The Coup in the Kremlin
How Putin and the Security Services Captured the Russian State
This year was in all respects a very heavy time," wrote the authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1097, and we can appropriately use the same phrase to describe 1980. To be sure our country was not engaged in war; the Danes did not raid our coast; America was still rich by world standards; and the harvest was adequate. But a doleful chorus of lamentation was heard not only in our land but throughout the non-communist nations. It had a persistent recurring theme. At a time when the Soviet Union was systematically extending its military reach, the United States was falling into apathy and incompetence. No longer did we Americans seem willing and able to assure the security of our friends and allies. No longer did we display the mastery of events that had given confidence in our economic, political and military leadership.
To some extent one heard overtones of Schadenfreude. America had been top dog for a long time and we had not always worn our epaulets of authority with grace and dignity. Still, one could not shrug off such pervasive apprehension merely as the sour fruit of jealousy. After all, our friends were merely repeating worrisome questions about our capacity for leadership that we had ourselves first uttered. Our military theologians were asserting that we faced a dangerous period when our second-strike strategic nuclear capability might be vulnerable. Our generals were insisting that we lacked the conventional power to halt a Soviet encroachment in such a critical area as the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, we were documenting those dire assertions by symbols of our incompetence.
A symbol that most shocked our friends was the breakdown of the helicopters during our aborted April rescue effort in the Iranian desert-a spectacular failure in an area where American supremacy had long been taken for granted, the ability to make complex machinery work effectively. The only conclusion to be drawn was that America's volunteer armed forces were in appallingly poor condition, and our sophisticated foreign critics memorized the frightening statistics of flagging enlistments and lamentable levels of illiteracy and incompetence in our army.
In addition to somber head-shaking over the sad condition of our military power, our friends took an increasingly jaded view of our economy. Though we had long been unchallenged as the world's industrial leader, our factories now lagged behind Japan's in productivity, and we had lost much of our competitive edge in the bazaars of the world. Some of our famous industrial enterprises were in financial trouble, and the dollar, though still carrying the heavy baggage of a key currency, was sustained even at its comparatively low parity only by high interest rates that deterred investment. We were upsetting world financial markets by our massive and persistent deficits, while lacking the national discipline to reduce inflation and unemployment.
Though it was easy to blame the world's economic ills on America, we were both victim and villain. Our inflation, which we had contracted during the Vietnam War, was a complex and baffling phenomenon-not an isolated disease but a symptom of debilitating slothful habits, excessive expectations, self-indulgence, and an unwillingness to relinquish individual claims or advantages for the common weal. It defied and discredited the economic doctors whose patent remedies no longer seemed effective. Frustrated by the failure of their leeches, poultices, and the balancing of the four humors which they had been taught by the famous Dr. Keynes, they could agree on only one point-that the ailment was aggravated by vaulting oil prices.
Still, the conclusion that the year 1980 was indeed "a heavy time" did not rest solely on economic or military statistics; it also reflected the widely heard complaint that America's leaders were not adequate for their central role-a complaint that gained credence from the shrill, inconsequential, vapid and seemingly interminable presidential campaign. Was it a basic institutional problem? Were our clumsy electoral arrangements no longer able to produce Presidents of requisite stature? Some found in the choice finally made at least a provisional validation of those concerns, and, in foreign policy, rumors and appearances often have as much operative reality as events and facts.
It is the major thesis of this article that the most notable development of 1980 was the decline of America's standing and authority with its friends and allies-and indeed with other non-communist nations. Yet let us be clear in our chronology of causation. Did faith in American leadership fade precipitately in 1980 or had doubts been germinating over a number of years-ever since we flopped from Vietnam into Watergate? The answer is, I suspect, a little of both. What-among other things-unconsciously upset Americans was that, during the ten years culminating in 1980, our nation had confronted three situations in which we were forced to yield to poor, backward, nonindustrialized countries.
First, we found we could not impose our will on the poor, largely agrarian, nation of North Vietnam. Then we stood by impotently while our countrymen were kidnapped by another less developed country. Meanwhile, for seven years we have been subjected to the financial exactions of a group of developing nations combining under the name of OPEC. Of course, each of these incidents had a different explanation. In assuming that, given our huge economic strength and advanced military technology, we could inevitably prevail in Vietnam, we overlooked the driving force of our adversary's fanatical purpose. After our countrymen were taken captive in Tehran we learned with shock and dismay that kidnappers can, by playing on human compassion, effectively stand power relations on their head. Finally, OPEC's inflation of oil prices revealed the leverage implicit in collective decisions by producers who control the supply of a finite resource on which the world economy depends.
No doubt we were the victims of cultural lag since we had acted-and still do-on assumptions that dated from the end of the Second World War, when America was without question so much more powerful than other nations as to create a deceptive sense of omnipotence. Now we discovered that power no longer depended solely on the possession of industrial plants or nuclear bombs. Nations ridiculously weak by those standards showed us that other kinds of power can derive from an obsessive purpose, kidnapping or monopoly. Impotent in the face of these nonconventional weapons, America no longer gave the appearance of predominant might that had set it apart from other nations; we had, some critics suggested, lost our uniqueness and were not much more than primus inter pares-the biggest of the big powers. But few Americans could swallow that pill with equanimity. Since we were not conditioned to failing or being thwarted, many were led to the troubling question: What had happened to us that we could be pushed around by midgets? So we instinctively searched for scapegoats-greedy oil companies, the dishonesty of our government leaders, the venality of special interests seeking to despoil the landscape-anything but reality.
Not that we were the only confused and unhappy nation. During 1980 almost all non-communist countries suffered from the debilitating OPEC disease that caused a vast and seemingly endless bleeding away of wealth. Vaulting oil prices proved as critical in weakening the body politic of the West as an excessively high fever; they created persistent balance-of-payment deficits that distorted the international monetary system, drained off the capital that nations needed for investment, created major problems of adjustment within industrial structures, altered the habits of peoples, and called into question the wisdom and authority of governments.
