The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
If either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan needed any special persuasion to become convinced of the centrality of the Middle East in the total picture of American foreign policy, harsh experience provided it. The former had some notable diplomatic successes in the region, the Camp David accords and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, but he struggled through the final year of his presidency under the impact of two shattering events-the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However history may judge his efforts to cope with them, there was no avoiding the impression of a humiliated and frustrated America which must have contributed to his electoral defeat in November 1980. President Reagan came into office determined to restore American strength and prestige, but one year later his Administration, shocked by the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, at odds with Israel after a series of disputes culminating in the barbed exchange following Israel's de facto annexation of the Golan Heights, and unable either to put aside the Palestine problem or make any progress toward settling it, was still groping for a political structure on which to build the position of strength deemed necessary to hold off the Russians and protect vital oil supplies.
President Carter bequeathed to his successor a policy of containment: a commitment publicly declared in January 1980 to repel, by force if necessary, any Soviet attempt to gain control of the Persian Gulf region; a decision to build up U.S. military power, including a Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) which could be brought to bear in that region; and a hope of gaining for the containment policy strong support from other nations. He also bequeathed an American role, as partner, in the continuing negotiation between Israel and Egypt under the Camp David accords. The making of peace between those two countries was going well and was to be completed by Israel's withdrawal from the remainder of the Sinai peninsula in April 1982. The other part of the Camp David process, the establishment of autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was not going well at all; in fact, the negotiations had made no real progress for more than a year. President Sadat had counted on a tripartite summit meeting-himself, Prime Minister Begin and President Carter-to be held late in 1980 to revive them with a better chance of success. But Carter's defeat at the polls put an abrupt end to that idea.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, American policy at the end of the Carter term was a patchwork of bits and pieces and blank spots. Relations with Iran had been dominated by the question of the American hostages, who were not released until the President's last day in office. As long as the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) should remain in power, the prospects for a government with which the United States could have even minimal relations would be remote. Iran, moreover, was at war with Iraq, with obvious dangers to American interests, but America had no cards to play with either side. Neighboring Pakistan, vulnerable to external pressure and plagued by internal disaffection, was a candidate for U.S. aid, but President Zia ul-Haq had found the Carter Administration's offer not worth the risks of accepting it.
As for Saudi Arabia, the leading oil producer and key to any American policy in the Gulf, the royal house of al-Saud was saying, as usual, very little. The Saudis seemed to be worried by America's weakness and lack of resolve but at the same time distrustful of U.S. diplomacy and desirous of keeping U.S. power at arm's length. The attack on the Grand Mosque of Mecca by a band of fanatics in 1979 and other internal events, moreover, had raised questions about the long-term stability of the kingdom to which it was not clear that Riyadh, much less Washington, had the answers. Syria was as hostile as ever to the United States. Jordan, a traditional friend, was reserved. Lebanon was in chaos, prey to its own warring factions and the ambitions of outsiders.
The Middle East "arc of crisis" was definitely still in crisis at the beginning of 1981. The outgoing Administration, with its mixed record, had nevertheless tried to build its policies on national interests generally recognized and followed by every American President since World War II. The new Administration would not be likely to change the aims, but would have to decide whether the means were adequate and the strategy right.
Ronald Reagan brought no ready-made policy for the Middle East with him when he took over the White House. His campaign themes had been general: America had been weak, had failed to stand up to the Russians and would have to build up her strength and her international standing, in the Middle East as elsewhere, so that there would be no more Irans, no more Afghanistans, symbols of American humiliation and defeat. His specific references were to Israel, as is customary in presidential campaigns, but they went beyond the standard pledges of friendship and support to describe Israel as a strategic asset for the United States, a potential bulwark of a new and stronger security in the region.
In the first months of 1981 the emphasis was on increasing military power, which meant carrying on the Carter program but with more speed and more muscle. The new Administration kept in place the two carrier task forces already in the Indian Ocean and moved ahead with the planned Rapid Deployment Force, which was to be bigger and more effective. It continued the search and the negotiations for facilities-in Oman, Somalia, Egypt and elsewhere-which U.S. forces could use regularly or in time of crisis, and also the expansion of the base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The chief aim of these early decisions was to impress the Soviets with America's seriousness of purpose and capacity to act. They were also intended to convince the governments and peoples of the Middle East that America would be strong of arm and firm of will, a steadfast friend and a redoubtable foe. If leaders such as Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan or the Saudi rulers harbored doubts as to American constancy or dependability-as, in varying degrees, they did-the Reagan Administration wished to dispel those doubts.
Military power in the region was important as a deterrent to overt military moves by the Soviet Union. That proposition does not assume that the Soviet leaders had the intention of moving into Iran or Pakistan or seizing the oil fields of the Gulf, or that they will decide to do so in the future. It has always been the conundrum of a successful policy of containment that the containing power rarely knows if the result would have been the same whether or not the measures of deterrence were taken. But it was clear to both the Carter and Reagan Administrations that, after Afghanistan, America could not risk not having visible and substantial power in or near the region. The RDF, certainly at the outset of 1981 and probably at any later time, would not be able to contain at the border a full-scale Soviet invasion of Iran or Pakistan. But it could still give pause to the men in the Kremlin in that it would face them with the fact, if they should move, of a conflict with America, one that would not be cheaply won in the Middle East and might not be confined there. Furthermore, the building of American strength, as Washington saw it, could deprive the Soviets of the means of bending local states to their will by the exercise of crude political pressure backed by uncontested military superiority. It was, therefore, a necessary backdrop to whatever political and diplomatic strategy Washington might choose to pursue.
The key question, of course, was what the strategy would be. By what its spokesmen said or left unsaid, the new Administration laid itself open to the charge of equating military power with policy and counting on it to turn unfavorable situations into favorable ones. What had happened in Iran, where for so many years the United States had relied on the Shah to maintain order and stability and help defend American interests, held for the new foreign policy "team" a salutary lesson: for the protection of vital interests there was no substitute for American power. But that was not the only lesson. In any event, if they were not ready with a defined or definable political strategy, they had, at the very least, to examine the political requirements of the proposed military posture. What relations with the local states-such as commitments, alliances, forms of military cooperation and planning, arms transfers, use of bases and other facilities-were necessary to create the desired position of strength against the U.S.S.R.? With what states in particular? On what basis of common concern could cooperation be built? Were Washington's priorities those of its presumed and potential friends in the region? As those questions were answered, or not answered, in the course of the year, the outlines of a political strategy might appear.
When Secretary of State Alexander Haig made his initial visit to the region in April those questions were surely in the minds of his hosts even though they apparently received no extended discussion. Secretary Haig's guiding idea was that of "strategic consensus" as a basis for defense of the area. It was a new phrase for an old concept. For three decades Haig's predecessors had been trying to organize the defense of the Middle East against the Soviet threat, with mixed results. In 1953, soon after taking office, John Foster Dulles had made a trip to the region on a similar quest for friends and allies. He came away with the idea that those who were ready to cooperate with each other and with the West should form a security organization. The resultant northern tier alliance or Baghdad Pact (later the Central Treaty Organization or CENTO) was enthusiastically welcomed, and its members armed, by the United States. However, although it maintained an existence of sorts for many years, the alliance could not withstand the stresses of internal revolution, regional conflict, and differing priorities. One by one the regional members (except Turkey) dropped away: first Iraq, then Pakistan, then Iran, leaving only the decision for formal burial in 1979.
It was a measure of the retreat of American power and influence over the years that Secretary Haig would have to look for his strategic consensus mainly in the southern tier, with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman, possibly linked in some way with Turkey and with Pakistan.
Those various nations, however, had very little or no consensus with each other. Arab states which had thrown Egypt out of the Arab League because Sadat had made peace with Israel with American encouragement and help would not be willing to join Egypt in a new alignment under American sponsorship. Nor could they even think of association with Israel. Pakistan was preoccupied with its own special situation in relation to India. Turkey was standing firmly by its NATO alignment, but Turkey was not accepted as a leader or partner by the Arab states despite her efforts to move in that direction.
Secretary Haig was well aware of these differences, but he sensed that all the countries were, or should be, exercised about the Soviet threat. The Islamic states had formally condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the United Nations and at three meetings of the Islamic Conference, the most recent in January 1981, and had expressed the same fears and concerns through diplomatic channels. Israel's anti-Soviet convictions were beyond question. There might be, therefore, a basis for consensus between each of the states individually and the United States, from which the latter could somehow fashion a structure serving the security of all.
