The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
During the months that followed the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, the view gradually gained ground in the West that the Arab defeat represented a considerable Russian victory. Some more imaginative observers argued that the Russians had deliberately engineered both the war and the defeat in order to achieve this result; others, without going as far as to ascribe conscious purpose, nevertheless agreed that, by increasing the hostility of the Arabs to the West and their dependence on the Soviet Union, the crisis, the war and their aftermath had greatly strengthened the Soviet political and strategic position in the Middle East and correspondingly weakened that of the United States. Observers and commentators spoke with mounting anxiety about the growth of Soviet influence in the area and the threat which it offered to the interests of the free world.
More recent developments have suggested that this mood of dejection, like the vicarious euphoria which followed immediately after the Israeli military victory, is misplaced or at least exaggerated. The situation in the Arab lands and the attitude of their peoples and even governments are more complex and less one-sided than might appear. The Soviet Government has been sufficiently dissatisfied with the position to make repeated attempts-and with growing urgency-to change it. The latest of these is the four-power talks to devise, and possibly apply, a solution to the Arab- Israeli conflict.
The Israeli reaction to this proposal was predictably hostile. Of the four governments concerned, two appear to be firmly committed to the Arab cause, the other two are seen in Israel as practicing a kind of unilateral evenhandedness. This was exemplified in the debate at the Security Council over Israeli-Arab clashes at the very moment when the four-power talks were beginning. The United States and Britain wanted to condemn both sides; the Soviet Union, followed by France, insisted on condemning Israel only. In the Israeli view, a bench consisting of two impartial judges and two hostile advocates is unlikely to arrive at a balanced judgment. More immediately relevant is the Israeli conviction that any compromise likely to be reached among the four powers would be at Israel's expense. The November resolution did indeed require concessions from both sides-but the Israeli concession, being territorial and strategic, could be reversed only by another victory in war, while the Arab concession, being diplomatic, could be reversed by a simple declaration. To Israel, the sacrifices and the risks seemed unequal.
Israeli opposition to the four-power talks was manifest from the start. Such talks, they argued, were foredoomed to failure, and in the meantime their effect was to paralyze the Jarring mission and encourage Arab recalcitrance. Israeli spokesmen were at pains to show that the fear of an explosion and a nuclear confrontation, which had impelled the West to agree to the talks in the first place, was greatly exaggerated. The Middle East, they said, was not at peace-but it was not at war either, and there was no immediate danger requiring precipitate action.
Arab leaders took an obliquely opposite view of the four powers, but seemed to share the Israeli assumption that an agreed settlement would be to Israel's disadvantage. The Arabs, like the Israelis, made it clear that they would not submit to an imposed settlement; they appeared, however, to expect that an agreement, if reached, would be such that no imposition would be necessary on their side. Their attitude to the talks was therefore much more hopeful than that of the Israelis, and became more so as Israeli fears visibly mounted. Arab governments agreed that the situation was explosive, and did what they could to emphasize and exemplify this point.
The really crucial attitude is of course that of the Soviet Union. The talks were begun on a Russian initiative; their outcome will depend largely on what Russia is willing and able to do. It is therefore important to examine the causes and purposes-the two are not identical-of the Russian approach.
In part, no doubt, the Soviet Government-in this as in other initiatives- has sought a propaganda advantage. Even if the talks came to nothing, they could still serve the useful purpose of accentuating the polarization of the Middle East; they could identify the United States more firmly with Israel in Arab eyes, and thus improve the waning image of the Soviets. But propaganda is clearly not the only purpose. The Soviets are visibly concerned about their position in the Middle East-and about more than their image. The timing of the Soviet initiative-between American administrations- could be tactical, with a view to catching the other side at a disadvantage. It could also reflect a sense of urgency-a desire to seize the earliest possible opportunity to avert a serious danger to Russian interests.
Broadly, there are two views of the Russian position in the Middle East, which can be expressed in extreme form as follows.
According to one view, the Russians have during the last two years achieved an immense success-the fulfillment of the centuries-old dream of the Tsars. They have won great political influence in the Arab lands-dominant in some, powerful in others, threatening even in those countries that are still more or less in the Western camp. Russia is now an established Mediterranean power, with friendly ports on the eastern and southern shores, and is reaching across the land bridges to Asia and Africa.