Why was America so tragically slow to comprehend the implications of the massive readjustment in energy costs that began in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War? Never before did our learned doctors so passionately and widely disagree, nor our intellectual patent medicine salesmen work so frenetically to promote their individual nostrums. Professor Milton Friedman assured me in 1974 that the OPEC cartel would soon disintegrate and, in any event, inflation would nullify the effect of any oil price increases; demagogues blamed the fragility of our position on the international oil companies, who were as bemused as anyone by what was happening; ecologists insisted there would be no energy shortage if we would only harness the rays of the sun, while their particular form of tilting at windmills was to urge that we cover the landscape with them.
Since the first explosion of the nuclear bomb, Americans had never faced a problem so far outside their experience, and the mystification and tangential theorizing that followed has continued to the present day. Unlike nuclear weapons, which, though they revolutionized power relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, did not alter the way Americans went about their normal affairs, the oil crisis directly touched the life of our whole country. It withered the income and savings of the average American by helping to stimulate inflationary forces, induced him to trade in his huge automobile for a less thirsty compact, and gave him an all-purpose excuse for his economic unhappiness.
Even by 1980-seven years after the first major OPEC action-our country had made only a snail's progress toward solving-or even comprehending-our energy problem. In spite of fatuous talk of "project independence" and the "moral equivalent of war," we remained bemused, divided and paralyzed and hence subject to the whim or cupidity of a handful of Middle East nations. Even now we have not clearly defined the trade-offs needed for moving rapidly to reduce dependence on foreign energy, while, at the same time, taking reasonable measures to safeguard our environment.
Quite likely our stumbling response to the oil crisis has done more than anything, other than the Vietnam War, to weaken the confidence of other nations in America. Europeans resent the fact that-though we talk constantly of conservation-we still consume roughly twice as much oil per capita as they.
Interrelated events rarely have the good grace to occur at moments of fortunate phasing, and no doubt our weakness has appeared at a particularly inopportune moment in Europe's history, since the years of constructive optimism in that continent seem-at least temporarily-to have ended. Having lost their empires and their status as great nations, the countries of Europe for a time thought tentatively of revitalizing their societies by combining the skill and resources of their great continent under a common institutional framework that would enable them to act with unity. But today Europeans are steadily relapsing into traditional habits of nationalism. Europe's nation-states live more and more on long memories, displaying a constant tendency to slip back into the old bad habits of the past. To be sure, heads of state now meet regularly, while foreign ministers hold even more frequent meetings with agendas that include politics as well as economics; but, though many matters are touched on, the meetings end with bland communiqués and minimal action.
The failure of European nations to organize themselves on a modern scale is the major element of weakness in the alliance, because it results in an unhealthy imbalance that erodes relationships of mutual respect. Except for the Soviet Union, the nations so long regarded as "the great powers of Europe" now lack the scale and scope required for that designation. Technology and industrialization have wrought such a massive change in magnitudes that only countries organized on a continent-wide basis can mobilize the resources to play more than a regional role. For a time that did not matter. During the period of disintegration of the great colonial systems-the 1950s and early 1960s-America had the capability to cope single-handedly with affairs in the far corners of the world. But, particularly during the latter 1960s and 1970s, capital and production have been drastically redistributed among the industrialized nations without a commensurate redistribution of military or political responsibilities. Though in wealth and income Japan and the nations of Europe have grown progressively stronger in relation to the United States-or, put another way, the United States in relative terms has grown progressively weaker-the world has continued to rely on America to play the same lonely role in world affairs. Nor, unless Europe should undergo some massive revival of spirit and resume its move toward unity, can one expect any reallocation of political or military responsibilities outside the European continent.
Since habit is the progenitor of inertia, we Americans continue to regard it as divinely ordained that we must bear the burdens history has thrust on us; indeed, our government usually finds it easier to act on its own than to try to involve other nations. But that fundamental imbalance is now becoming more and more unsettling-especially as other governments sublimate any sense of guilt for their own incapacity and inaction by increased shrillness in their cluck-clucking and the patronizing tone of their advice to America. Though acknowledging our own shortcomings, we Americans do not take kindly to captious carping at our leadership-resenting accusations of ineptitude or a lack of will if we choose not to rush off precipitately to fight or face down some other nation, when our foreign critics do little more than jeer from the sidelines, as though world politics were a football match.
But if events of the past year have clearly shown that our system of collective security, evolved during the ebullient days of the late 1940s and 1950s, is in sad need of repair, that year has also disclosed dangers and anxieties for the Soviet Union. Though, unlike America and its allies, the U.S.S.R. has been spared the disruptive effect of OPEC price actions-indeed, has profited from them-it faces still more fundamental problems. Controlled by an aging hierarchy, it is at the point of changing the guard under a system incapable of assuring an orderly succession without a power fight. Meanwhile, the year 1980 added further piles of evidence to confirm what six decades of disappointing experience had already established-that the Soviet command economy is an inferior system that cannot work efficiently.
In addition, the year's vital statistics have confirmed the demographic trend that will shortly make the Russians a diminishing minority in the population of the U.S.S.R. Today they represent no more than 50 percent while non-Russian groups are increasing far more rapidly-especially the 40 million Muslims of Central Asia whose rate of annual increase is several times that of the Russians. Since the minorities hate Russians, and the country has lost its ideological drive, uneasiness and discontent extend even to the harried men in the Kremlin. Given their historical memory of Mongol invasions, the specter of a billion Chinese next door to the almost empty continent of Siberia constantly bedevils them.
Nor was the year propitious for their global aspirations. Fighting still continues in Angola and, though the Soviets' perfidy to the Somalis cost them a first-rate base at Mogadishu, the Ogaden remains in turmoil. To be sure, those were low-cost, low-risk affairs with more Cubans than Russians at risk; far more disturbing are the mounting bills-both economic and political-from their massive move into Afghanistan. Though, by virtue of propinquity if nothing else, Afghanistan can never become a Soviet Vietnam, as some fanciful American commentators have suggested, the Red Army may have to occupy the country for a decade before it can entirely root out the tribal structures that assure opposition.
Still, the Kremlin's dolor over its foreign adventures can scarcely equal its anxieties at mounting unrest in Eastern Europe, whose peoples are growing more and more impatient and assertive as they see the greater prosperity of their neighbors to the West, and rankle under the heavy heel of Soviet repression. "Where will it end?" we Americans ask, as we watch with mingled admiration and frustration the struggle toward freedom in Poland-applauding the valiant spirit of the Polish people, yet sickeningly apprehensive that a Soviet invasion of Poland could kill many brave Poles while setting in motion unpredictable forces damaging not only to our relations with Moscow but to transatlantic relations as well.
