To what degree has the Nixon administration changed American policy in the Middle East? This question must be asked with increasing urgency in Jerusalem and, with a rather more hopeful note, in Cairo and Damascus. For it has become clear in recent months that the administration is gestating a new plan to cope with the Middle East crisis; indeed, the partial results of a birth—which, if not prodigious, was at any rate enigmatic—were communicated to the public in the Secretary of State’s speech of December 9. Significantly enough, the proposals enumerated by Mr. Rogers for the conclusion of a peace between Israel and Egypt had already been communicated to the Soviet Union in October. Later in December they were supplemented by a similar American plan for peace between Israel and Jordan. A new Nixon policy for the Middle East crisis (if it is new) is therefore now out in the open. How much of a change does it represent—how much of a change, indeed, is possible—in comparison with the policies of the Johnson administration?
Before trying to answer this question, it might be well to summarize what has been proposed. In his speech of December 9, Mr. Rogers grouped his suggestions around three basic points. These provided that:
- “There should be a binding commitment by Israel and the United Arab Republic to peace with each other, with all the specific obligations of peace spelled out. . . .”
- “The detailed provisions of peace relating to security safeguards on the ground should be worked out between the parties under Ambassador Jarring’s auspices, utilizing the procedures followed in negotiating the Armistice Agreements under Ralph Bunche in 1949 at Rhodes. . . . These safeguards relate primarily to the area of Sharm el-Sheikh controlling access to the Gulf of Aqaba, the need for demilitarized zones as foreseen in the Security Council resolution, and final arrangements in the Gaza strip.”
- “In the context of peace and agreement on specific security safeguards, withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egyptian territory would be required.”
Also contained in the Secretary’s speech was a vaguely worded proposal for Jerusalem to become “a unified city,” a point subsequently repeated in the Jordan peace plan. This latter differed from the Egyptian proposals only in admitting the possibility of frontier changes—“insubstantial alterations required for mutual security”—presumably because Israel’s frontier with Jordan before June 1967 was so illogical as to encourage border incidents.
In all this, at first sight, there is nothing very new. The United States has always accepted the ambiguously drafted Security Council resolution of November 1967 which called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from conquered territory. It has always been in favor of peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis and of some arrangement which would provide for the security of all concerned. (The Secretary’s remarks about Jerusalem were novel, but, although they seem to have excited the strongest reaction on the Israeli side, their lack of concrete detail makes them a relatively minor element in the whole scheme.) However, a careful reading of the proposals and of Mr. Rogers’s speech does suggest that a shift of emphasis has taken place. Far greater stress has been placed on Israeli withdrawal and far less on subjects like freedom of navigation and recognition of Israel’s existence as a state than was the case, for instance, in President Johnson’s speech of June 16, 1967. Nor is there any mention of a great-power guarantee of the resulting settlement. On the other hand, coupled with the plan for the first time is an offer to restore diplomatic relations with those Arab states that had broken them off in 1967.
The entire context in which the new proposals have been put forward is such as to create a feeling of disquiet among supporters of Israel. “Our policy is and will continue to be a balanced one” may seem a reasonable statement of the part America should play in the Middle East crisis, but, to an Israeli, it must inevitably give the impression that while the Soviet Union will continue to support its Arab clients, American assistance to Israel is likely to be less forthcoming than in the past. Arms sales are, of course, the chief case in point. Where is Israel now to obtain arms if not from the United States? A U.S. embargo on arms to both sides could be defined as “balanced,” but its effect would be to produce a serious imbalance on the spot.
It could therefore be maintained that there has been a shift, both in the verbal expression of American policy toward Israel, and in its spirit. At the time of the Six-Day War, the State Department’s declaration of neutrality had to be withdrawn under pressure from the White House. It is hard to imagine any such incident occurring today. In June of 1967, Richard H. Rovere could write from Washington: “No one here thinks that we could have avoided some kind of military involvement if the war had gone on for more than a week or two, or if there had been at any point a period of a few days in which the outcome was in doubt.” It would be foolhardy to be quite so categorical about the Washington of President Nixon. The change may be one of emphasis, but it exists. What has brought it about?
