FORCING A PASSAGE
THE announcement by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons of the further steps the British and French Governments propose to take to resolve the Suez crisis will have come as a disappointment to those who had hoped that from the deliberations of the last few days a more realistic policy might emerge. There was no hint in the Prime Minister's speech of any measure that might rally the much-needed support of world opinion to our side, no hint of any way in which we might escape the dilemma in which our past lack of diplomatic skill has placed us. Up to the very moment of the Common's debate we were still faced with the alternative of either climbing down from our insistence on the principle of internationalism or else using force to uphold it. It cannot be said that the Prime Minister's statement has done anything to alter matters.
Indeed, it is very probable that it has made them worse. The long-overdue recourse to the United Nations is still not to take place. Instead France and Britain have addressed a letter " to the President of the Security Council informing him of the situation that has arisen—a procedure which will hardly have the reassuring effect on world opinion which should have been the object of the operation. Further (and here we come to the crux of the Prime Minister's speech) an association of users of the Suez Canal is to be set up which will 'employ pilots, undertake responsibility for the co-ordination of traffic through the canal and, in general, act as a voluntary association for the exercise of the rights of canal users.' This association will include the USA, France and Great Britain as well as other users of the canal. It will pay Egypt something for the canal facilities, but the dues are to be paid direct to the users' association rather than to the Egyptian Government. The organisation is to be provisional in character (pending an arrangement agreed between all parties) and Egypt will be invited to co-operate 'in maintaining the maximum flow of traffic.' If the Egyptians refuse to co-operate then 'such further steps as may be required' will be taken, 'either through the UN or by other means.'
This is the gist of the new Western plan for Suez, and, to say the very least, it leaves a vast number of questions un- answered. In the absence of further clarification it can only be said that, inasmuch as it means anything, it appears to imply the intention of sending ships through the canal with their own pilots, under the auspices of the users' association and paying dues to that association. What is Colonel Nasser's attitude likely to be in the face of such action? Surely, it is inconceivable that Egypt could allow itself thus to be flouted on its own doorstep? Any state that suffered such a thing to take place would be bound to undergo a considerable loss of face, and it is certain that Egypt's pretensions to the 'leadership of the Arab world' would not long survive this climb-down. It seems, then, highly probable that the first ship to navigate the canal with the blessing of the users' association will do so in face of active Egyptian opposition, which may take various forms from the simple impounding of the ship to an attempt to extract double dues. In fact, the formation of the users' association virtually invites Egypt to close the canal.
On this taking place, the West will be faced with its old problem : to negotiate or use force? But now the presumption will be strongly in favour of force, especially if there have been any violent incidents. The whole plan, in short, could act simply as a provocation intended to lead Egypt into a position where military intervention on the part of the West would be justified. And here we come to the most curious factor in the present situation. This plan originated with the Ameri- cans, and, since Mr. Dulles has all along opposed any rash moves by the West, it may be confidently assumed that a direct clash with Colonel Nasser was not his object in putting it forward. It is possible that in his eyes the whole thing may have appeared as an under-cover way of getting negotiations started again, while saving the face of Britain and France. The canal users' association is not too far away from Colonel Nasser's negotiating body of canal users, and it might be that there was some intention of taking advantage of this, while soothing the British and French with phrases about exercising their rights and being responsible for the management of the canal. If so, the worsening of the atmosphere consequent upon this announcement has made negotiations much more difficult, and Mr. Dulles has been too clever by half. Whatever the facts may be behind the American attitude (which on the face of it appears highly inconsistent with President Eisenhower's repudiation of violent solutions), it is very unlikely that Britain and France would get any more than the most insubstantial support from Washington in the applica- tion of those 'steps . . . to restore the situation' to which Sir Anthony Eden referred at the end of his speech. In the context this phrase seemed clearly to refer to the use of force, an even- tuality which has only been brought closer by the new Dulles plan, whatever may have been the intentions of its author.
Yet the objections to such a course remain as strong as ever they were. World opinion will certainly take any outbreak of hostilities consequent on an Egyptian refusal to allow ships to navigate the canal under the sponsorship of the users' association as being the result not of Egyptian turpitude, but of Western provocation. This plan will not bring one nation more on to our side, if we decide on military intervention. It will not reassure the Commonwealth. It will not prevent our foreign policy in Asia from suffering a deadly blow. In the choice between force and negotiation in the Suez crisis the interests of this country have always dictated negotiation.
That is still the case.