But if, as the hot air leaks out of their ideological balloon, the Soviets show evidence of flagging economic and political strength, in military terms they seem increasingly strong. To be sure, they may, as rumors suggest, be encountering difficulties with a conscript army containing non-Russian elements-including a significant component of Central Asians, only 37 percent of whom speak Russian even as their second language. Yet it is unlikely that such problems remotely approach those we are encountering in our current hopeless task of seeking to turn our volunteer army into an effective fighting force.
No one should discount the hypertrophy of the Soviets' armed forces, since a nation's ability to do mischief may depend far more on its willingness to channel resources into its war machine than on comparative statistics of economic strength. In the late 1930s France and Great Britain were richer and industrially stronger than Germany, but the Nazis were ready for war while they were not. Nor is there any doubt that the Soviet Union-with its reach now extended around the world-is in position to play a meddlesome role wherever regional quarrels or conditions of internal instability provide targets of opportunity.
In the Middle East such quarrels and instabilities are so numerous as to lead the cliché-mongers to call it a potential Balkans. Until the end of 1979 we Americans watched with paralyzed fascination as the Shah's dynasty was disgorged in a violent emetic ecstasy by the whole Iranian people. Then, with the seizure of the hostages on November 4, 1979, and the invasion of Afghanistan on December 27, we gained a new set of preoccupations. Finally, in the latter part of 1980 came the Iraq-Iran war.
The first of these four incidents-the Iranian Revolution-caught America off balance and shattered our complacence regarding the security of the Gulf. Though otherwise serious people still talk sterile nonsense regarding our government's responsibility for letting Khomeini seize control, such critics have largely limited their comments to a short time-span. Few have bothered, for example, to ask why in 1972 the United States failed to establish its own military presence to fill the Persian Gulf vacuum created by British withdrawal, as we had in other areas of the world. Why, instead, did we, in the name of the Nixon Doctrine, put all our trust in the Shah as the "protector" of Western interests when, in the latter years of the twentieth century, an absolute monarchy could clearly have only a limited life expectancy? Was it prudent to unlock our arsenal for the Shah to acquire whatever his fancy chose of our most sophisticated hardware-especially since, in the process, we contributed both to his financial pressures and his megalomania? Those points have been largely smothered by the self-righteous outrage of those with vested interests in historical revisionism. They contend, first, that our government should have foreseen and thwarted the revolution and, second, that the Carter Administration should have saved the Shah by interposing American power or aiding and encouraging the Iranian Army to fire on the mobs.1
Yet, now that the mists have largely cleared, it is apparent, not that the Carter Administration erred by abandoning the Shah, but rather that it supported him too uncritically and failed to comprehend the irresistible momentum of the revolutionary forces at work. Still, the noisy prejudices of Monday morning quarterbacks have a long half-life; only with wider understanding of the nature, significance and magnitude of the Iranian Revolution will such conceits fade into fantasy. And now our own national election on November 4, 1980 has challenged the accusations that our government should have foreseen the advent and magnitude of the Iranian Revolution. Even with elaborate computer gadgetry and the opportunity to read the pulse of the electorate systematically over a long period of months, America's famous pollsters failed to foresee the Reagan landslide and insisted until the final day that the election remained "too close to call." So, who can cavil at our intelligence services for failing to perceive the tidal nature of a political regurgitation in a country 6,000 miles away?
Before we had recovered from the shock of the Shah's fall our Embassy staff was kidnapped. Americans found it hard to adjust to the reality of our strange, frustrating predicament, to realize how little a humane nation can do when a foreign government-and not merely a terrorist gang-connives to imprison its nationals. We were quite unprepared to recognize that the only practical course, after the exhaustion of all diplomatic effort, was to wait for a change in the objective facts through the emergence of institutions in Tehran capable of speaking and acting with at least limited authority.2 Still, we Americans have a short attention span, and, without constant reminders, the plight of the Iranian hostages would never have become a national obsession. At the time of the Pueblo incident in 1967, for example, our government did little but make official protests even though Americans were being tortured. Since our television cameras were not allowed in North Korea, the incident held a subdued place in the public consciousness until the hostages finally came home one year later.
But in Iran the great American television networks placed their full facilities at the service of the captors, faithfully recording their grunts and gestures when they assembled each day at the appointed hour to shout abusive slogans and shake their fists with contrived ferocity at the camera lens. With our help and expense the exhibitionists of Iran enjoyed a continuing field day.
The sight of successive waves of hate-driven Iranians (or perhaps the same group giving daily repeat performances) concentrating their long pent-up hatred of the Shah on America (which served as a displacement mechanism) understandably outraged our national sensibilities, while heartbreaking television interviews with the families of the hostages transformed the whole affair into a long-running soap opera. The melodrama gained new intensity when, in an effort to exploit the national mood, President Carter announced late in December 1979 that he would nobly abjure further campaigning until the hostages were returned-a pledge he abandoned only after the ill-fated rescue attempt of April.
With such a systematic stirring of public feelings, the hostage problem acquired a highly distorted importance in the total context of American foreign policy. That distortion quite likely delayed the return of the hostages, since it made their retention useful to the militants and even to the Iranian Islamic leadership as a symbol of grievances they could exploit over a protracted period. At the same time the sense of outrage built up in American opinion generated pressures that led the Administration into its wildly reckless adventure in the desert, which, as I have suggested, gave powerful currency to growing suspicions of American incompetence.
If the hostage seizure was largely an American preoccupation, the Afghanistan invasion posed a threat to all non-communist nations, though Western experts disagreed on their appraisal of Soviet motivations. Some saw it as a carefully designed first step in extending the Soviet Union's influence into Pakistan and the subcontinent, while improving its chances to gain control of the whole or parts of a disintegrating Iran and thus command the eastern shores of the Persian Gulf. Those holding that view emphasized the unique character of the operation; it was the first time since the Second World War that the Soviet Union had deployed its army outside of Europe. For others the operation seemed less sinister; the Soviets, they speculated, had reluctantly committed such large forces only to avoid humiliation from the threatened establishment of a hostile regime in Kabul.