That would be no simple task. American diplomats, in setting about it, were bound to run into all the unsolved and unsolvable problems with which they had been contending for years. What could be done about them, even with greater military power and a firmer will, was not subject to dramatic change. Talk of new initiatives in the Middle East invariably accompanies a change from one party to another in the seats of power in Washington, and 1981 was no exception. But, just as invariably, the elements of continuity based on generally accepted ideas of the national interest tend to assert themselves as a new Administration gets to the business at hand. So it was with Alexander Haig and his new team, which on the professional level was not without representation from former teams.
In brief, the basic aims of the United States in the Middle East were: first, security, denial of the area to Soviet control, maintenance of the independence of the Middle East nations, and prevention of situations which could lead to nuclear war; second, oil supply, the continued availability of Middle East oil to the rest of the world in adequate quantity and on bearable terms; and third, relative stability, or more accurately, the containment of instability which could jeopardize attainment of the first two aims. Purposes had not changed very much from Truman to Carter, and would not change very much under Reagan.
The new look, to the extent that it was more than cosmetic, had to do largely with perceptions of the Soviet Union and of Middle East politics and with the choice of means to pursue the established ends. The Administration could choose its own means and set its course, but, as with its predecessors, the range of choice and the chances of success were constricted by the policies and decisions of other states, the availability of resources, the interaction with policies in other parts of the world, the demands of domestic politics, and the unpredictability of events in the Middle East; indeed, the only certainty was that unexpected and upsetting events would occur there. It was against this background that Washington began its efforts to find strategic consensus and establish a position of greater strength and stability in the region. Perhaps the best way to describe those efforts is to look at the individual countries and areas where aims had to be translated into practice, noting how American policies shaped, or were shaped by, the unfolding events of the year.
From the moment of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Washington began to talk of "Southwest Asia" instead of the Middle East as the area of crisis and of American concern. Whatever the geographic terms, the focus of attention was the Gulf and its oil. The "Carter Doctrine," the declaration by the President in his State of the Union message in January 1980, warned the Soviets that any further advance beyond Afghanistan threatening the vital oil region would run into American resistance using all means necessary, not excluding armed force. President Reagan was not about to declare his espousal of a doctrine bearing Jimmy Carter's name-the term, in any case, was an invention of the press-but the policy remained the same: America would not remain indifferent to the advance of Soviet power into Iran or Pakistan. But how could such a policy be made effective?
In the case of Iran, the United States in the eyes of Tehran was the "Great Satan," responsible for all the ills and problems of that country. Therefore, the actual America, however distinct it might be from the Ayatollah Khomeini's image of America, could not change or even affect Iran's future international orientation. The internal struggle between the clerical Islamic Republican Party and the more secular elements represented by President Bani-Sadr, Mehdi Bazargan and others had been decided by early 1981, in favor of the former. Ultimate power remained with Khomeini, whose outlook left not the slightest opening for normal relations with the United States. The hostage crisis was over, as of the first day of the Reagan Administration, but neither side was ready even to look at common interests the two countries might have in holding off the Russians or in rebuilding the Iranian economy from the turmoil and the wreckage of the revolution and the war with Iraq. The only consolation for Americans was that Iran was almost as negative in her relations with the "lesser Satan," the U.S.S.R.
Washington was, however, as aware as Moscow of the key geographical position of Iran. While neither power exercised significant influence on what was going on inside that country, each had warned the other against intervention on penalty of being faced with military countermeasures. Each tried to figure out, meanwhile, how to make the best, or avoid the worst, of whatever the results of Iran's internal travail might be. Moscow's bets, for the present, seemed to be not on the militant secular and socialist factions, such as the Mujahedeen and Fedayeen, but on Khomeini and the Islamic dogmatists, who had gained the upper hand. The Iranian Communists, the Tudeh, presumably on Moscow's orders, were cooperating with the IRP, taking the risk that if the clerical regime were overthrown, the Tudeh would go down with it. Washington's bets were on a change or evolution of the regime taking place without dissolution of public order or fragmentation of the country, with the hope that any regime in power in Tehran would hold to the idea of Iran's vital interest in the integrity of the country against any Soviet attempts to interfere. The contemplated buildup of American military power in the region was intended to convey the message that the United States could prevent such interference, even though the Ayatollah might see the buildup more as a menace than a protection.
This muted duel was evident in the attitudes which both powers adopted toward the Iraq-Iran war. The Soviets had a security treaty with Iraq but were already disillusioned with President Saddam Hussein's independent policies, including the decision to go to war, which seemed to ignore Soviet interests. They took a public position of neutrality but accompanied it with unobtrusive measures representing a definite tilt in favor of Iran. In Russian strategy over the years Iran had always held a position of higher priority, and still did. For the United States as well, having no diplomatic relations and few means of persuasion with either side-although each in its propaganda proclaimed the other to be an American tool-neutrality was the indicated course. It was not politic to alienate Arab friends, principally Saudi Arabia and Jordan, by taking sides against a sister Arab state which they were helping. Nor was it wise to open doors to the Soviets by appearing to support Iraq against Iran.
For Washington the war was a nuisance and could become a disaster if it spread to other lands or cut down oil exports from the Gulf to the point where the West's needs could not be met. Neither eventuality happened. The war settled down to a stalemate throughout 1981, and the fall in oil exports from the two belligerent states was more than matched by the decline in world demand for oil. In Iran the clerical regime displayed a remarkable capacity for survival in the face of both foreign and civil war, armed revolt in the Kurdish areas, the ousting of President Bani-Sadr, loss of part of the main oil-producing area to Iraqi occupation, the assassination of many key leaders of the dominant IRP, and the disruption and decline of the economy. Toward Khomeini's Iran the United States did not find it possible to have a policy, but the vital American strategic interest in the country remained. It was a time for the analysts and the planners, not for active diplomacy.
The other country immediately threatened by the Soviet move into Afghanistan, and therefore of great concern to the United States, was Pakistan. The government of President Zia ul-Haq, already insecure as a result of Iran's revolution and of political troubles at home, let it be known that the door was open to offers of American support. The Carter Administration had demonstrated its interest through the President's strong "Carter Doctrine" statement in January 1980, and a bilateral security agreement dating from 1959 and providing for joint consultation in time of crisis was still in force. Pakistan had long since lost her enthusiasm for formal alignment with America, however. What Zia and his generals desired above all was up-to-date weaponry to use as they saw fit.
The Carter Administration's effort to strike a deal was frustrated by Zia's contemptuous rejection of its proposal of $400 million in military and economic aid as insufficient ("peanuts," in his phrase) and apparently not worth incurring increased pressure from the Russians; and, on the American side, by the contrast between Pakistan's record on the issues of human rights and nuclear nonproliferation and the international standards Carter was trying to establish. From the standpoint of Reagan and Haig, Pakistan was so important to the policy of containing Soviet power that these remnants of the Carter philosophy should not be allowed to thwart the higher security interest. Consequently, they offered a much larger aid package on a longer term basis and without setting conditions objectionable to Pakistan. The deal was then negotiated and concluded in June for $3.2 billion in economic and military aid over six years, plus the sale and delivery of 40 F-16 aircraft (which the Pakistanis hoped to pay for with their own and Saudi funds).
The aid to Pakistan was not aimed primarily at enabling that country to fight off a major Soviet invasion, although it might contribute to making an invasion less likely, but at meeting the existing dangerous situation on the northwest frontier. That frontier was being crossed by Afghan refugees and by resistance fighters intent on carrying on the struggle against the Soviets and their puppet Afghan regime, and also occasionally by Soviet forces pursuing their foes to their base areas. A porous border also increased the potential for Soviet troublemaking among disaffected ethnic groups in Pakistan. Zia's interest in getting U.S. weapons to help in inducing Soviet restraint, keeping control of the border, and maintaining with other Islamic countries, within safe limits, a posture of support for Afghan resistance to Soviet rule was clear enough. If the aid should be insufficient, then it would merely expose Pakistan to Soviet intimidation and pressure without adequate assurance of American backing to justify the risks. For that reason the Administration was inclined to give Zia more or less what he wanted, and was prepared to make a strong case to the Congress, which had to vote the funds.
Opponents of the deal raised a number of objections. Their most persistent criticism was of the failure of the U.S. government to insist on safeguards against Pakistan's making nuclear weapons. On the political side critics, citing the baleful example of the Shah's Iran, pointed to Zia's regime as an unstable and unpopular dictatorship which denied civil and political rights to its citizens and self-expression to its national minorities, faults and weaknesses which arms would not remedy but just make worse. On the military side they held that whatever the quantity and quality of the arms provided, Pakistan would be no better able to defend herself against the Russians; and besides, the F-16 aircraft were too advanced for the Pakistanis and were needed by U.S. and NATO forces. Finally, there was the old complaint, proved by prior experience, that Pakistan was seeking arms primarily against India, and that by "tilting" in favor of Pakistan the United States would alienate India and thrust her more decisively to the side of the Soviet Union.
