While researching and writing my recent book, Ike’s Gamble, which tracks the evolution of President Eisenhower’s Middle East policy, a question nagged at me. What enduring lessons did Eisenhower, as the commander of the North Africa campaign (1942-1943) in World War II, learn from this, his first experience of the Arab world? By the time it came to sending the book off to the publisher, I still hadn’t found an answer. Robert Satloff, I can jealously say, has now given us one.
Satloff’s essay in Mosaic, “The Jews Will Have to Wait,” represents countless hours of research in primary sources in several languages, not to mention interviews conducted halfway around the globe. It shines a bright light on a little-known episode, which, Satloff claims, was far more consequential than we have realized. And his core conclusions are persuasive. Yes, we should indeed consider Operation Torch, the November 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa, to be the beginning of the story of American engagement in the Middle East. And yes, views about the Middle East that crystallized in the minds of American officials at that time did indeed influence United States foreign policy for years thereafter.
I believe, however, that Satloff slightly exaggerates the degree of influence exercised specifically by this campaign on the broader history of American Middle East foreign policy. To my mind, other factors, pointing in the same direction as Torch, were at least as decisive if not more so.
In An Army at Dawn,his Pulitzer-winning history of the North Africa campaign, Rick Atkinson writes: “North Africa was a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power—militarily, diplomatically, strategically, tactically.” Moreover, Atkinson suggests, an influential segment of the foreign-policy elite that would guide the United States through the early stages of the cold war in the Middle East first cut its teeth in North Africa and there developed a strategic belief system that continued to guide them thereafter. Satloff’s thesis is a masterful elaboration of this theme.
The continuity of personnel is striking. Consider, for example, Robert D. Murphy, the villain in Satloff’s story. In the postwar 1940s and throughout the 1950s Murphy held influential diplomatic posts, some of them directly related to the Middle East. During the Suez crisis of 1956-57, and the Lebanon intervention of 1958, he reprised his wartime role as one of Eisenhower’s trusted diplomatic troubleshooters. ...