But, whatever Moscow's motives, no one could ignore the fact that its move had created a new situation, although even that was subject to differing interpretations. Here again the argument was highly conjectural. Would control of Afghanistan materially improve Moscow's strategic position for an ultimate invasion of Iran? Such control could hardly add much to the Red Army's existing ability to sweep down across Iran's long northern border where the terrain, while initially rugged, is still less forbidding than the formidable mountain barrier that separates Afghanistan from Iran. To be sure, though southern Afghanistan provides the potential for air bases 350 miles from the Strait of Hormuz and control of Afghanistan may put the Soviets in a better position to subvert the Baluchis, the practical advantages were by no means unequivocal.
Yet, however much the experts might disagree, the President had no doubt. Immediately after the invasion he portentously declared that "the implications of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could pose the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War." Such hyperbole affronted those who remembered the crises over Berlin and the tense days before Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba. More than that, it tended to confirm the impression of naïveté President Carter had created in the immediate aftermath of the invasion when he had stated: "My opinion of the Russians has changed more drastically in the last week than even the previous two and a half years." For experienced Europeans and many battle-hardened Americans such utterances posed a disturbing question: Were not the costs of on-the-job training for Presidents proving too high?
The Afghanistan invasion differed, of course, from the kidnapping of our nationals, since the latter action, though a violation of the rights of embassy and hence of concern to all nations, appeared primarily as a dispute between America and a country suffering the lunacy induced by revolution that only tangentially involved cold-war relationships. But to the extent that it posed a threat either to the subcontinent or the Persian Gulf, the invasion of Afghanistan concerned every Western power as well as Japan. Here again the President took the diplomatic lead by announcing sanctions against the Soviet Union, including not merely stopping grain sales and the transfer of high-technology equipment, but also an American boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. In addition, since it is now the practice for every President to attach his name to at least one solemn pronouncement for the history books, he promulgated what the press obligingly called the "Carter Doctrine," though at almost the same time America's military leaders made public their expert opinion that we did not have the strength to back it up.
To these proposed sanctions the reaction of our friends and allies was mixed. Part of the problem was the relation of democratic governments to their own athletes. In Britain, for example, the government, though favoring the boycott, did not have the necessary influence over its Olympic committee; in France, where the government could clearly have told its Olympic committee what to do, President Giscard d'Estaing refused to take a clear stand.3
Not only were some governments unwilling to risk unpopularity by disenchanting their athletes but they did not want to risk offense to the Soviet Union-even though the government of the Federal Republic of Germany showed the way. That reaction was further evidence that the alliance had been critically weakened and that America's leadership no longer commanded respect. At the same time it underlined two points that Americans often tend to overlook-that our European allies cannot adopt sanctions against the Soviet Union without risking far higher costs than any to which we might be subject, and that Americans and Europeans have quite different conceptions of the nature and purpose of détente.
Viewing the Soviet Union from a geographically distant point, we regard détente as a condition in which superpower relations can be maintained at a state of tension short of the immediate threat of armed conflict. Though the concept includes a component of trade, Americans do not all agree as to whether-and in what magnitude-East-West commerce is either good or bad. But the Federal Republic's Ostpolitik, its own bilateral version of détente, is not merely theoretical but operational; under its conceptual umbrella Bonn has been able to arrange the return of thousands of Germans from Poland and to develop procedures that ease the agonies of separation between members of families in East and West Germany. Moreover, unlike America, West Germany's prosperity is directly related to its trade with the bloc; its exports to East Germany and the U.S.S.R. increased by 30 percent in the first half of 1980, while in five years Soviet gas exports to West Germany are expected to double to the point where they will constitute about 30 percent of the country's total gas consumption-a degree of dependence that is worrisome. Finally, living next to the Iron Curtain and with their faith shaken in the effectiveness of America's defense umbrella, the Germans feel far more vulnerable to Soviet reprisals.
Because of this latter circumstance, at least some of the people in the Federal Republic and other smaller European nations might react to a possible Soviet invasion of Poland with a disquieting ambivalence. Ten years ago one could have said without question that the threat implied in such a move would rally the forces of Atlantic solidarity and that the Western nations would be more than ever convinced of the need to act with unity and resolution out of common interest. Today one cannot be so sure, for, as has been suggested, Europe is suffering such appprehension, just short of resignation, that a new menace from the East would not necessarily stiffen spines and evoke a spirit of opposition, but might lead some at least to toy with the wishful thought of saving their own skins and profits through an act of accommodation.
So now more than ever we must urgently go about rebuilding the alliance. That will require not only subtlety and firm purpose but the rigorous avoidance of unilateral actions that diminish the sense of common interest we have so carefully built throughout the past three decades. Recent American administrations have all too often failed to understand that we can cope with common threats far more effectively by developing with our allies modest but unified responses rather than taking more far-reaching actions in which few other nations join.
Though the dependence of our European and Asian allies on Middle Eastern oil is far greater than ours, we still regard the area as our exclusive diplomatic hunting preserve. We have not even agreed with our allies-or even seriously tried to agree-on the nature and priority of our common interests in the area, nor have we clearly enough defined the priority of our own national interests.
During many centuries the strategic importance of the Middle East derived from its position athwart the main arteries of transport between Europe and southern and eastern Asia; then for a hundred years the protection of the Suez Canal became a central object of strategy. But during the closure of the canal following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, merchants found it no longer indispensable, since with jumbo tankers they could continue to carry on essential trade on an economic basis. Today, the strategic importance of the area depends almost solely on one circumstance and one only-the geological accident that has placed the world's largest reservoir of oil under its desert sands. That defines America's prime strategic concern. We must concentrate not only on keeping the area out of the Soviet orbit, but must try, so far as possible, to assure the stability needed to discourage further upheavals that could threaten oil production.
In addition to safeguarding the world's oil supplies we have a special obligation as Israel's protector that is not shared by our European allies or Japan. American Presidents have for some years promised to assure Israel's territorial integrity and, though we have never formalized that commitment by treaty, we have repeatedly proved it by action. We saved Israel by our airlift during the 1973 war, we have invested enormous amounts of political capital to help settle Israel's quarrels with its neighbors, and finally we have provided it a volume of foreign aid (quite apart from American private sector contributions) that has, over the years, roughly equalled our total Marshall Plan assistance to the whole of Western Europe.