The Administration could hardly succeed in satisfying all its critics. But it could argue plausibly that the security factor, in the light of what had happened in Afghanistan, tipped the balance in favor of making the deal. This meant, since Zia wrapped himself in the mantle of sovereignty and nonalignment, that the United States could not dictate to him conditions limiting his domestic or foreign policies. On the nonproliferation issue the Administration not only had to give way to Pakistan but, having done so, had to try to persuade the Congress to waive the provisions of the Symington Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which barred aid in such instances. The decision represented a confession of failure, but prior efforts to control Pakistan's nuclear program had been unavailing, and it was at least possible that large-scale aid in conventional weapons would give Pakistan a greater sense of security with less inclination to count on the nuclear option. The closer the nexus of U.S.-Pakistani military cooperation, the greater the element of constraint, since Pakistan would know that setting off a nuclear explosion would almost certainly bring that cooperation to an end. The Congress, in passing new foreign aid legislation in December, gave the President the right to waive the termination of the Symington Amendment, but only for a 30-day period after the detonation, during which time Congress would have to authorize any extension of the waiver.
Perhaps the most valid criticism to be made of the policy toward Pakistan was of the limited focus of a six-year agreement made with one country, and with a government having dubious credentials and prospects, without any wider strategic and political thinking embracing a larger area. Pakistan is connected with India in the subcontinent; both are deeply affected by Soviet control of Afghanistan, though they have reacted to it in different ways. If India and Pakistan take as the overriding premise of foreign policy their enmity for each other, then an outside power will have to make the same assumption. But events which change the global or regional patterns of power also crack habitual patterns of thought and policy.
Both countries understand that by itself Pakistan is no longer a threat to India's preeminent position in the subcontinent, and that Soviet power on the Khyber Pass and the possibility of Soviet domination of Pakistan cannot fail to concern India. A Chinese-Indian rapprochement, some signs of which have appeared, can help to reduce Indian fear of Pakistan as a Chinese surrogate. The once familiar picture of polarization, with a U.S.S.R.-India bloc and a China-Pakistan-America bloc in armed confrontation, may not be the picture of the future.
The United States, to be sure, has to act in the world as it is. Pakistan was vulnerable, Pakistan wanted aid, and so the decision was taken to provide it, without waiting for democracy or nuclear sanity in Pakistan or for changes of mind and heart in Indo-Pakistani relations. The absence of a broader approach, however, may have its negative effects in the future, if only in the tendency of a long-term bilateral program to create its own momentum, its own vested interests and adverse reactions, and to shut off other opportunities. For if one thing is certain, it is that no strategy for the security of Pakistan can succeed over the long run unless it also serves the security, and gains the cooperation, of India.
Pakistan does, however, face west as well as east, and her connections with the Gulf states and with the Arab world give added relevance to her place in American efforts to protect the sources of oil vital to the West. This theme can be exaggerated, of course, as it was when the Western powers in the 1950s tried to make Pakistan the eastern anchor, matching Turkey in the west, of the northern-tier barrier against the Russians. Yet it has had much more substance in the past few years than in that earlier time. Pakistan's shared concern with other Islamic states about the Soviet Union (about both superpowers, for that matter) and about issues such as Palestine and Jerusalem has led to increasing ties with Arab states, including cooperation in the military field, especially with Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is benevolently inclined toward the Gulf Cooperation Council, a fledgling organization including Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arab states of the Gulf. These connections are developing without U.S. initiative or management-and perhaps all the more significant on that account-but may well be given added strength and durability by continuing American aid to Pakistan.
After the loss of Iran, the remaining "pillar" of U.S. strategy in the 1970s, Saudia Arabia, was more important than ever in American eyes, indispensable to any viable policy. She was the one major state in the Gulf with which the United States had friendly relations, the only hope for maintaining a political and military position there. She gave the lead to the smaller Gulf states, from Kuwait to Oman, and retained links with Iraq, which still had no diplomatic relations with Washington but was increasing ties with the West to balance the Soviet connection. Saudi Arabia had weight in the Arab world, not in the military dimension but through oil wealth and financial diplomacy, and also because of the prestige that went with being the land of Mohammed and guardian of the holiest places of Islam. As a moderate Arab state able to communicate with both the radical and the more traditional or pro-Western regimes, Saudi Arabia was able to exert considerable influence in calming inter-Arab disputes, as in Lebanon.
American hopes for broadening the Arab-Israeli peace process also rested mainly on the Saudis despite their rejection of Camp David and their break with Sadat for dealing separately with Israel. Saudi Arabia might bring its influence to bear on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to accept the existence of Israel and thus break down the barriers to a more realistic negotiation about the Palestinian future than the narrow and unproductive "autonomy talks" going on between Egypt and Israel. And there was little chance of getting Jordan to participate in negotiations unless King Hussein had Saudi encouragement and support to do so.
Finally, and most important, Saudi Arabia was by far the Middle East's leading producer and exporter of oil. With the sharp fall in exports from Iran and Iraq, Saudi oil was absolutely essential to the West, and Saudi oil policy was crucial because that country accounted for close to half of the production of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). By keeping the level in the neighborhood of 10 million barrels per day, the Saudis could play the leading role in OPEC and exert downward pressure on world prices. They did so primarily for their own reasons rather than to help the Western economies or to please the Americans, but whatever the reasons, the latter had a vital interest in maintenance of Saudi production at current high levels, and therefore in the security of Saudi Arabia and the good-will of her rulers.
Saudi Arabia was an American friend of long standing, from the time when King Abdul Aziz first granted an oil concession to Standard Oil of California in the 1930s. Yet the bases of that friendship had never been established beyond questioning on both sides, and its course was not uniformly smooth. The problems faced by Washington in 1981, like those of the past, revolved around (1) how to reconcile U.S. interests in security and oil with Saudi Arabian interests as seen by the Saudis; and (2) how to handle the whole complex of Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab-Israeli conflict and settlement in the light of Saudi and American attitudes marked not just by misunderstanding but by fundamental differences in outlook. Moreover, no matter how hard the United States might try to do so, it was impossible to keep the question of security in the Gulf separate from that of Palestine.
All these points came to the surface in 1981, and were subjected to heated debate in the United States, in connection with the proposed sale of five Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and additional military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Before discussing that affair, let us look briefly at Saudi Arabia herself, her internal strength and weakness and her international role, for those matters were always underlying the policy debate and often on its surface. It may provide a means of judging how far Saudi Arabia could or would play the part envisaged for her by policy planners in Washington.
She is not a strong state in the usual sense, having a very small population on a very large territory poor in useful resources except petroleum. Still close to its pre-modern past, Saudi society has been shaken by rapid economic and social change accompanying sudden oil wealth, a vast and frenzied development program, and multiplying contacts with the outside world including an influx of foreign labor and other elements not sharing the Saudi heritage or institutions. Unsettling as they are, these phenomena do not lead to categorical conclusions about the stability of the system. Disaffection exists among conservatives who fear the erosion of traditional values, among the Shi'a minority in the eastern part of the country who were stirred by the revolution in Iran, among officers in the armed forces, and also among Western-educated Saudi citizens rising within the economic system but generally excluded from political power and responsibility.
The situation, however, is not like that of the Shah's Iran, in which an increasingly isolated monarch behaved more and more imperiously and alienated large segments of the population. The Saudi royal family, some 4,000 strong, is rooted in the society, and its members are everywhere. It has shown great flexibility and adaptability to changing conditions and to times of crisis. It was able to manage the succession when one King (Saud) proved incompetent and when another (Faisal) was assassinated. It does not have to contend with a politically ambitious class of mullahs such as exists in Iran and it has maintained the close connection between Islam and the house of al-Saud that dates from the beginning of the state.
Saudi Arabia's foreign policies have been constrained by the basic weaknesses of the country and by the natural caution of her rulers. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia automatically acquired influence by virtue of vast oil reserves, sovereign control over production levels and prices, buying power and appetite for Western goods and services, and surplus oil revenues capable of helping other countries and also of disrupting the international financial system. In these economic matters the Saudis, in the American view, had behaved circumspectly and responsibly. Much of their oil money went to buy American equipment, technology and management for their development program, and some was invested in U.S. Treasury obligations. They always had at their disposal, of course, the "oil weapon," which they could use for political purposes, as in 1973, if they thought circumstances demanded it; but in recent years they have given no sign of such an intention.