The nixon administration’s attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict must first of all be seen against the background of American public opinion. If one thing has been made clear over the past three years, it is that Americans increasingly desire to cultivate their own garden and not to be involved in intervention overseas. Weariness of global power, reaction to an apparently endless struggle in Vietnam, a consciousness of the urgency of domestic problems—all these have combined to build up a high level of resistance in the public mind toward any step that might lead to new military commitments. Such a mood was bound to affect unfavorably Israeli expectations of American support. President Nixon’s political antennae would have been functioning at a low level indeed if they had not told him that, with the war in Vietnam still continuing, any involvement in the Middle East—quite apart from its intrinsic dangers—would be highly unpopular at home. The present introspective mood of the American people has meant a tendency to turn away from problems of foreign policy or to try to settle them on terms that will lessen the demands made on the United States. The perennial crisis between Israel and the Arab states is no exception.
In the view of the State Department, of course, America’s interests have always provided excellent reasons for not pushing support of Israel too far. In fact, it might be said that Mr. Rogers’s “balanced” policy simply represents a logical extension of the traditional State Department position. The very existence of the Arab-Israeli dispute, combined with the fact that the United States has not been able to dissociate itself from Israel in Arab eyes, has caused a profound deterioration of America’s position in the Arab world; it is perfectly understandable, therefore, that the State Department, like the British Foreign Office before it, should wish to be rid of the problem at any cost. Now, the most convenient way to achieve this aim is to put pressure on Israel—an operation for which the United States possesses the necessary leverage—rather than on the Arabs, whose intransigence cannot be affected by Washington and who, in any case, can rely on the Soviet Union for support. If such a policy does not hold out much hope of actually bringing about an agreement, one might argue that it would at least improve America’s image in the Arab world, ease the position of the so-called “conservative” Arab regimes (Lebanon with its banks, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms with their oil), and render them less liable to overthrow by coup d’état in the Libyan manner. Moreover, the argument might continue, such a policy would lessen the danger of a confrontation with the Soviet Union in the Eastern Mediterranean—an area where it is becoming increasingly difficult for American military forces to operate. If the Arab-Israeli dispute cannot be ended—and this, no doubt, would be the first objective of American diplomacy—then something could be done to salvage American economic interests in Arab countries. Those interests are real (they include annually, according to the Economist, $1.7 billion in earnings), and their spokesmen—oil men, airline companies, and so forth—have been making their voices heard in Washington. As against them, support of Israel has little to offer by way of material gain.
The Nixon policy in the Middle East, therefore, operates on two distinct levels. First, it is an attempt to prevent the United States from being drawn into another Arab-Israeli war. Precisely because, in 1967, America could not have avoided “some kind of military involvement if the war had gone on for more than a week or two,” it has seemed urgent to the new administration to assume a somewhat more distant attitude toward the conflict. For although the Soviet Union cannot want the destruction of Israel, if only because its continued existence assures Russian preponderance in the area, no one can be certain of Moscow’s control over Arab client states supplied with Russian arms and encouraged by Russian support. The direction of Soviet policy in the Middle East has been simultaneously to avoid a direct clash with the United States and to extract the maximum profit from the situation. If the Russians were forced to choose between these two objectives, it is hard to say which path they would decide to follow and what the consequences of that decision might be. It is clearly the aim of President Nixon’s policy to avoid confronting them with any such agonizing choice.
Secondly, the shift toward the Arab position discernible in Mr. Rogers’s speech of December 9 is designed to do what can be done to improve the American position within the Arab world—an area which now includes North Africa as well as the Middle East. Here again there are reminiscences of earlier British policies, aptly described some years ago by a high Foreign Office functionary who remarked that he was on the side neither of Israel nor of the Arabs, but of the Iraq Petroleum Company.