Yet, while assuring the integrity of Israel within its pre-1967 borders, we cannot-without making nonsense of our avowed principles as a humane nation-condone or encourage injustice from a desire to compensate for injustices committed by others elsewhere at another time. In our diplomatic effort, therefore, we should have a single undeviating objective-to free the 1.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the twin aggravations of a 13-year-long, increasingly repressive military occupation, and a settlements policy that is progressively preempting the land and water supply of the West Bank's Palestinian inhabitants and forcing them to leave their native land.
Both logic and experience should now have conclusively demonstrated that a decent and lasting peace will be possible only through an arrangement that reconciles Israel's security with Palestinian self-determination, and that should determine the thrust and target of our diplomacy, not merely because it is essential to a rational Middle East policy that accords with our national interest but because it is just and right. Since civilized principles require that the Palestinians be directly represented in any negotiation to determine their fate, we must substantially revise and expand the current Camp David formula, frankly acknowledging that we will remain paralyzed until we break free from our self-denying ordinance not to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the only agency the Palestinians recognize as their legitimate representative.
But if, as Israel's supporters are constantly pointing out, the Arab-Israeli quarrel is not the only source of our problems in the Middle East, neither should we confuse it with our prime strategic objective in the area. That objective is clearly to safeguard our oil supplies, and, while the settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute is essential to the achievement of that objective, the strategic center of our concern-and the region of greatest importance to our national security and well-being-consists of the lands that lie well to the south and east of Israel where the nations surrounding the Persian Gulf produce at least half the oil needed by the non-communist world.
Today the Gulf area is threatened as it has not been for decades by a revolutionary convulsion in Iran that could result in the ethnic fragmentation of the country or the emergence of a regime friendly to-or controlled by-the Soviet Union. In addition, no one can be sure that the Iraq-Iran war-which could continue for several years-may not spread south toward the mouth of the Gulf or precipitate attacks on oil fields or other sensitive targets outside the belligerent nations.
Our Vietnam experience has vividly shown that we cannot effectively deploy our military power in an area where there is no adequate local power base to support it, and we would be severely hampered in trying to defend the Gulf area without close military cooperation with Saudi Arabia, which, together with the emirates and sultanates, comprises the whole western side of the Gulf. Only the Saudis can provide the access to well-placed and adequate military bases, the possibility of pre-positioning supplies close to the point of danger, the locus and facilities for sophisticated and effective surveillance, the central coordination of tactics and strategy needed to give credibility to an American response to any sudden and critical challenge.
Apart from Saudi Arabia's role in military defense, Saudi leaders can, by their political and economic decisions, uniquely influence America's economic well-being. No one but the Saudis can materially expand oil production to meet shortfalls; and, since the revenue needs of their tiny population are so low, only they can substantially cut production without affecting their nation's standard of living.
For many years tacit arrangements of mutual benefit have existed between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Saudis have looked to America as capable of defending their country either from the Soviets or their own more radical neighbors, and they have also seen us as a principal source of technology and training needed to bring their country into the twentieth century. In recognition of their own responsibilities in a mutually beneficial relationship with the United States and other Western countries, the Saudis have pressed for moderation in the councils of OPEC and they are today mitigating the shortfall resulting from revolution and war by expanding their oil production to 10.2 million barrels a day. That action has proved a godsend for us since the Iraq-Iran war has reduced oil exports from the two belligerents by roughly four million barrels a day in addition to the five million barrels already lost as a result of the Iranian Revolution.
But today America's reputation for strength and constancy has declined in Saudi Arabia just as it has elsewhere in the world. Though, within the last two years, America has taken some concrete measures to show its determination and ability to defend the Gulf by twice deploying AWAC surveillance planes to watch over the area and by substantially augmenting its naval forces in the Indian Ocean, such spasmodic gestures have only partially overcome Saudi doubts and reservations. Far more persistent-and consistent-measures are required to offset the damage to Saudi confidence in America that has resulted during the past five or six years from a succession of disturbing incidents each of which has seemed to demonstrate our impotence, or vacillation-or at least the narrow limits of our power.
To an extent what has occurred is the destruction of the mythology of America's omnipotence, for it was clear to those who understood the country that the Shah's return to power in 1953 was a deceptive precedent and that he could never achieve a Third Coming against the sweep of a truly national revolution. Still our demonstrated incapacity to save absolute monarchies from internal upheavals-a matter of special concern to the Saudi hierarchy-heightened a sense of encirclement already created by Moscow's beachhead in Ethiopia and its growing activities in South Yemen. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Saudis felt that circle tightening-all of which made it particularly demoralizing when a band of fanatics seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in late 1979 and by their action advertised to all the world the nation's lack of internal security. Today, while fearing the possible spread of the Iraq-Iran war toward the southern end of the Gulf, Saudi leaders worry that a distracted and disintegrating Iran might, in revolutionary hysteria, lash out with attacks on their oil installations or seek to stir up internal strife through the 200,000 Shi'ites in the eastern provinces where their oil production is located.
If the Saudis are disturbed by our inability to respond to menacing events, they are equally disturbed by our political activities in the area. They are irked by the Camp David accords and our pressure on them to support the accords, and, though they resisted that pressure, they have still suffered the fallout from the polarization of the Arab world, which forced their alienation from Egypt-their natural ally in moderation-and left them isolated with their radical Arab neighbors. Were America unequivocally committed to the defense of their interests and competent to sustain that defense, they would have quite a different attitude, but they have lost confidence on both counts. America, as they see it, is far too vulnerable to Israeli pressure to be counted on as a reliable ally. We have shown our political impotence by failing to come to grips with the Palestinian problem that is a source of festering anxiety throughout the area-particularly among the young for whom the PLO leaders are folk heros-and we Americans have ourselves denied our own defense capabilities-with even our own experts pointing out that the much-advertised Rapid Deployment Force could never deliver enough troops in time to counter a sudden attack on the Saudi oil fields or any other vital point in the Gulf.