In the more limited and familiar area of the Middle East the Saudi rulers employed their financial power to more specific political advantage. They could use it traditionally, if crudely, in trying to buy the allegiance of tribal leaders in this or that smaller state on the periphery of the Arabian peninsula. Or they could put their hand into the larger game of inter-Arab politics. Having influence with Jordan and with Syria, for example, because they provided subsidies to both, they were able to calm a Syrian-Jordanian dispute which reached the brink of open warfare in December 1980. They also had influence over the leadership of the PLO, though not of its more radical components, and were instrumental in bringing Yasir Arafat to accept a truce with Israeli and Israeli-supported forces in Lebanon in July 1981.
This aspect of Saudi foreign policy was especially prized by the United States as a contribution to stability and to the prospects for an Arab-Israeli settlement. Saudi leadership in the Arab world, however, was neither generally recognized nor consistently effective. At bottom, it was defensive. The Saudi leaders made public protestations of crusading against communism and zionism, seen as twin evils. But above all they were fearful of radicalism which might reach their country from Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Libya, or through the extremists of the PLO. Their defense was not to meet it head-on and thus promote division and struggle in the Arab world, but to smother the conflicts with talk of Arab solidarity, to placate the radical Arab regimes rather than to challenge them, and to support and finance the PLO instead of trying to suppress it. When Sadat made his choice for negotiation with Israel, the Saudis pointedly did not join him, and when he signed the Camp David accords, they joined the radicals in condemning him, breaking relations and cutting off financial aid.
Similar ambiguities and contradictions marked Saudi Arabia's relations with the United States. A special relationship based on mutual security had grown up over a long period. In the early years after World War II the Saudis had made the Dhahran airfield available to the U.S. Strategic Air Command. The United States, through a series of presidential letters and official statements though not by formal treaty, had given assurances of protection of the independence and integrity of the kingdom, and at various times had given substance to that commitment by diplomatic action or military demonstration. President Reagan made the most far-reaching pledge of all when he told the press that the United States would not permit Saudi Arabia "to be an Iran,"1 a guarantee, apparently, of protection against internal revolution as well as external attack.
The historical record of this security relationship, however, also illustrates its limitations. The American commitments were low-key, even secret, not advertised by either government. The Saudis always avoided formal alignment with the United States. They did not hesitate to cut off oil exports in 1967 and again in 1973 when they judged American actions to be trampling on Arab and Saudi interests. They were disturbed by Soviet gains in the Horn of Africa, by the emergence on their border of a self-styled Marxist state closely tied to the U.S.S.R. (the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen), by the fall of the Shah and the revolutionary militance of Khomeini, and by the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan. But even those shifts in the balance did not bring them running to the United States for a more formal security relationship.
They wanted American power to balance and deter that of the U.S.S.R. and her client states in the area, but not to have that power on or too close to the territory of Saudi Arabia. They wanted U.S. arms and training missions. They did not want U.S. troops, bases, prepositioned matériel or a system of close strategic cooperation. They did not go nearly as far as Sadat in this direction, either in statement or in action. If American pressure should become too strong, or the American presence overweening, the most likely result would be an internal shift of power within the royal family at the expense of those closely associated with the American connection.
Saudi unwillingness to appear to compromise the principles of independence and nonalignment, on grounds of fidelity to the nation's own traditions and its position in the Arab world, was strengthened by the central importance given to the question of Palestine. Saudi attachment to the cause of the Palestinians had a number of motives: Arab solidarity, intense feeling for Jerusalem as a holy place of Islam, influence of Palestinians within Saudi Arabia, and fear of radicalism or revolution sparked by the PLO or others. Whatever specific weight one may give to each motive, the United States was not able to change any of them as long as the Saudis saw U.S. policy as totally supportive of Israel and deaf to Palestinian rights. Palestine thus cast a very large shadow on U.S.-Saudi relations.
Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis felt they were taking considerable account of American interests and that America, in failing to move Israel on the Palestine question, was taking less account of theirs. They felt quite justified, since they desired modern arms, in making Washington's willingness to sell such arms a test of American friendship. So it was in 1978, when they asked for F-15 aircraft. President Carter complied, paying the price of Israeli displeasure and getting the proposal through Congress by joining to it a package of arms for Israel. That was considered a watershed decision, showing that U.S. policy toward an Arab state was not subject to veto by Israel's supporters in the United States. But it was a watershed that had to be crossed again, for Saudi Arabia was interested in buying additional equipment for the F-15s, previously denied, to increase their range, and also five AWACS planes for better intelligence and defense. Accordingly, one of the first items on President Reagan's foreign policy agenda was a new test of the special relationship.
The decision to go ahead was made early. It was immediately denounced by the Begin government as a direct threat to Israel. The task of getting congressional approval was difficult enough without mismanagement, which the executive branch provided in generous measure. That is not the main story here, except as the whole affair affected U.S. relations with Israel and with Saudi Arabia, and thus the ability of the United States to act effectively in the Middle East. The White House did not gird itself for the inevitable battle until opponents had lined up a majority of Senators against the proposal. In the House the Administration knew it had no chance to win; it therefore concentrated on the Senate, as under the legislation the sale could not be blocked unless both houses voted against it.
It was not strictly a referendum on Israel, although that was the central issue. Some Senators had reservations having nothing to do with Israel, such as why sophisticated equipment should go to a backward country which would not have the competence to use it; why the United States should not insist on joint control of the AWACS planes; and whether those planes, delivered to a regime which could be overthrown any day, might wind up in the hands of the Soviet Union. The Administration went as far as it could in giving assurances to Senators, but the Saudis were not prepared to oblige by accepting restrictions on their sovereignty. Much of the debate bordered on the unreal, as the AWACS planes were not to be delivered until 1986, and anything could happen in the Middle East in five years.
In the end the President had to appeal to the argument that repudiation of the deal would strike at his ability to conduct the foreign policy of the United States, and had to use all the power of his position to persuade individual Senators to support him. The final vote, taken on October 28, showed a 52-48 margin against the resolution that would have blocked the sale. The come-from-behind victory was not achieved without cost. It had roiled relations with many in Congress, drawn down the President's political capital, and strained relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Despite the final outcome and the President's demonstrated willingness to go all out to save the deal, all was not sugar and spice with the Saudis. They felt humiliated and insulted by the long process in which their stability, competence and trustworthiness were questioned day after day. They must have expected some of it, given a minimal understanding of the American constitutional system. But the way in which the whole matter was handled practically guaranteed that the U.S. political gain with Saudi Arabia would be marginal. The Saudis were not going to rush into military cooperation for defense of the oil fields, as the Pentagon had hoped, just because of the AWACS decision. Their role as a moderate force for Arab-Israeli peace, praised by the Administration and denigrated by opponents of the sale, remained to be tested.
As for U.S.-Israeli relations, the deterioration was palpable. When Prime Minister Begin visited Washington in early September, he made his case against the AWACS and the equipment for the F-15s to the President and to Secretary Haig. They apparently understood that he would not openly join the fray as the Senate approached the time of decision. He had, however, already made public statements, giving the cue to American Jewish organizations mounting a vigorous effort aimed at the Congress, and continued to make them. He also delivered himself of vitriolic verbal assaults on Saudi Arabia, calling the royal family, inter alia, medieval, despotic, corrupt and a supporter of terrorism. His Foreign Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, gave a speech on American soil expanding Begin's themes in even more pungent words. All this, at a time when the President was trying to convince the Senate that Saudi Arabia was a constructive force for peace in the Middle East, did not sit well with Washington. Reagan's press conference remark that no foreign country was going to dictate the foreign policy of the United States bore witness to the tension, evident also in muffled talk of "Reagan or Begin" as the real issue of the AWACS vote and in allegations of anti-Semitism. The Administration did not want it that way, but saw the AWACS watershed as one that had to be crossed if American prestige and position in the area were not to suffer a disastrous loss.
After the battle was over, Washington was looking for ways to heal the wounds and be responsive to Israeli desires for U.S. support, whether in the form of additional arms, plans for strategic cooperation, votes and vetoes in the United Nations, or statements for the Camp David process and against the PLO. On the military balance, Secretary Haig pledged that America would make sure that Israel maintained a "qualitative edge" over the Arabs. Hastening to make up, however, did not do much to appease Israel. It also tended to fudge the issues brought out by the AWACS affair and to set the stage for future conflicts of interest clouded by misunderstanding. These would certainly come, perhaps not far in the future, for both countries now had to face the fact of the stalemate in the Camp David negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza, in short, the Palestine question.