A diametrically opposite view is expressed in the saying that the Middle East is Russia's Viet Nam. According to this interpretation, Russia was unwittingly sucked in on the losing side, with a perilous and endless commitment, in an undertaking of great risk, high cost and dubious results. There is a further parallel in that the Russian involvement in the Middle East appears to be highly, even symbolically, unpopular with such public opinion as can be discerned in Russia and her East European satellites. This is indirectly confirmed by the charges of Zionism leveled against liberals and reformists in Czechoslovakia, Russia and elsewhere, and by the effort and energy devoted in communist domestic propaganda to discrediting Israel.
A critical assessment of the Russian position shows both gains and losses. In several Arab states, the régimes in power have become dependent on Russian support, though whether against the enemies or against the people of their countries is not always clear. Soviet power in the Mediterranean, though no doubt of limited military effectiveness in the event of a major great-power clash, is of considerable political value in the rather Victorian style of imperial diplomacy currently pursued by the Russians.
Two substantial gains have already been achieved. With a Soviet fleet in the Mediterranean, a Western intervention such as that of 1958, when American marines landed in Lebanon and British troops in Jordan, is no longer possible. That is to say, such a landing would not now be possible for either side, and this represents a net Soviet gain. A second Soviet gain is the ability to exercise additional pressure on Turkey and Iran, which can now be threatened from the south as well as the north. To achieve this result may well have been the original purpose of the whole Soviet operation in the Arab lands; it is still a major objective of Soviet policy, and one which is being pursued with some success.
These Soviet gains have, however, been counterbalanced by serious losses. While the advance of Soviet power has been accelerated in the Mediterranean area, it has been virtually arrested in the southern half of the Middle East, in the countries bordering on the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. In May 1967, the prospects for a southward expansion of Soviet influence seemed excellent. In Somalia, the Soviets were already strongly entrenched and were encouraging Somali irredentist claims against both Ethiopia and Kenya. In southern Arabia, British rule was coming to an end, and there was no reason to doubt that it would be followed by a régime closely linked with Cairo and thus also with Moscow. With the coast from Hodeida to Aden under their control, the Egyptians would not have needed to trouble themselves with the Yemeni interior. With the Suez Canal and Aden at its disposal, the Soviet Navy would soon have established supremacy in the Red Sea, and the régimes on both shores would have been due for realignment or replacement. The way was open to further penetration in southern and eastern Arabia, and especially in the Gulf, where Iraq was already in the revolutionary camp and Iran could be isolated and threatened at its weakest point.
All this was stopped by the June war. With the closure of the Canal, Soviet naval activity east of Suez was severely limited; the Egyptians withdrew from the Yemen, and the ripe plum of Aden fell to the ground and was not picked. The Somalis, deeply discouraged by the Soviet failure to help the Arabs, decided that irredentism with Soviet support was unsafe, and, since war was not practicable, they proceeded with unusual logic to make peace. In the Gulf, in Arabia and in North Africa, the conservative forces rallied, and the Arab monarchs were even able to impose a halt in subversion on an Egyptian Government that was now financially dependent on them.[i]
Even in the Mediterranean area, the Soviet posture is not as comfortable as it might have seemed. Without the Suez Canal, without air-transit rights across Turkey or Iran, without contiguous land access and the possibility of moving troops over the border as in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet position remains precarious and exposed. Politically, too, Soviet influence is a diminishing asset. The Russians have now become heavily involved in the Arab lands, and are thus losing what was previously their main psychological advantage, remoteness. Like Nazi Germany in the past, Soviet Russia at first appeared to the Arabs as an almost mythical champion of their cause-the enemy of their enemies, the mighty power that would defeat and destroy them. Unlike the Nazis, the Russians arrived and revealed themselves to their admirers-with the inevitable disillusionment. Instead of Westerners, it was now Russians who appeared in the roles of experts, advisers, technicians and teachers; and it was Russians who suffered and inflicted all the innumerable irritations and exasperations that are inseparable from these roles. At closer quarters, the Russians and their methods began to look suspiciously familiar. Other powers in the past had used the same combination-the expert, the engineer, the concessionaire and the missionary on the one hand, with the fleet and the flag on the other. The concessionaires used different methods, and the missionaries brought a different message, but they still worked with the same pattern of native princes, native clients and native converts to maintain and extend their authority.