At present, American policy toward Israel is being influenced by considerations which may always have been present in the minds of those directly concerned with United States foreign policy, but which under President Johnson were subordinated to the kind of domestic political considerations that have traditionally swayed Democratic administrations in their dealings with Israel. President Nixon is said to have written off the vote of the Northeastern seaboard and is unlikely to get political support from the New York Jewish community whatever he does. He can, therefore, afford to listen to the advice of those professional policymakers who have always felt that the United States was overidentified with Israel. Moreover, after the Six-Day War, there is in Washington an increased awareness of the dangers intrinsic to the Middle East and, after Vietnam, a reluctance to be drawn into them.
The foregoing description of the new shape of American Middle East policy suggests that it is inspired by much the same spirit of prudent Realpolitik as presides over many of the new administration’s activities. Yet it is not enough to wish to be realistic, especially since, in the past, a good deal of so-called “political realism” has turned out to be merely the taking of short-term views. In order to change a policy one must first be sure that it can be changed, that the material available is not so intractable as to leave little opportunity for the construction of viable alternatives. Otherwise, there will be a risk of generating policies which neither produce the results expected of them nor have the advantages of what they are supposed to replace: courses of action usually possessing some form of historical justification for their existence. In fact, the new American policy in the Middle East is by no means as hardheaded a piece of Realpolitik as it is intended to appear. It bears, indeed, many of the characteristics of hasty improvisation on the part of policy planners who feel that they should do something, but have little idea of what that something ought to be. It is hence open to criticism on several counts. In what follows I have intentionally neglected to deal at length with the moral and emotional factors—they are in themselves numerous and compelling—which would argue for continued American support of Israel. But even leaving out of account the moral side of the question, I believe there are serious flaws running through the assumptions on which the Nixon policy is based, and that it is by no means certain that American interests will best be served by a demonstration of impartiality intended to placate the Arabs.
A critique of the Nixon policy in the Middle East might begin with a discussion of two assumptions on which it appears to rest. The first one is that Arab nationalists will in fact be duly appeased by an American shift toward their point of view. The second is that stability in the area will be increased if the United States takes up a position more distant from that of Israel and closer to that of the Russians and their Arab clients than has been the case in the past.
The first assumption is demonstrably very risky. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco will very probably be glad to have some evidence that the United States is taking into consideration their need to show that they are not allied to the ally of Israel. But the number of these “conservative” Arab states is rapidly dwindling, and those that remain seem destined sooner or later to follow Libya down the path of revolutionary nationalism. As for the Arab nationalist movement itself, its leaders will be satisfied with nothing short of the total disappearance of Israel, and the only way the United States could compete for their good will would be by throwing the Israelis over entirely, by consenting in effect to the reconquest of Palestine by the Arabs. Although it is clear that no American government could adopt such a policy, it is equally clear that nothing short of this type of total abandonment of the Israelis is likely to appease the forces unleashed by Arab nationalism. As long as Israel exists, so long will the part played by America in its creation be remembered. America is identified with Israel because, so Arab nationalists think, Israel is a Western country encouraged and sustained by other Western countries, among which the United States is the most powerful. America will continue to be identified with Israel because, in Cairo or Damascus, “American imperialism” provides a convenient alibi for the failure of the Arab countries themselves to destroy their enemy. So powerful and useful a myth is not to be countered with a few diplomatic concessions. The Arabs believe it unlikely that the United States would ever force the Israelis to evacuate Egyptian and Jordanian territory, and this too is taken as evidence that behind the State Department’s enticements lurks the unregenerate protector of the Jewish state.
The United States, in short, is stuck with the consequences of Israel’s existence just as the British were during the decline of their hegemony in the Middle East. There is a parallel here between Britain’s attempts to cut loose from its responsibility for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and America’s present effort to improve its image in the Arab world. The British failure to achieve anything useful by such gestures as Sir Anthony Eden’s 1955 proposals for Israeli territorial concessions to the Arabs suggests that the United States will not gain much by similar tactics today. Solutions intended to persuade Arab nationalists to moderate their maximum demands really deceive nobody, especially since the Soviet Union is prepared to point out at every turn how much further it is willing to go in the Arab interest.