For some time American diplomacy on the Arab-Israeli question had been relatively inactive. By the time of the 1980 election campaign President Carter had run out of miracles and confined himself to preaching the virtues of the Camp David process. Then, after the November election, uncertainty continued through the interregnum and beyond, as the new Administration examined its choices and waited for the results of Secretary Haig's projected trip to the Middle East and the expected visits of Sadat and Begin to Washington.
At that point the state of play was, briefly, the following: (1) the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 was being carried out by both sides, with the final Israeli withdrawal from the eastern part of Sinai set for April 1982; (2) the negotiations on autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza had not attracted Palestinian or Jordanian participation and had made very little progress, with Israel determined strictly to limit the functions of the future Palestinian authority and Egypt standing on a broad interpretation of the "full autonomy" agreed upon at Camp David; (3) the question of Jerusalem had been put aside at Camp David by an agreement to disagree, but was never far beneath the surface and came up in the discussion of such matters as whether Jerusalem Arabs would vote in the election for the proposed Palestinian authority; (4) tension was growing on all Israel's frontiers except the one with Egypt, exacerbated by Arab unrest and Israeli repression in the occupied territories, PLO militancy, and a chaotic situation in Lebanon.
It was clear that Haig did not intend to plunge into these matters. His and the President's priority was the military balance with the Soviet Union. Since Southwest Asia was the region where the worst erosion of Western power had taken place, strategic realities and increasing Soviet intervention, said Haig, were more important than isolated issues such as the Arab-Israeli dispute. Why rush into discussions on the West Bank problem, which was obviously an obstacle to strategic consensus, when it could be left in the background for a while? Anyway, the Israeli election due to take place later in the year might change the negotiating picture.
The difficulty with that approach was that the problem would not stay in the background. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Jordan brought it up, and not in terms favorable to Camp David, whenever American diplomats talked to them about strategic cooperation. And the more America talked about strategic cooperation with Israel, the more difficult it was for Arab leaders to offer cooperation of any kind. Sadat was the exception, but even he was coming under criticism and pressure at home because of the inflexibility of Israel's positions in the autonomy talks and policies in the occupied territories. The United States might wish to arm them all against the Russians, but the recipients looked at the flow of weapons in terms of the local balance and of who would use them against whom. There was no evading the political factors that underlay how the Middle East governments regarded America's new strategy.
Before long, events and decisions outside the Camp David negotiations were pushing American diplomacy into thickets it would have preferred to avoid. They led to a deterioration of U.S. relations with Israel in the first half of 1981, all the sharper because both sides had expected something different. Reagan came into office after a pro-Israel campaign, with many advisers who subscribed to the idea of Israel as a strategic asset. The early statements of high officials, including the President himself, referred to the PLO as a terrorist organization and expressed understanding of Israel's policies on such matters as pursuit of Arab guerrillas across the borders. The result was to strengthen the Begin government in the belief it could count on a more favorable American attitude toward measures taken for Israel's security.
Disillusion came fairly rapidly on both sides, largely because Begin took ever more drastic measures to strike at the PLO in Lebanon and to suppress Arab opposition and increase Israeli settlements in the West Bank. American reactions grew sharper, reverting to the established State Department line that such measures were illegal and an obstacle to peace. America's announced intention to sell AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia and Begin's immediate and total opposition to it made relations worse. Then in June came the shock of the daring raid in which Israeli aircraft flew across Saudi Arabia to bomb and destroy an Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. No other state could accept Israel's argument that this was an act of legitimate self-defense. The United States condemned it both in official statements and in voting for a resolution to that effect in the U.N. Security Council, and suspended (temporarily, it turned out) shipment of F-16 aircraft. A few weeks later Israel carried out an air raid on Beirut, aimed at PLO headquarters there but killing over 300 Lebanese civilians. Again Washington was issuing statements of shock and disapproval.
Begin, running for reelection, was more interested in impressing Israeli voters than American officials. He was also acting consistently with deeply held convictions and with policies he had pursued since taking office in 1977. Israel was at war with the PLO because the PLO was dedicated to the destruction of Israel. That war was being fought in many places, but nowhere more violently than in Lebanon, where Israel was carrying out raids by air, sea and land in reply to PLO attacks on villages in northern Israel.
Lebanon was a battlefield of many simultaneous struggles because the nominal Lebanese government and army had no effective control over the country. Armed factions of Christians and Muslims, Left and Right, Sunni and Shi'a and Druse, Palestinians and Lebanese, fought against each other and among themselves, with religion and ideology often counting for less than personal ambition, revenge and available firepower. Syrian troops, designated as a peacekeeping "Arab Deterrent Force" by decision of the Arab League, occupied much of the country. The PLO, with well armed units of its own, controlled certain areas and acknowledged no higher authority although several of its factions had ties to individual Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya. Syria and Israel used Lebanese territory to test each other and to protect their respective interests. Their confrontation and the incidents which punctuated it carried the continuing menace of a real war.
Israel's involvement in Lebanon included support of Christian forces which, as opponents of the PLO and of the Syrians, served Israel's interests in serving their own. One such force controlled territory on the southern border adjacent to Israel. The main Christian-held territory was in the north, and it was here that fighting between Christian Phalangists and Syrians in the spring of 1981 grew into a full-blown crisis, as Israel declared she would not permit the Christians to be crushed and Syria introduced into Lebanon surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) capable of shooting down Israeli planes, which had been flying at will all over Lebanese territory. Prime Minister Begin announced that the missiles must be removed or Israel would destroy them.
At this point the United States took on the role of pacifier, sending Philip Habib, a veteran diplomat, on a mission of multiple visits to Beirut, Damascus, Riyadh and Jerusalem, counseling restraint as he tried to find a formula that would prevent war. Begin held off a strike at the Syrian missiles to give Habib's mission time to achieve that result by other means. But in all other respects the conflict in Lebanon, and particularly between Israel and the PLO, grew in intensity. Habib's mission was broadened into an effort to establish a cease-fire and truce. Ultimately, through Saudi and U.N. as well as U.S. diplomacy, because neither the United States nor Israel could talk with the PLO, a cease-fire was arranged and accepted in late July.
Meanwhile, on the last day of June Menachem Begin's party, Likud, probably helped by the atmosphere of crisis, squeaked through to victory in the Israeli election, and he was able to form a coalition government with a majority of one vote in the Knesset. Thus it was Begin, and not Shimon Peres and Labor, with whom Washington would have to deal, and as head of a government more nationalist than before and less likely to consider compromise on control and eventual annexation of the West Bank; the more moderate figures in the old government-Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizmann, Yigal Yadin-had all resigned before the election.
President Sadat made his visit to Washington in August, hit it off well with Reagan, and declared his intention to go ahead with the Camp David peace process. He cannot have had much hope that Israel would be more forthcoming than before, even if more American weight were thrown into the balance on his side, but his main objective was still to maintain the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, vital provisions of which, especially the Israeli withdrawal from the rest of the Sinai, remained to be carried out. He appeared to be more concerned about Libyan threats to Sudan and by evidence of increased danger from the Soviet Union and its friends and clients in the area. Libya, Ethiopia and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen were drawing together in military cooperation that could only be aimed at Sudan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt was already getting U.S. help in building base facilities at Ras Banas on the Red Sea and would permit the United States to use them in time of crisis. Sadat's offers of military cooperation and his request for more arms for Sudan struck a responsive note with his hosts, who were looking for ways to counter any Soviet moves and to deflate and defeat Libya's Colonel Qaddafi.
Prime Minister Begin, following Sadat to Washington, also got a friendly reception. He came with the prestige of an electoral victory-one-vote margin or not, he was definitely in charge-and the truce in Lebanon was still holding. Washington decided to accentuate the positive at this get-acquainted meeting, celebrating traditional friendship and future cooperation. Apparently no effort was made to stress American reservations about many of Israel's actions or the seriousness of the President's determination to put through the AWACS sale, or to discuss in concrete terms how the autonomy talks could move ahead. Instead, most of the talk was about strategic cooperation between the two countries, which could hardly convey an impression other than of continued U.S. support for Israel's policies for her own security.