No one loves protectors, still less protectors who do not protect. The Russian failure to help the Arabs in war or save them in peace could no longer be concealed, and there were growing signs of impatience with the Soviet combination of hectoring and inefficiency. The invasion of Czechoslovakia brought a new shock. Arab governments in general felt obliged to support or at least excuse the Soviet action, and some spokesmen even went so far as to rejoice that the Soviets had now demonstrated their readiness and ability to defy the world and occupy a country in a few hours. This, it was said, was how they could deal with Israel, when the time came. More perceptive Arabs, however, were deeply alarmed by the Czechoslovak affair and the memories of Hungary which it evoked. This kind of action, they observed, was taken by the Soviets, not against their enemies, but against their allies. It was a profoundly disturbing thought.
Some Soviet strategists would no doubt prefer to maintain, rather than solve, the Palestine problem. As long as it exists, Russia will be able to outbid America in hostility to Israel, and will therefore be better placed to win Arab support. This is an advantage to the Soviet Union, and an embarrassment to the United States, in those Arab countries that are still neutral or pro-Western, There are, however, signs of another and more disillusioned Soviet approach to the Middle East, and of a growing consciousness of the hazards of Middle Eastern adventure.
The Russians are of course well aware of the decline in their popularity, and of the wistful glances now being cast toward the West. There are also other considerations which may well cause them anxiety. The Russian involvement in the Arab lands is better than the American predicament in Viet Nam, in that there is no loss of life-that is, of course, of Russian life. But it is worse in two important respects, the one economic, the other political. The immense cost of the Viet Nam operation can still be borne out of the vast surplus of the American economy, causing only minor dislocation at home; the cost of the Russian adventure in the Middle East has to be met by a Soviet public that is still short of many basic consumer goods and becoming increasingly resentful of such deprivation.
Perhaps the most serious aspect of the situation, from the point of view of the Soviets, is the political danger to which they are exposed. This danger takes two forms. On the one hand, their political ascendancy in some of the Arab states, without effective air and military support, remains precarious, and can be terminated by internal political action. Recent developments in Syria and Iraq indicate a desire in those countries to extricate themselves from too close a connection with Russia. Still more alarming is the possibility of another war and another Arab defeat. The Russian commitment to the revolutionary Arab states appears open-ended. By precipitate action on the part of régimes with which they are associated but which they do not control, the Russians might again be forced to choose between humiliation and confrontation. It is not a pleasing prospect, and one can well understand the Soviet anxiety to escape from a situation in which such a choice might be forced on them.
Soviet interests and purposes in the Middle East have changed since the time of the first Soviet penetration into the Arab world. In those days, the West was still predominant in the area, and was therefore interested in stability; the Russians were outside, and consequently interested in disruption. Today, with Soviet influence predominant in part of the area, their interest in stability in that part may outweigh their interest in disruption in the remainder. Stability could enable them to consolidate and exploit the position they have gained, and perhaps in time extend it. The most immediate advantages they would gain would be the use of the Suez Canal, with the consequent extension of their influence east of Suez, and release from the constant danger of involvement in another military defeat. There might even be some advantage to the Soviet Union in the resumption by the United States of a certain role in Arab affairs. It would no doubt be too much to hope for a return to an earlier phase, when the United States shared in the cost of maintaining a Soviet satellite, but some sharing of the cost and odium of supporting the existing régimes might not be altogether unwelcome.
In the West there have been, broadly speaking, two opinions on the whole question of the four-power talks, each with its own characteristic judgments and forms of expression. According to one, there is in the Middle East an "explosive situation" which needs to be "defused" before it detonates into a nuclear confrontation. Both East and West, it is believed, recognize this danger, and are prepared to offer some sacrifices in order to avert it. By negotiation and compromise the powers could devise a reasonable formula of settlement, and could then induce (the word "impose" is, in Anglo-American usage, unacceptable) their respective proteges to accept it.