The second assumption behind the recent change in American policy is that movement by the United States toward the Arab (and the Russian) position in the four-power talks at present going on in New York will help to stabilize the local situation, making war less likely and diminishing the risk of a confrontation involving America and Russia. Of course, if the Secretary of State’s proposals really were to lead to the conclusion of a peace between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, or even to the imposition of a peace on the combatants by the four powers (France, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States), then this assumption would clearly have been justified. But does anyone expect either of these happy events to take place? The Arab countries, no doubt, desire an Israeli withdrawal from the territories conquered in June 1967, but, whatever individual statesmen may believe in their heart of hearts, no Arab government can afford to pay the price: a sincere recognition of Israel’s continued existence as a state. Without such recognition, on the other hand, there is no inducement whatsoever for the Israelis to abandon strategic positions which they have won in battle and which they regard as major cards in their arduous game of poker with Cairo and Damascus.
As for the Russians, they certainly do not want any settlement in the Middle East which would deprive them of their role as the protectors of the Arabs or make it possible for the United States to stage a comeback in the area. Of all the parties directly concerned in the Arab-Israeli dispute only America wants a compromise solution. The Arabs and Israelis each want their own solution—the destruction of Israel or its acceptance as a permanent feature of the landscape. The Russians simply want the dispute to go on and the chasm it has hollowed between the United States and the Arabs to remain unbridged. In these circumstances it seems improbable that Mr. Rogers’s proposals will actually bring peace to the Middle East. Even within the State Department they are regarded more as a means of appeasing Arab opinion than as an instrument through which the main problem can be solved.
But if the Middle East policy of the Nixon administration is not going to bring the present (admittedly unsatisfactory) situation to an end, then will it at least lessen the risk of a war, which might come to involve Russia and America, and enhance the stability of the uneasy balance of power which now exists? Roughly speaking, this balance consists, on the one side, of the Arab states supported by Russia and limited in their actions by Israeli military power, but also by a well-founded suspicion on the part of the Russians that when the chips are down the United States will be found backing Israel. On the other side stands Israel, backed to some degree by America, and restrained in its military response to Arab provocation, not so much by the power of the Arabs themselves as by that of their Russian protector. This is an equilibrium which is recognized by all parties, and which found symbolic expression in the meeting at Glassboro between President Johnson and Premier Kosygin after the Six-Day War. It is a balance of power with which all parties are by now familiar—a not unimportant point since political behavior in crises tends to be a matter of conditioned reflexes.
On the basis of these facts it could be argued, contrary to the State Department’s position, that should the Russians or Arabs gain the impression that American support of Israel in a crisis might be in doubt, the balance of power would be seriously affected in such a way as actually to increase the chances for renewed hostilities. Furthermore, the United States at present has some influence in Jerusalem which it exerts to moderate the use of Israel’s undoubted military superiority. But if it were to become apparent to Israel’s leaders that they could not rely on American support in a pinch, then they might be tempted once again to undertake a preventive war—a counsel of despair, no doubt, but better from the Israelis’ point of view than waiting while their international position deteriorates and arms become harder and harder to obtain.
Thus the new course set by the Nixon administration does not seem very likely either to restore American influence in the Arab world or to increase peace and stability in the Middle East; with regard to the latter aim, indeed, it might well prove to be counter-productive. It becomes a bit difficult, therefore, to see what it can achieve. The motives which have led Mr. Rogers and the State Department to their present policy have been discussed above. They are perfectly clear and quite respectable. It is in its estimate of the freedom of maneuver open to the United States in the Middle East that President Nixon’s administration, like other governments before it, has erred. The difficulties and disappointments to which American policy in the Middle East has been and will continue to be subject will not be diminished by taking an unrealistic view of the possibilities. If, as I have suggested, the United States cannot hope to do much about restoring its influence in the Arab world, then it must do what it can to build an alternative policy.