It is hardly surprising that, given the shocks they have lately suffered and their growing doubts that their big brother, America, would-or could-ever get there in time, the Saudis should undertake to build defense forces of their own. Quite naturally they turned to America and, in May 1978, President Carter agreed to sell them 60 F-15s. The idea that anyone but Israel in the Middle East should have such planes affronted Prime Minister Begin's government and the Israeli lobby was unleashed to try to block the sale. That it was approved by the Senate by the narrow vote of 54 to 44 upset the Saudis, particularly since even that grudging result required assurances that the planes would have only limited reach and be deployed from fields out of range of Israel. Now, two and a half years later, as tensions and dangers mount throughout the area-with the collapse of Iran, the invasion of Afghanistan and most recently the Iraq-Iran war-the Saudis have asked us to sell them conformal fuel tanks and bomb racks that will extend the range and effectiveness of the F-15s so they can defend their huge country (equal in area to the United States east of the Mississippi) against attack from all frontiers. In addition they have indicated that they may wish to buy AWACs of their own as well as tanker planes.4 Particularly sensitive to special-interest pressure in an election year, President Carter rejected the Saudi request. Unless he reverses that stand before January 20, he will leave the new President with a critical decision early in his term and quite possibly before his government has completed its shakedown cruise and is ready to function effectively.
The issue cannot be ignored or papered over, since the Saudi leaders have made clear that they regard it as the litmus test of America's willingness and ability to help them defend their country. They cannot, as they see it, depend for their arms on a nation whose supply decisions are determined by Israel's fiat. Moreover, since Israel's F-15s are, as they point out, already fitted with conformal tanks and bomb racks, they see the issue transcending military considerations and directly engaging their pride and honor. Were they to acquiesce in a negative American decision, they could not defend their position against scornful attack and abuse from the leaders of other Arab states or even against the angry protests of the younger Saudi princes who are increasingly urging them to sever their close ties to America. Could they possibly collaborate with a nation that has enabled their tiny neighbor Israel to equip its F-15s with the extended range permitting it to attack Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations far from the Israeli homeland but has denied to their planes that same extended range which they feel they need for the defense of their own huge territory?
Since the issue has become a test of America's good faith intentions toward Saudi Arabia, it is presumably beyond compromise. The United States will either sell the Saudis what they feel they need for their defense or the Saudis will turn elsewhere. If we do not make it possible for them to extend the range of their F-15s they will cancel their order for the planes as not meeting their requirements; in fact they have already begun negotiations with France for Mirage 4000s as a substitute, and once that decision is finally made, they will look to France as their principal arms supplier and source of their military training and assistance. Since, as they see it, French military decisions will be made in Paris and not in Jerusalem-and the French are eager to cooperate-they have already begun the process of shifting; on October 14, 1980, they signed an agreement with France for $3.4 billion in naval equipment and training.
The cancellation of the F-15s, made in an atmosphere of disillusion and bitterness, would cut across the whole spectrum of our relations. For us that decision could have calamitous consequences, not only because it would make our defense burden more difficult but because, once relations were reduced to cold arms'-length dealing, the Saudis would no longer feel obligated to assist America to meet its oil needs in view of our refusal to meet their defense needs. On the contrary, because the Arab states other than Egypt hold the United States responsible for permitting Israel to disregard the Palestinian issue, the Saudis would be under almost irresistible pressure to use their only effective instrument of persuasion-their oil production-to try to force a solution of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and-ultimately-the Jerusalem problems.
There is no doubt that the Saudis have the capability to wield the oil weapon with cruel effect-and selectively. They produce one third of all OPEC oil; government-to-government deals are becoming increasingly common, and, having taken over ARAMCO, the Saudi government is in a position not only to reduce production but to direct the flow of its reduced production to serve its own political advantage by giving preference to those nations that help it the most.
In reducing production the Saudi leaders would meet no resistance either from other Arab states or from the home front; on the contrary, their current policy of maintaining high levels of production to accommodate world oil needs is unpopular in both quarters. Other Arab oil-producing countries would welcome a diminished oil flow from Saudi wells since it would force an additional price increase. Western-educated members of the royal family now in their thirties and forties, who control significant government ministries, as well as young technocrats in positions of growing influence, contend with forceful logic that, rather than building up excess financial reserves that lose value from inflation and currency fluctuations, Saudi Arabia should keep more of its depleting oil resources in the ground for posterity. Those sentiments are shared not only by the Saudi military leaders but also by the more puritanical Wahabi members of the royal family, who see excess oil production-and hence excess revenue and development projects-as a primary source of corruption.
To point out the dangers of a politically motivated production curtailment is not alarmism but a realistic appreciation of our predicament, for which we have only ourselves to blame. Failing for seven years to act incisively to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil, we have let power shift out of our hands. Distasteful though it may be, we would be reckless indeed if we did not recognize where that power now resides.
The precious advantage possessed by any new administration of being able to alter the policies of its predecessor without an implied confession of error is evanescent; unless the opportunity is promptly exploited, old patterns will once more be frozen into bureaucratic rigidity. Thus it is urgent that President Reagan proceed quickly to face the reality of America's progressive enfeeblement in the Middle East and deal directly with the underlying causes of our predicament. That requires two major actions.
First, he should set at rest Saudi doubts as to our good-faith concern for their security interests by approving the sale of the tanks and bomb racks. By lucidly explaining the hard facts and implications of the situation he should be able to gain the approval of a Republican-controlled Senate without too much difficulty.
Second, he should recognize that the Camp David negotiation as now constituted is an engine unconnected to any driving wheels. The West Bank is getting more restless daily, and unless ways and means can be found for direct Palestinian representation in the renewed negotiations the area will burst into flames. As ever-increasing violent incidents on the West Bank are countered by escalating Israeli repression-which is the mode now prevailing-the more moderate Arab states will not only be driven toward increasingly radical and anti-American positions, but the resulting tension and crisis will dangerously enlarge existing fractures in the structure of the Atlantic Alliance. European discontent is already feeding on the well-founded conviction that we have so excessively mortgaged our diplomacy to Israel as to disable ourselves from continuing in our position as prod and catalyst in seeking a Middle East settlement.
Desperately dependent as they are on Arab oil, European nations dare not-and will not-accept a protracted Middle East deadlock. They fear with reason that a violent outburst in the West Bank would almost inevitably generate forces compelling the leaders of the moderate Arab oil-producing states to institute an oil embargo or a production curtailment. Since for Europe that would mean economic disaster, European leaders are preparing to break ranks; the nations of the European Community are already intensively discussing diplomatic initiatives of their own. Unless the Reagan Administration demonstrates the ability to make a hard-nosed diagnosis of our national self-interest and a willingness to free itself from the clichés and concessions that now constrict our diplomacy like a net, we shall forfeit our ability to guide and direct the search for peace in the Middle East, leaving that task to nations which define their own self-interest in much less spacious terms. That would be a staggering blow to America's authority and to the mutual confidence that is the indispensible glue holding the Western democracies together.