According to the second view, the danger of an unintended confrontation is remote, and there is in consequence no real willingness to make the kind of sacrifices that might produce a great-power agreement. Even if there were, the great powers could not make good their undertakings, since they cannot compel their proteges to act against what they regard as their vital interests.
Supporters of the first view argue that in any case initiative is better than drift. The attempt is worth making, and even if it fails the position is no worse than before. Critics of the four-power talks point out that the mere proposal to hold such talks brought an immediate worsening of the situation along the ceasefire lines, and that the progress of the talks has been accompanied by mounting tension and violence, designed specifically to influence them. When the talks, as is inevitable, fail to produce any substantial result, the situation, it is argued, will be worse than before. The parties to the dispute will have worked themselves into new and more intransigent military and political attitudes; the great powers will have further diminished their own credit and authority-their ability to inspire respect or fear in their own proteges or those of their opponents.
Three main points are at issue: the danger of a nuclear confrontation, the possibility of a Russo-American compromise, and the ability of the superpowers to impose a solution on Israel and the Arabs.
The danger of a confrontation exists wherever the interests and spheres of influence of the two superpowers meet-in East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, Germany, even the Caribbean. It has, however, much decreased since the Cuban missile crisis and the resulting awareness on both sides of the risks involved. If ever a confrontation in the Middle East seemed likely, it was in the summer of 1967, when an uncontrolled political and military crisis threatened to involve both superpowers. Both refused to become involved, and each signaled its refusal clearly to the other. Since then the risks and possibilities of the situation are better understood, and the chances of a confrontation by accident-a collision in the dark- correspondingly reduced. There remains the possibility of a confrontation by choice. This would, as things are now, have to be Russia's choice, since in the event of another local war it would almost certainly be the Arabs, not Israel, who would need to be rescued. One of the present aims of Russian policy is to avoid the need to make such a choice; another aim, which could be either complementary or alternative, is to change the present situation in the Middle East in such a way as to transfer the burden of choice to the other side, i.e. to the United States. Such a transfer would, however, only be possible, if at all, with American assistance, which is hardly likely to be forthcoming.
Both the United States, and the Soviet Union are seen as the patrons of their respective protégés-Israel and the revolutionary Arab states. Both superpowers may at times yearn audibly for release from this uncomfortable and compromising relationship, but there is little prospect of either of them being able to achieve it in present circumstances. The world sees them as protectors, and judges them by the effectiveness of their protection. If they falter or fail, even those who benefit by their failure will despise them and be confirmed in the wisdom of their own choice of patron. Neither patron can afford to be seen as faithless, unreliable or inept; but equally neither can afford to appear too obviously ruthless and overbearing, selfishly subordinating its protégés' interests to its own.
One of the Soviet Union's purposes is to restore confidence-among the Arabs and elsewhere-in its effectiveness and reliability as a patron. This can be achieved only by giving its protégés effective support. Another is to escape from its present dilemma in the Middle East. This could be achieved either by extricating itself from its commitments, or by transforming the situation in such a way that it would be able to meet these commitments with relative ease and safety. The first would be damaging to Russia's influence with its Arab clients, or to those clients' influence with their own peoples; the second could involve very great risks. The Soviet Government's assessment of those risks, and consequent choice of direction, will be decisively affected by the content and expression of American policy.
In the English-speaking countries we still feel a strong inner compulsion to act, in great matters, in accordance with moral principles, or at least to persuade ourselves that we are so doing. When obliged by circumstances to have dealings with the adversary, we feel a corresponding compulsion to see him as something other and better than what he is, and thus morally to justify our dealings with him. This can be dangerous. It may be necessary to negotiate and compromise with the Soviet Government. It would be very foolish to cherish delusions as to the nature and purposes of Soviet power.