What might such an alternative policy be? In terms of power politics alone, there are a number of arguments for continuing the policy followed by the Johnson administration during and after the Six-Day War-arguments which have nothing to do with the Jewish vote or even with the emotional ties between Israel and the United States. Some of these arguments have already been mentioned, but it is worth repeating them here in a slightly different form, since, once put together, they add up to a coherent and, it might be claimed, more realistic view of America’s role in the Middle East than that adopted by the Nixon administration.
- Whatever concessions the United States may make to Arab nationalist feeling, it cannot carry those concessions to the point of conniving at the destruction of Israel. It will, therefore, always be outbid for Arab affections by the Soviet Union, which operates under no moral or political restraints on this aspect of its policy and is, of course, hostile to Zionism for internal reasons. As for the “conservative” Arab regimes whose life might be made marginally easier by American appeasement of Arab opinion, the chances of their survival offer no firm basis for policy.
- Support of Israel insures the existence of at least one Middle Eastern country friendly to the United States—a country endowed with a stable and efficient system of democratic government, with a high level of technological capability, and with considerable military strength. From the point of view of power politics, this is not an asset to be despised, especially when the general deterioration of the American position in the Mediterranean is taken into consideration.
- Support of Israel is essentially an “offshore” operation, one not likely to require the commitment of American troops on Middle Eastern soil. Given the availability of weapons, the Israelis are quite capable of looking after themselves. On the diplomatic side, the United States would also have to hold its own against the Russians, but this should not be more difficult than it was, say, at the time of the Six-Day War. It is worth noting that the one successful American attempt to influence events in the Arab world—the Eisenhower doctrine—did involve the landing of troops in Lebanon. The Eisenhower doctrine was indeed the first occasion on which the United States undertook a generalized responsibility for the stability of a particular area, the first occasion on which the “world policeman” was seen on his beat. A commitment to Israel would be considerably less difficult to maintain.
- I have already argued that firm American support of Israel, far from increasing international instability, is more likely to lessen it by preserving a local balance which depends essentially on everyone’s actions being predictable. It might be added that, in dangerous international situations, the status quo is often preferable to movement. America, in particular, as a status quo power, has more to lose than to gain from a fluid international situation, and the Middle East crisis provides no exception to this rule. It was sound political instinct that led President Johnson, in his speech of June 19, 1967, to emphasize the need for “recognized and secure frontiers” rather than to raise the question of an Israeli withdrawal from the conquered territories—a concession only conceivable within the framework of what now appears to be an unattainable general settlement. Even an unsatisfactory and unjust status quo gives statesmen more to work with than a totally mobile environment. It is not the least disadvantage of Mr. Rogers’s new plan that it tends to unsettle the one fixed point in the situation accepted by all parties: the present armistice lines.
No doubt, the existence of Israel and of the Arab-Israeli strife is a stumbling-block in the path of American diplomacy. It would not be too paradoxical to say that, in terms of power politics, the United States has every reason for wishing that Israel had never come into existence, while the Soviet Union has every reason for wishing it to remain as an obstacle to reconciliation between America and the Arabs. Yet Israel is there, and its presence does impose a choice upon American policymakers—a choice which ultimately cannot be evaded by talk of “balanced” policies. This, of course, does not mean that the United States should not counsel the Israelis to moderation in the use of their military power, to generosity and humanity in their relations with the Arabs who live in the occupied territories, and to concern for the Arab refugees. No friend of Israel would wish other advice to be given. But it does mean that America should firmly maintain its commitment to Israel’s future and should not call in doubt the solidity of its support by pitching too high its demands for compromise on the part of Israel.
