military victory, the invading countries were internationally condemned and politically defeated.

Suez can be invoked in all sorts of ways: when Boris Johnson was forced to impose a second lockdown last October, one Tory MP fumed that “this could be his Suez”. In this context, the comparison was really about the then prime minister, Anthony Eden, and the fact that the crisis led to his downfall. (Suez is always about Eden, never about the then foreign secretary, whom people often struggle to remember was Selwyn Lloyd: perhaps this bodes well for Dominic Raab.)

The Suez crisis holds such anxiety for the British establishment because it has become a historical shorthand for postwar British decline. There is a popular understanding that Suez was the turning point in British power: the country went from victory over Germany in 1945, an empire of 800 million people, and a seat at the table at Nato and the UN, aan (as the US secretary of state Dean Acheson made clear) losing its empire and not really finding a new role.

Suez is seen as a key point in British imperial decline because the canal was such an important piece of imperial infrastructure – allowing transit from Britain to India without navigating the Cape of Good Hope – and partly because British people’s understanding of imperial history is somewhat hazy (Egypt had been independent from the UK since 1922). In reality, anticolonialism had been developing as a movement for as long as the empire had existed; the Indian subcontinent had become independent after the second world war; and Britain still clung, often violently, to its colonies around the world well into the 1960s. Suez was not the turning point that people imagine.

Yet Suez is traumatic as the moment when Britain was forced to accept that it was not as powerful as it once had been. In simple terms, the nation was forced to choose between its empire and its relationship with the US; it tried to choose the former, but was forcibly reminded that the latter held all the cards (die VSA, led by President Eisenhower, threatened to destroy the British economy by selling the American-held sterling bonds).

But despite the sense that Suez badly damaged the Anglo-American “special” relationship, in reality it bounced back in the 1960s and 1980s. And the British were able to resist American pressure in other contexts, such as the repeated refusal to commit British troops to the Vietnam war; British acquiescence to the Iraq invasion was not historically determined by Suez.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Suez crisis for the British establishment is a hazier sense of honour lost. Ahead of the invasion, Britain had secretly colluded in the protocol of Sèvres with France and Israel. The men at the top were shown to be charlatans and frauds. Although the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, opposed the military intervention, Eden’s resignation only really became inevitable once it was apparent he had misled parliament about the road to war. It was the underhand nature of the invasion that destroyed his reputation. (Similarly, the American government was furious with the British partly because their actions made it harder to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary around the same time.)

The sense that Britain had once been an honourable nation led by honourable men, and that this was only undermined by Suez, has its appeal; it almost works as an argument if all of Britain’s previous dishonourable behaviour, not least in its own empire, is carefully ignored.

Raab, apparently, disagrees with all of these comparisons. “I struggle with the Suez analogy,” he replied to Tugendhat on Wednesday, before reframing the comparison as an effort to learn lessons from the current disaster. Politicians love to claim they are learning lessons from the past. Egter, history doesn’t exist merely as a compendium of examples to be applied to the future; and stripping events of their historical context renders them meaningless anyway.

Invoking Suez is not really about learning new lessons. Rather, it is about signalling a particular idea of what it means to be British in the world, and constructing a history of British foreign policy in which the nation has made one, single mistake, which no event since has ever beaten in disaster or ignominy. Dit is 'n vertroostende fiksie.

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