After the two visits, with their repeated genuflection to the Camp David process, it was time for resumption of the autonomy talks, but none of the three parties put a high priority on it or had a specific plan that might bring progress. Israel held the territories and could continue to hold them without violating the Camp David accords, since autonomy could not come into being until the parties agreed on what autonomy was. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon, an advocate of creating new facts in the form of Jewish settlements, now held the post of Minister of Defense and was putting his own ideas on autonomy into practice. Egypt could put her ideas on autonomy into negotiating papers but could do nothing to get them accepted. Sadat's attention was turning more to his position at home, now being challenged to the point that he found it necessary in September to crack down hard on a variety of critics and opponents. But he still felt he should keep the talks going and avoid a crisis with Israel.
Into this situation of latent danger came the news of the assassination of Sadat on October 6. The shock was greatest, perhaps, in Israel and in America, for both had built their own policies very substantially on the policies he had forged for Egypt and, to what degree they could not be sure, on the continued presence at the helm in Cairo of Sadat himself. Not only the autonomy talks but the Egypt-Israel peace treaty might now come into question, and also the key role of Egypt as a political and military partner of the United States in the Middle East and Africa. Hence the extreme concern in Washington that the assassination might unloose a political earthquake in Egypt, an attack by Libya on Egypt or Sudan, or a rupture of the peace process with Israel.
The United States quickly declared its support for the Egyptian government and for Sudan, warned Libya, and assigned two AWACS planes to the area to patrol borders, gather intelligence and demonstrate support. Each day's news seemed to bring a new threat and a new U.S. commitment. But Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, took charge according to constitutional procedures, established order, and announced that his government would carry on the policies of Sadat, including the Camp David accords.
Sadat had not, however, set Egypt's course for all time, and changes were inevitable although not likely to be apparent at once. Mubarak was not Sadat and would not have his personal touch nor all of his assets and his liabilities. It was not clear whether Mubarak would be challenged in Egypt, and by whom, or whether he would seek different elements of domestic support (in addition to the officer corps, the essential prop of every Egyptian government since 1952) or a different complex of foreign relations. Domestically he would be tough against the Muslim fanatics who wanted revolution, but he soon showed readiness to conciliate some whom Sadat had persecuted, including critics of the close embrace with America. In foreign policy he was not likely to fall in with the concept of Israel, Egypt and America together against the world.
With other Arab rulers Mubarak did not have the vindictive personal feuds that Sadat seemed to enjoy, although he was associated with Sadat's policies which had brought about Egypt's ostracism from the Arab community. It seemed inevitable that Egypt would seek ways to mend relations with other Arab states, and vice versa, and that Israel would try to prevent it. Reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, in particular, would be of advantage to both, for their strengths-Saudi Arabia's wealth and Egypt's historic political and cultural weight in the Arab world-are complementary. The key question in Egyptian-Arab rapprochement is how, and on whose terms, it can take place. It is not likely that others will fall in with Egypt's peace with Israel, nor that Egypt will abandon it. The terms, most likely, would have less to do with the common defense of the region against the Soviets than with Arab solidarity and support of the Palestinians, and in that event the Camp David "Framework for Peace in the Middle East" might well be a casualty.
The new situation after the death of Sadat, in any case, made new thinking on the Palestine question necessary, both in the region and in Washington. Two American ex-presidents, Ford and Carter, returning from Sadat's funeral, stated to the press that the United States would have to come to the point of opening communication with the PLO. Neither had said that while in office, and President Reagan, being in office, did not say it. But their remarks were indicative of a growing view that peace could not be made in Palestine without bringing Palestinians into the game, and that this could not be done without the PLO.
After the AWACS vote in late October a "peace plan" which Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia had put forward in August as a basis for settlement, without causing a great stir, began to move into the center of active diplomacy. The plan called for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories, the right of Palestinians to repatriation, a temporary U.N. trusteeship over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and then the establishment of a Palestinian state there with East Jerusalem as its capital. A further point, which could be taken as a promise of acceptance and recognition of Israel, said that all states in the area had the right to live in peace (although Israel was not mentioned by name). Statements made by high U.S. officials, including the President, took note of that point in calling the Fahd initiative an encouraging development. The Israeli reaction to both the Saudi proposal and the American comments on it was negative. Begin called it a plan for the gradual liquidation of Israel. The State Department then gave assurances that the United States was not turning away from Camp David.
The ill-defined and partially self-contradictory position of the United States owed something to the American habit of making frequent and sometimes off-hand official comments on current events, and something also to a combination of not entirely consistent purposes. U.S. officials wished to keep Egypt and Israel on the Camp David track, to give a boost to the autonomy talks, to capitalize on supposed Saudi good-will following the AWACS vote, and to encourage Saudi Arabia to come into the settlement process.
Prince Fahd's plan did not move very far toward middle ground. It was, in general terms, a restatement of the standard Arab interpretation of U.N. Resolution 242, with the addition of the specific demand for a Palestinian state, the same position Sadat had taken when he went to Jerusalem in October 1977. It was also, as Fahd himself stated, not a means of bringing the Arab states and the PLO into the Camp David process but an alternative to Camp David. As a basis for negotiation, setting forth conditions for settlement, it was obviously unacceptable to the United States as it was to Israel, but as a statement of initial Arab positions on points which could serve as the agenda for negotiation without conditions, it might be a breakthrough. From that standpoint, although it was not the declared standpoint of the Saudi government, the favorable American comments were understandable.
Those few and faint favorable comments, however, coupled with assurances to Israel and renewed dedication to Camp David, were not sufficient to help Saudi Arabia in her efforts to sell the plan to fellow Arabs. The moderates were generally sympathetic but the radical rejectionists were not. Arafat, who at first supported it, changed his tune when other PLO factions and even some within his own Fatah organization spoke out against it. Syrian endorsement might have given the plan momentum, but Hafez al-Assad did not even show up at the Arab League summit meeting convened to consider it in Fez, Morocco, in late November. That meeting was hastily adjourned without any decision.
The debacle at Fez was an embarrassment for Saudi Arabia and a disappointment for Americans who had seen the Saudi initiative as positive and constructive. The disarray of the Arab world was a source of satisfaction to Israel, which could now point to the Arab states and the PLO as having rejected even a one-sided peace plan of Arab origin. But the failure of the Fahd plan did not do anything to enhance the prospects of the Camp David negotiations. On the contrary, the strengthening of hard-line views in Israel and on the Arab side made them dimmer than ever.
The waters were muddied further, at the end of November, as the United States and Israel decided the time had come to put their talk of strategic cooperation into the form of a written agreement. It was, for Washington, partly a means of repairing relations with Israel, strained by so many recent events, partly a demonstration that the movement for strategic consensus was proceeding apace with Israel as it was with Egypt, which was just then collaborating with U.S. forces in extensive joint maneuvers, "Operation Bright Star," on and around Egyptian territory. For the government of Israel, wishing to associate itself with American strategy so that America would be associated with Israeli strategy, the agreement was welcome but disappointing in that it did not go far enough. It provided for exchange of intelligence (which was going on anyway), stockpiling of U.S. medical supplies in Israel for use in an emergency (such as a small war in the Persian Gulf), and joint naval exercises; nothing very extensive, but the main significance of the accord was the fact of its formal conclusion.
The underlying idea of Israeli participation in defense of the region (of Arab oil fields, for example) strained credulity and raised objections even in Israel, where the Labor opposition called for a vote of confidence on it in the Knesset and barely lost. As for the Arabs, the effect was to justify the hard-liners and weaken those friendly to America. To all of them, strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States meant only one thing and was best illustrated by what happened in October 1973. The U.S. government, presumably, had counted the political costs when it made the agreement with Israel, but might have to count them again later.
Inevitably, the year's developments were reinforcing in Israel a kind of siege mentality, and Menachem Begin's style was always to take the offensive, even when it provoked objection and protest from Israel's one friend in the international community. American objections, experience showed, tended to be pro forma and temporary. The extreme nature of Arab reactions to Israel's moves could be counted on to bring America to Israel's defense. Begin, moreover, had never left any doubt that he would take measures he believed necessary to defend Israel's rights and interests, no matter what any outsider thought about it. Such a measure was the extension of Israeli civil law to the Golan Heights, a de facto annexation, rushed through the Knesset in a few hours on December 14. That he had long intended the eventual incorporation into Israel of that territory, under military occupation since it was taken from Syria in the war of 1967, was well known. It was the timing and the method, with no prior notice to the Israeli public or to Washington, that caused surprise and anger.