Still it is possible that developments now in progress might provide the Reagan Administration with a new opportunity to develop a compromise approach-provided both that it is prepared to act incisively and that the forthcoming Israeli elections produce a less expansionist and doctrinaire government than the one in power. At a time when the prestige of the PLO is at a low ebb with the failure of its mediation efforts, its alignment with the Iranians and Syrians, and its internal dissensions, King Hussein, by helping the Iraqis, has reestablished his pan-Arab credentials. Thus there is a chance that subtle American diplomatic encouragement might bring about a de facto modification of the October 1974 Rabat decision designating the PLO as the exclusive voice for the Palestinian interests, so as to make it possible to add to the negotiation a Jordanian delegation that could include some moderate PLO representatives.
I have dwelt at length on our problems in the Middle East not only because of their intrinsic importance but also because our conduct of Middle East diplomacy is another major factor that can, if we are not careful, contribute to tearing apart our already badly tattered relations with Western Europe and Japan, which are the principal concern of this article. Relations among the members of NATO are by no means a model of health and vitality; indeed what we like to call euphemistically "misunderstandings" have all too often disturbed the easy flow of events.
Another substantive area in which we have so far exercised a diplomatic monopoly is in strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union. While, in principle, West Europeans favor such negotiations as an encouragement to détente and peace (the smaller animals are happier when the lions stop quarreling), some fear still persists that the superpowers might someday conduct their bilateral talks at European expense. Though the major European nations have clamored to be kept informed as to the progress and substance of the talks, they have recognized their lack of serious standing as negotiating partners.
Still, Europeans were appalled by the failure of the President to obtain the Senate's ratification of the SALT II treaty, particularly since such a failure would have been highly unlikely under the parliamentary systems of most European countries. How could the Senate reject a treaty patiently negotiated over seven years by three administrations? Was not this further evidence that the vaunted American political structure had become outmoded or so imprudently reformed as to render the United States impotent to continue as Western Europe's exclusive agent in world politics?
These remain major preoccupations as our allies wait for further indication of the Reagan Administration's policies and the Soviet reaction. If the Soviets should invade Poland, any new negotiations would certainly be put off for an indefinite period. Even if new talks were to begin, we could not assess their probable chance of success until we could study the new demands Moscow would almost certainly make.
Meanwhile the new Administration will probably go forward with the nightmare construction of the MX missile site, leaving archaeologists a millennium hence to bizarre speculations as to what exotic religious rites inspired the scarring of hundreds of square miles with a most eccentric system of works and tunnels with no possible utilitarian purpose. Could it have been related to the Day of the Great Explosion when Americans and Russians blew one another up?
Just as our West European allies are questioning our competence-political, economic and military-Asian leaders are expressing the same doubts in a more muted way. The current Japanese condescension toward America results in large part from a feeling of glee that they are beating America at its own game of industrial efficiency. Although Japan is more dependent than America on imported oil and lacks indigenous raw materials, some Japanese products still show superior competitiveness in world markets and, indeed, in key sectors of the U.S. market itself. Moreover, the Japanese can-and do-cite statistics to demonstrate their edge in industrial efficiency-a far greater annual increase in productivity, fewer man-hours needed to produce comparable products of even higher quality, and more effective marketing. At the same time, the country has controlled inflation, achieved substantially full employment, maintained wage levels not far below those of the United States-or in a few sectors even higher-and increased the value of its currency. All this has given the Japanese a self-confidence in economic matters that is now beginning to show itself in a greater political self-confidence.
Though they look forward to a growing relationship with Beijing and a major share in the development of the potential of China's promising market, they are constantly reminded of the Soviets' expanding military reach as Soviet war vessels cruise just outside Japanese waters. Can they any longer rely exclusively on America, whose strength, grasp and will seem to be weakening?
Any temptation for Japan to seek improved relations with the Soviet Union is, for the moment, discouraged by Moscow's surly insistence on maintaining possession of-and even militarizing-certain Kurile Islands seized during the Second World War. Many thoughtful Japanese feel gratitude to the Soviets for their bone-headed obduracy, since their retention of the islands effectively disables the Japanese Left. But doubt is increasing that American protection would be fully adequate against the growing Soviet military threat. These doubts gained increased currency when the United States found it necessary, for a brief period during the crisis of last January, to redeploy both carriers from the Seventh Fleet to the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, Japanese-American relations are vulnerable not only to a resurgent protectionism but to resentment flowing from the disparity in military expenditures. At a time when the United States is reluctantly increasing its defense appropriations while trying in other areas to trim the national budget, it will hardly pass unnoticed that Japan, in spite of its spectacular economic success, is spending not much more than one percent of its gross national product on defense as against something in excess of six percent for the United States. Should it continue to have a free ride while American industry suffers its intensive competition? That is a rhetorical question tailor-made for demagogues.
In anticipation of such an attack, the Japanese are today beginning their unique but ponderous practice of building a consensus for larger defense expenditures that could result in a gradual change of its policy-and even of its constitution-within the next few years. They are asking fundamental questions. Should Japan continue to depend almost completely on America for its defense? Should the Japanese develop a capability for self-defense, stopping short of nuclear weapons? Or finally, should they seek to play some role in area defense?5
In view of the fact that it has been 35 years since the Japanese surrender on the battleship Missouri, a more substantial political and military role would seem to be not only appropriate but essential-and there is evidence that, rather than creating problems for Japan's neighbors in the Pacific, many of them would welcome increased Japanese strength-at least in the immediate area. After all, West Germany now has the largest army in Europe outside the Soviet Union and Turkey, and the Federal Republic's western neighbors have taken it in stride. But West Germans rearmed within the context of the highly developed collective security system of NATO, and there is nothing comparable to it in the Pacific. Thus the problem is not likely to be solved overnight but by an evolutionary process that permits a slow emergence of increasing regional consciousness and solidarity.