Finally, it was almost certainly not Mr. Rogers’s intention to suggest that the Nixon administration is any less committed to the continued existence of Israel than was its predecessor. In his message to a conference of American Jewish leaders in January, moreover, the President stated that America does not intend to “impose the terms of peace”; and, after all, Israel is also getting delivery of fifty Phantoms and may get more now that France has sold Mirages to Libya. If, however, the Nixon policy for the Middle East does not herald any fundamental change, it is difficult to see what point there was in putting it forward. If, on the other hand, it does imply an alteration large enough to have an impact on the situation, then it is easy to see why the Israelis are worried. But perhaps neither of these interpretations is wholly true. It can more accurately be said that there has been a real change in American policy, but that the facts of the situation will continue recalcitrant in their refusal to fall into the patterns desired by the State Department. This is not precisely a flattering verdict on a carefully planned exercise in diplomacy, but it is one that has often fallen on the efforts of other countries to cope with the problems of the Middle East. In failing to solve those problems America will simply be joining the majority of those who have had anything to do with the area. It remains, however, a matter of some concern that abortive plans, conceived without sufficient regard for brute fact, should not be allowed to make matters worse than they already are.
* * *
Postscript: From mid-January, when the preceding pages were written, to early February, evidence of indecision within the administration continued to present itself. A report in the New York Times that Israel would be allowed to purchase 25 more Phantoms and 80 Skyhawk fighters was instantly pooh-poohed by the State Department. After a meeting in Cairo of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and the Sudan, the United States was implicitly warned that further military aid to Israel might endanger the position of American oil companies in the Middle East, while the Russians, for their part, mustered to the side of their Arab clients with a letter from Premier Kosygin to President Nixon, President Pompidou, and Prime Minister Wilson; this letter hinted strongly that, should more American arms be promised for delivery to Israel, the Soviets stood ready in turn to supply Egypt with the new MIG-23 fighters. In the meantime, President Nixon had more or less reaffirmed the Secretary of State’s “balanced policy” by declaring at his press conference of January 30: “We are neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israel. We are pro-peace”—a statement a good deal more enigmatic than that of the British Foreign Officer quoted above.
All these developments, however, still leave unanswered the question asked at the beginning of this article: “To what degree has the Nixon administration changed American policy in the Middle East?” Strong overtones of in-fighting can now be discerned among different branches of the government, with the State Department stressing the concrete American interests in the area (above all, oil), and the White House displaying a greater consciousness of the domestic political implications of its position toward Israel; perhaps, after all, President Nixon has not despaired of the New York vote. But he must now also be aware that the Russians have put themselves publicly in the position of having to reply in kind to new American deliveries of aircraft to Israel. In the event, much will depend on how far Moscow is willing to go toward involving itself in the Arab-Israeli confrontation. Providing Egypt with MIG-23’s would be a striking gesture, but one with few practical consequences unless pilots were supplied as well—a move that would bring the Soviet Union into the front line of the Arab-Israeli conflict and would risk precipitating a sharp crisis in relations with the United States.
Under the present circumstances, it is, in my opinion, more important than ever that American policy should not show any indecision in its support of Israel. Should the Nixon administration decide, as a result of the threats implicit in Premier Kosygin’s note, not to send further aircraft to Israel, then the Israelis might reasonably draw the conclusion that the Soviet Union possesses a right of veto over the supply of advanced weapons from their one remaining source. And in that case, what would remain but the policy of despair—to provoke a military confrontation as soon as possible? If, on the other hand, the aircraft are promised for delivery, it is more likely that the Soviet Union will refrain from direct military involvement (i.e., sending pilots and technicians with the MIG-23’s), especially if it should be made clear that such involvement would bring about a sharp American reaction. At this level of international crisis, American oil interests in Arab countries and even Mr. Rogers’s conversations with Moroccan or Tunisian leaders are of secondary importance. President Nixon’s declaration of impartiality solves nothing, and it certainly will not prevent the United States from having to make an eventual choice. In the final analysis, as I have already noted, that choice will in any case be assumed by the Arabs to be pro-Israel. The Soviet Union, in addition, is evidently convinced that there is now a sporting chance that America will accept the imbalance in the Middle East already brought about by the French sale of Mirages to Libya; the possible consequences of such an attitude are unpleasant to contemplate. At the time of the Six-Day War, Russia hesitated to intervene directly in the Arab-Israeli struggle, and its hesitation was in large measure traceable to the firm position adopted by the United States. A similar clarity of policy today is the only course likely to prevent further escalation in the Middle East.