The Begin government anticipated a negative American reaction, but not the degree of Washington's outrage or the harshness of the reprisals. The United States declared the Israeli measure a violation of Resolution 242 on which the Camp David accords were based, joined in the unanimous resolution of the U.N. Security Council, initiated by Syria, calling it legally null and void, and then took the step of suspending the recently concluded U.S.-Israel agreement on strategic cooperation and of informing Begin that future cooperation in that field depended on Israel's policies in the peace negotiations and military restraint in Lebanon. Begin's angry reply, couched in bitter and insulting terms and railing against attempts to "punish" Israel, was that he took the American action to mean cancellation of the agreement. Begin's surprise move had thus dealt a new and severe blow to Israel's standing in America, to Israel's own objective of closer military cooperation with the United States, and perhaps also to the strategic conceptions which the Reagan Administration had held when it entered office less than a year before.
This narrative has made almost no mention of America's European and Japanese allies, whose interests in the Middle East are extensive, their dependence on its oil being greater than that of the United States. The omission not only reflects the reduced power of the Europeans to influence the course of events and the reluctance of Japan to engage in global power politics, but also the prevailing American view that only the United States has the means to protect Western interests in the Gulf and to bring about an Arab-Israeli settlement. American officials wanted Europe to help in the effort to build a military barrier to Soviet expansion and not to interfere in the process of peacemaking following Camp David; dissatisfied with Europe's performance on both counts, they were not inclined to listen intently to European advice either on defense strategy or on the diplomacy of Arab-Israeli peace.
In one respect, however, the Europeans did put in an appearance in 1981, and with American encouragement. Bickering and deadlock in the autonomy talks posed a potential threat to the one solid accomplishment in peacemaking, the Egypt-Israel treaty, especially in the atmosphere of uncertainty created by the death of Sadat. Israel might refuse to go through with the final evacuation of Sinai, and some voices in Israel were urging precisely that. Begin said he would carry out the obligations of the treaty, but it could not be ruled out that changed circumstances would change his mind. To remove as much uncertainty as possible, it was necessary to make the final arrangements for the international observer force which was to be stationed in evacuated territory after the Israeli withdrawal.
Because a U.N. force, as specified in the treaty, could not be formed owing to a predictable Soviet veto in the Security Council, the United States was obliged to find individual states willing to contribute military units. Through casting the net far and wide, the American effort had turned up, by the fall of 1981, only three states (Colombia, Uruguay and Fiji) prepared to send units to serve alongside those of the United States, which would make up about one-half of the proposed force. What Washington wanted was a broader base indicating substantial world backing for the peace settlement; hence, the satisfaction and relief when four members of the European Community (Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands) agreed to participate, with the prospect that Canada, Australia and New Zealand would also join.
The composition of the international force had to be agreed to by Israel and Egypt, however, and the former was quite negative about the Europeans. Israel had never wanted to have Western European countries associated with the peace process, regarding them as blatantly pro-Arab and soft on the PLO, especially after the European Community's June 1980 declaration at Venice, endorsing Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza and PLO participation in negotiations for a settlement. In announcing their willingness to take part in the international force in Sinai, moreover, the Europeans gratuitously repeated their position taken at Venice, putting on record their view that the Palestinian half of the Camp David accords was a failure, even as they were all for making the other half, the peace treaty, a success. But for Israel it had to be Camp David, all of Camp David, and nothing but Camp David.
It took persistence and a bit of legerdemain on the part of American diplomacy to find the formulas by which the United States, Israel and the Europeans could keep their respective positions more or less intact and still agree, as they finally did in December, on European participation in the international force in Sinai. The episode was significant not just for the overcoming of a difficult problem, but for the fact that America, at long last, saw some merit in bringing her allies into the Middle East peace process. It was no more than the beginning of an approach to the problem of how the Western alliance, under strain in other areas as well, should look to its common interests in the Middle East. That was a problem with a long history.
Ever since the Suez crisis of 1956, which marked the demise of British and French aspirations to maintain a leading role in the Middle East and the clear predominance of the United States as the major Western power there, a gap had existed between European and American policies, serious enough to shake the foundations of the alliance in times of crisis such as that of 1973, even though their primary interests were identical or parallel.2 The differences owed a great deal in the 1960s to Charles de Gaulle's insistence on the independent role of France (and of Europe), and in the 1970s to Henry Kissinger's insistence on American primacy. They were too deep and persistent, however, to be purely a matter of dominant personalities. They reflected separate national approaches, differing estimates of how European and American interests, even where parallel, could best be protected, and interpretations of each other's motives that came close to caricature: the Europeans as Munich-type appeasers of the Arabs or of the Russians, the Americans as enfeoffed to Israel and the Jewish lobby and obsessed by the Soviet threat.
The price of misunderstanding and non-cooperation has placed a mortgage on the future. In the absence of a common Western energy strategy, each country has sought to make its own deals with individual oil-producing states, deals which ignored or prejudiced the interests of other consumers, soured relations among them, and did not provide any real security as to the supply and price of oil. Without an effective long-term policy to reduce dependence on Middle East oil, and to maintain access while doing so, the Western countries and Japan will be at the mercy of the wars and revolutions, and of the political decisions and whims of rulers, in one of the most volatile areas of the world.
In political and military cooperation the record was no better. The revolution in Iran and the Soviet move into Afghanistan, which shocked Europe as well as America and posed the same threat to sources of oil vital to both, actually widened the gap between them. What Americans saw as necessary defensive action-economic sanctions, a military buildup-Europeans saw as overreaction. Where America was writing off global détente with the U.S.S.R., her West European allies wished to preserve détente where it really counted for them, in Europe, almost regardless of what happened in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The differences, which in the last year of the Carter Presidency were eroding the cohesion of the alliance, increased as the new Administration's statements and actions were seen in Europe as overly concerned with military power and heedless of European views and interests.
And so, the military buildup in the Indian Ocean went forward as an American enterprise, although France did maintain naval forces in the area. Aid to Pakistan and to Egypt was undertaken by the United States alone. Strategic cooperation with Israel was strictly an American policy, just another obstacle, as Europeans saw it, to good relations between the West and the Arab world. The Europeans were not, however, holding themselves out of the Middle East picture. They were bargaining for oil, engaging in trade and in development projects, and, with the French in the lead, selling arms where they could, all with a view to helping their own economies and securing political advantage. And the European Community, continuing to promote its own line on the question of a Palestinian settlement, was praising Prince Fahd's plan and taking diplomatic soundings in Arab capitals, which was the kind of help Haig indicated he would gladly do without. It was, to put it bluntly, absurd that the members of the Atlantic Alliance, all of whom supported the continued independence and security of Israel and were for a settlement that would give the Palestine Arabs a self-governing homeland in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, could not harmonize their policies.
An exception to the general record of policies at cross purposes in 1981 was provided by American and European participation in a major program of aid to Turkey. As a NATO ally vital to the defense of Europe, Turkey had a special claim on such aid. But since she was important, for geographical reasons, to the defense of the Middle East, European-American collaboration in her support was a good example for that area-although even that example was clouded when the Europeans held up their assistance because of the Turkish military regime's dubious record on human rights and slowness in returning the country to democracy, while the United States, putting priority on security and defense, went full speed ahead with military aid.
The hue and cry over Libya at the close of the year spread a few more clouds over U.S.-European relations. America's right and need to react directly and forcefully to attacks on her armed forces (as in replying with fire to fire from Libyan aircraft over the Mediterranean in August) or to conspiracies to assassinate high officials cannot be legitimately questioned. Nor can international terrorism be condoned. What European opinion questioned was the timing, the methods, the overblown publicity, and the engagement of the President of the United States in a shouting match with such as Muammar Qaddafi.
In the prevailing European view, Qaddafi had been supporting terrorism for a good many years, but he was reducing rather than increasing that support; he was exporting oil to the West; he was not a Soviet agent even though he had a lot of Soviet arms to play with; he had withdrawn his forces from Chad; he was a nuisance to the West but a nuisance also to other states in the Middle East and in Africa, and it was their job to deal with him, slow as the process might be. Meanwhile, why build him up as an Arab and Third-World hero standing up to the superpower of the Western world?
It was the familiar picture: on one side, an Administration in Washington unable to compromise its absolutes in order to find common ground; on the other, a group of allies primarily concerned with their own interests and convinced of their own wisdom, doing little to help.