The major imponderable in our relations with Asia as well as with the Soviet Union is, of course, China. Have recent years been merely an aberrant interlude? Will China again revert to political chaos or adhere to the norm of political stability and relative constancy of policy that, until four decades ago, marked its millennia of history? Though America has no choice but to shape tentative policies on the assumption of the latter answer, no one can be sure. Meanwhile, we should continue, as we have been doing during 1980, to perfect trading and working relations with China, pursuing with Beijing parallel courses when that coincides with our interests but rigorously avoiding any suggestion of an alliance relation that would freeze us into a continuing confrontation with the Soviet Union and associate us with the unpredictable vagaries of Chinese policies. And, above all, we should rigorously abjure further sophomoric talk about a "China card."
The year 1980 may well be recorded in the history books-if people ever get back to reading history again-as the 12 months that brought us face-to-face with the fragility of our world situation. Ever since the Second World War we Americans have been conscious of a large cushion of resources that has enabled us to absorb serious mistakes of judgment and strategy. But that cushion no longer exists and we dare no longer act recklessly or irresponsibly. If we are to hold together our alliance in Europe and maintain our relations with Japan and other nations in the Far East, we must not merely restore confidence in our defense capabilities and abjure unilateralism but pursue clear and steady lines of policy that will reestablish the world's faith in our judgment.
In any retrospective piece of modest length it is obviously impossible to address all-or even a major part-of America's foreign policy problems and world relationships, and I am being highly arbitrary in writing of the events of 1980 without discussing Africa or the Third World or commenting on Asia without mentioning the new-and possibly dark-problems created by a change in command in South Korea. Nor should my omission of any serious discussion of the nations of the Western Hemisphere be interpreted as implying that our relations with those nations are less troubled or potentially less dangerous than our relations with our Western allies and Japan. We Americans do not yet have the vaguest conception of how we will be able to live harmoniously next door to a Latin America where almost two-thirds of the population is now under the age of 25, where, in 20 years there will be 600 million people, and where increasing thousands of young men and women will clamor for jobs that their countries can never provide-and will seek escape from hopelessness through illegal emigration to the United States. Certainly Mr. Carter's ill-considered bravado in admitting 100,000 Cubans during 1980 should have alerted us to the need to plan ahead, in close consultation with the nations to the south, instead of fretting mindlessly about the illegal aliens already in the country. History has shown often enough that a nation's cultural and political integrity can be frittered away in a generation, and a politically squalid encouragement of indigestible voting blocs can destroy our national cohesiveness before we realize what has happened to us.
I have chosen to put the principal emphasis of this article on Western Europe and Japan because, in my view, the deterioration of our role as leader of the non-communist world in which they play a significant part could have a disastrous effect on the East-West balance, which, whether we like it or not, still remains the central element in the prevention of world disaster. If the new Administration is prudent and even moderately courageous, it will act incisively to deal with some of the issues I have outlined. What then will that require?
First, if our country is to maintain the confidence of its friends and allies-including the nations of the Persian Gulf as well as of Western Europe and Japan-we must promptly restore the effectiveness of our conventional forces. We can do that only by exorcising the myth of the volunteer army and reinstating some form of selective or national service. That one step would do more than any other to restore confidence in America.
Second, we must recognize the crisis nature of the energy problem and the degree to which we live under a lethal sword that could drop at any time. Let us not be misled by the projections of future oil supplies made by oil experts, economists or statisticians, that include only the factors they can quantify. Today, the triple threats of the political use of oil production, political instability and war can make such projections meaningless.
If the Soviets should gain a position in the Gulf area that would enable them to influence the oil policies of major producers, the Western alliance would be subjected to intolerable strains. The United States would, of course, find itself better placed than most, since we have oil under our own soil, but that is not true of the nations of continental Western Europe, and we could do little to prevent them from engaging in a mad stampede to make their individual deals with Moscow-and on Moscow's terms.
Can anyone doubt that would mean the death of the alliance? It would without question be "a heavy time."
1 This same view was echoed in Europe. On one occasion, I felt compelled to answer a French critic's charge that we should have used force to save the Shah by saying, "Perhaps you're right; we should probably have invaded the suburbs of Paris and captured the revolution at its source." There are, of course, historical parallels for the wistful thought that somehow we could have kept the Shah on his throne. One need only recall the caterwauling of the late unlamented China lobby; or the sentiment that prevailed in the courts of Europe during the early nineteenth century, when diehards contended that other European dynasts, by a more effective use of force, could have checked the national convulsion known as the French Revolution and kept the Bourbon Louis XVI on the throne. Finally, there was the myth fondly cherished in the 1920s among White Russian Paris taxi drivers that, by more strongly supporting the White Armies, the Western powers could have stopped the Bolshevik revolution in its tracks.
2 We have not undertaken the most appropriate response to the kidnapping. In June 1980 I proposed that the United States initiate negotiation for an international convention that would require all signatory nations to break diplomatic relations with any government that was found by the International Court of Justice to have impaired, or condoned the impairment of, the inviolable rights of embassy and diplomatic personnel guaranteed by the Vienna Convention of 1961. That would take any future violation out of the framework of bilateral relations while assuring the political isolation of the offending government. Moreover, it would have the advantage of penalizing the government rather than the people of the offending state, while giving other signatory nations an incentive to press for the release of the hostages or the curing of whatever other offense may have been committed. See The Washington Post, June 3, 1980.
3 To me, the preference of some European governments for games over statecraft recalled the verse originally heard in London during the First World War:
I was playing golf on the day
The Germans landed,
All our troops had run away,
All our ships were stranded,
And the thought of England's shame
Almost put me off my game.
4 The requested sale of aircraft equipment to Saudi Arabia is not to be compared with the massive arms sales we made to Iran. We sold military hardware to the Shah on the assumption that he would be the protector of the Gulf and we would stay out of it. If today the Gulf is to be protected we ourselves must pull the laboring oar, yet, to be fully effective, we shall need the cooperation of the Saudis.
5 If the Japanese are reluctant to build a defense capability of their own because of history and constitutional restraints, they might provide weapons for the United States under some application of the Lend-Lease principle. I proposed early in 1980 that they build and lend-lease us two carriers for use in Japanese waters. Though the suggestion was widely discussed in Japan, nothing came of it. See The Washington Post, February 5, 1980.