It is possible, but not likely, that the four-power talks will end in open disagreement. It is possible, but still less likely, that they will produce a workable settlement, acceptable to both parties. The most probable result is some amplification of the November resolution, perhaps even including the outlines of a general settlement of specific issues, such as frontiers, refugees and navigation, but leaving the details of application and the methods of implementation to the Arabs and Israelis. If, in spite of their differences, the four powers manage to agree on a detailed settlement, and, what is more important, on the manner and sequence of its implementation- what then? There would still be the problem of persuading Israel and the Arab states to comply effectively with its provisions; and the chances are that any settlement likely to be accepted by the four powers would be rejected by one or all of the parties to the dispute. One of the facts of the present international order is the ability of even the smallest countries to defy the great powers in what they regard as matters of vital national interest. There are no doubt powerful means of persuasion at the disposal of the Russians in Cairo and Damascus and the Americans in Jerusalem, but it would be politically difficult, if not impossible, to use them. The two superpowers have to consider the effects of such pressure on neutrals, allies, clients-even, in varying measure, on their own domestic opinion. Neither the Israelis nor the Arabs have much reason to rely on the United Nations for the protection of their vital interests; neither can be wholly confident that its patron would come to the rescue in any conflict with a purely local enemy. Both therefore would be reluctant to accept any sacrifices which might weaken their position, politically or militarily, in the event of another local war.
The two major problems of the area-the East-West rivalry and the Arab- Israeli conflict-would remain. The two are not necessarily connected, and the West has usually tried to keep them separate. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, has tried to combine them in order to maximize anti-Western feeling and to exploit its advantage in hostility to Israel. But the Russians, too, may begin to recognize the dangers of this policy and to see the merits of some measure of disengagement.
If there is indeed a danger of nuclear confrontation in the Middle East, it would be enormously increased by a guaranteed settlement, which would involve the guarantors in every border incident. It might, however, be reduced by a limited and agreed disengagement. This could not be general, since the powers have vital interests in the area apart from the Arab- Israeli conflict; it could not be unilateral, since this would merely mean the victory and domination of the other side. But all four powers might well find some advantage in achieving that measure of détente which lies in their own hands, i.e. by separating the Arab-Israeli conflict from their own mutual relations, and reducing it to the relative harmlessness, to world peace, of the Cyprus and Kashmir disputes.
At the present stage, the Arab-Israeli conflict is virtually insoluble. In Arab eyes, an Israeli solution would mean submission to intolerable injustice and humiliation; in Israeli eyes, an Arab solution would mean the immediate or slightly deferred extinction of their state and society. In time there will no doubt be some changes of outlook and assessment on both sides, and a possibility of compromise may then arise. (For example, the replacement of Zionism and pan-Arabism by Israeli and Egyptian patriotism would make an accommodation much easier. But this is still very problematic.) Meanwhile, there is little that the great powers can do.
That little should not, however, be neglected. The imagery of gunpowder and explosion that is often used with reference to the Middle East is somewhat misleading. The Arab-Israeli crisis is not so much explosive as inflamed, not a bomb to be defused but a fever to be isolated and cooled. To this end the powers could make some contribution by administering poultices instead of irritants. They could restrict the entry of weapons into the area- equitably and by agreement; they could call a moratorium on their own probing and propaganda, which spread infection and raise the temperature; they might even agree to a cease-fire in public debate, and thereby give the patient some relief from the glare of publicity and the passion and posturing that it evokes. These things would not solve the Palestine problem, but they would bring the time of solution perceptibly nearer.
Such a policy would of course require a degree of restraint from the superpowers which may well prove unattainable. The failure of either is the failure of both. And in the meantime, with or without such a disengagement, the larger problem of their political and strategic confrontation across the Middle East would remain. Here it would be well to recall that the Arab- Israeli conflict, for all its importance and the attention it receives, is not the only issue in the region, nor the most decisive in the real relationship between the great powers. If the object of Western policy is to prevent Soviet domination of the Middle East, then it would be wise to devote rather more attention to the southern and eastern waters, where the intrusion of Soviet naval and air power would transform the whole balance of strength in Asia and Africa, and above all to Turkey and Iran, the guardians of the northern approaches.
[i] Unlike earlier similar agreements with the West, the truce in radio propaganda reached with the three monarchs seems to have been effective. One possible reason is that the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Libyans themselves understand Arabic, and do not need to rely on translated abstracts.