In considering the year's events, the most valid criticism to be made of U.S. policy may be that in concentrating on a stronger military posture it neglected political foundations.3 The Soviets had made no new territorial gains, but the house of containment was built on the shifting sands of regional instability and the Arab-Israeli conflict, with no general acceptance of American leadership. If the nations of the Middle East were to be defended and their oil kept available to the West, they would have to be convinced that American and Western policies were consistent with their interests as they saw them. That is the kind of proposition, referring to an area prone to violent change and crisscrossed with conflicts of its own, that hardly gives useful guidance to a Secretary of State. A policy attempting to accommodate everybody's interests will end up being no policy at all. Nevertheless, the events of 1981, seen against the background of previous history, point to a number of continuing factors which have had a bearing on the success or failure of policies and may condition those of the future.
1. American military power is necessary to balance that of the U.S.S.R., and the Middle East nations, in greater or less degree, rely on that balance for their security. The power to provide the balance must be nearby because Soviet power is also nearby. From the standpoint of most Middle East nations, it should be "over the horizon" (e.g., in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean), not on their soil. Thus, plans which make military sense to Americans in terms of the requirements for deterring or defending against a Soviet attack on the region may be infeasible for lack of political support in the countries to be defended. To insist on the best possible military posture may reduce the political cooperation that already exists.
2. The Soviet Union pursues a policy of seeking and seizing opportunities to expand its influence and control while simultaneously putting forward proposals for regional security, nuclear-free zones, and Arab-Israeli peace, to be achieved with Soviet participation and cooperation. Primarily propaganda rather than serious negotiating propositions, such proposals have a potential appeal to the peoples of the region. The West, as it builds up its military power to deter Soviet military action, also has the task of exposing and countering that appeal. The West should not refuse dialogue or negotiation with the Soviets as a means of clarifying respective interests and positions, managing crises that may be dangerous to all, and so testing the Kremlin's willingness to cooperate. But the West will not serve its own interests by accepting (a) a facade of cooperation behind which the Soviets continue to expand their influence and control; (b) a division of the region into spheres of influence; or (c) a Soviet veto over decisions necessary for peace, stability and access to oil.
3. The two superpowers are and will continue to be present in the region. The local states accommodate to the facts of power; they look to America or to Russia, and sometimes to both, for arms, for the goods and technology they need, and for support in conflicts with their neighbors; they may play on the global Soviet-American competition for their own advantage. The comparison to the Balkans before World War I is an apt one. Not all the regional issues and conflicts, however, are or should be related to the global competition; nor are many of them subject to American control and management. Even major regional conflicts like the Iran-Iraq war may find their own level and outcomes without intervention by the superpowers or shifts in the global balance, as long as deterrence works. To take another example, a Marxist regime, such as exists in South Yemen, may be more effectively tamed or removed by action of Arab neighbors or of its own people than by operations with a made-in-U.S.A. label; that is, of course, unless the Soviet Union uses force to save its protégé.
4. It is natural for the United States to seek friends and allies in the region, to reward with arms and other favors governments which are cooperative. The advantages are evident, but experience has shown the need to be aware of the hazards of overcommitment, such as (a) the impermanence of ties with states which can change their rulers or change their friends without notice; (b) the dominance of local issues and conflicts, so that if one government chooses the American connection, its domestic opponents or foreign rivals are likely to choose or to deepen the Soviet connection; and (c) the risks of identification with a regime which is wrapped, or wraps itself, in the mantle of American protection and then may go down taking American prestige and influence with it. Iran was not a success story. Egypt or Saudi Arabia may not be either, and the way to prevent failure does not lie wholly in American determination to stand by friendly governments.
5. The urge for nonalignment is real, for it stems from the experience of peoples long subject to domination by outsiders. Organizations like the Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which exclude outside powers, are important expressions of popular sentiment and political solidarity even though they are militarily impotent. The strongest ideological-political forces in the region are nationalism and Islam, to which both elites and masses turn as these societies are strained and torn by rapid economic and social change. The challenge of "fundamentalism" and the reconciliation of Islam with the demands of modern society are for those peoples to work out. The forces of nationalism and militant Islam can be diverse and divisive within the region, as we have seen, but they almost invariably contain strong anti-Western currents.
The West, though it may have to react against extreme and fanatical actions, cannot in the long run protect its interests in confrontation and conflict with nationalism and religion. If the West can nurture a basis for cooperation with the Middle East that exists in mutual economic interest, independence and respect for cultural differences, it may avoid that conflict or reduce its dimensions. If so, those same elemental forces of nationalism and religion may serve effectively as a bulwark against Soviet imperialism and communism, with which they are incompatible.
6. In general, the above considerations do not apply to Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here, the United States is directly involved. It has commitments to Israel and a special relationship with Israel, which is a stable democracy. American diplomacy has spent years searching for Arab-Israeli settlements and must continue to do so. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty was a giant step forward. It has eliminated, unless there is a startling reversal in Egypt, the danger of another Arab-Israeli war on the scale of 1973. But it appears to have made more difficult the achievement of peace between Israel and her other Arab neighbors.
Although the Camp David peace process is still held to by the U.S. government as the only route to take, it is difficult to see any hope in that course in the light of fixed Israeli and Arab positions, limited participation, and the unreality of the proposed five-year interim period of autonomy in the absence of basic decisions. As the situation deteriorates, with damage to American and Western interests in the entire area, a reappraisal of policy cannot be avoided.
7. The Palestine question remains a formidable obstacle and burden to U.S. relations with the Arab world. It undermines the moderates and strengthens the wild men. It plays into the hands of the Soviet Union. It threatens to isolate the United States with Israel as the only friend in the region. A settlement may not be possible; nor can we assume that a settlement, if reached, would end Arab-Israeli tension or transform America's relations with the Arab world. Nevertheless, the effort must be made. The terms, of course, have to be negotiated by the parties, principally Israel, Jordan and representatives of the Palestinians (not excluding the PLO), and that requires a major endeavor to get those parties talking to each other.
In any case, the time has come for the United States to take a stand on the principles of settlement that were left ambiguous in U.N. Resolution 242 and bypassed by the complex formulas of Camp David but have wide international support. They are, briefly, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the lines of 1949-1967, with minor modifications to be negotiated by the parties; self-determination by the inhabitants of those territories, not including Jerusalem, whether the choice is for an independent state, union with Jordan, or whatever; special arrangements for East Jerusalem to be negotiated; Palestinian acceptance of Israel; Israeli acceptance of Palestinian self-determination; and peace between them guaranteed by the great powers and the United Nations. These principles are not new. If the State Department looks in its files, it will find something very similar in the now forgotten "Rogers plan" of December 1969.4
Such proposals were not acceptable to Israel in 1969; nor are they acceptable today. They are not acceptable to the Arab side either, even if one takes the plan of Prince Fahd as the Arab position. But they may offer the only possibility of a settlement, and the dangers and damages of no settlement are being felt by the United States and many other nations far from the immediate area of Palestine. A settlement that holds the promise of reconciliation rather than total and indefinite confrontation is also the only long-term answer to Israel's security problem.
8. The United States, standing on the above principles, would face difficult times in its relations with Israel. No American President would relish the task of pressing Israel to modify her positions. Yet there has always been a distinction between America's commitment to Israel's independent existence, which is firm and unchanging, and America's support for Israel's security needs as defined by the Israeli government, with which the U.S. government may differ. There is room for a clarifying exchange and debate here, within and between both countries, difficult as it may be.
9. Finally, a point already made, America needs her Western allies in the Middle East, and they need America. An earlier essay in these pages, covering the year 1978, referred to the burdens of empire in the Middle East, suggesting that America had taken on tasks beyond her means and ability to perform.5 Since that time, with events in Iran and elsewhere, the American empire has shrunk but the burdens have not. The obligations, military and other, grow rather than diminish. Western interests require a Western response, the use of diversity in unity. America is both too small and too big to do it alone. Too small, because her resources are not limitless, her political influence is not all-pervasive, her diplomacy not all-wise. Too big, because as the Western superpower she is the main target, the imperialist enemy, the "great Satan," when governments and leaders in the Middle East feel the need of such an enemy. At such times it is useful to have less satanic friends who can maintain lines of communication and influence and use them for common ends.
Every new Administration needs time to find its footing in foreign affairs, especially in a complex and changing area like the Middle East, and the Reagan team has taken as much or more time than its predecessors. It may be unwarranted, not to say unfair, to make hasty judgments, or to set up a list of points like those above, against which to compare the record of the year. Earlier Administrations, after all, broke their heads on these same issues. Other observers would have quite different checklists. This one, if it has any validity, may serve better to judge the later years of the Reagan Administration than the first. In any event, it may stimulate both policymaker and critic, as they struggle to find answers to swiftly moving events and crises, at least to ask the right questions.
1 The New York Times, October 2, 1981