D.C., January 5, 2009
- American Presidents from Eisenhower to George W. Bush have sought to distinguish themselves from their predecessors with sudden shifts in Middle East policy and questionable strategies that have contributed to undermining American credibility in the region, according to a new book, A World of Trouble, by veteran correspondent Patrick Tyler, a fellow of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
Tyler's account begins with a raucous night of recriminations over George W. Bush's Middle East diplomacy by former CIA Director George Tenet, and then rewinds to the grand deception of Dwight Eisenhower by Britain, France and Israel, in the Suez Crisis. In bringing the narrative forward to the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of today, Tyler gives the reader an intimate portrait of presidential decisions and the out-sized influence of White House aides and foreign leaders and their emissaries.
|President Ronald Reagan riding his horse El Alamein, at Rancho Del Cielo, April 8, 1986. El Alamein was apparently the President's favorite prior to the gift Arabians from King Fahd.
[Pete Souza, 1999 print from the original color negative. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Administration.(C28233-25A)]
Hailed by Publisher's Weekly as a "riveting" history of American presidents and the Middle East and described by The Economist as a book that "reads almost like a thriller," Tyler’s book (published by Farrar Straus & Giroux of New York) draws on two decades of reporting on the Middle East, dozens of interviews, oral histories and thousands of pages of recently declassified documents, including the National Security Archive's new release of the Henry Kissinger telephone conversations and the mandatory review release of Nixon administration files in late 2007. Highlights from the documents cited by Tyler are featured on the Archive’s web site, www.nsarchive.org, including:
- The private pleadings of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who in June 1973 sought to convince President Nixon that war was coming in the Middle East and that the only way to avert it was by a robust diplomatic intervention by the superpowers. Nixon and Kissinger, fearing domestic blowback in the midst of the Watergate scandal, refused to be drawn in and war broke out four months later.
- The Reagan Diary entry that sheds light on how the White House and the Saudi royal family circumvented the law on presenting lavish gifts to the President, in this case, a pair of Arabian horses.
- The top-secret channel opened by the Nixon White House with the Shah of Iran to discuss "contingency" planning by the Iranian leader to seize Saudi Arabia and its oil resources in the event of a coup or an external assault on the Saudi kingdom. (two documents)
- The confidential debate within the Nixon National Security Council on how to invent a claim of "Russian treachery" in order to justify the U.S. tilt toward Israel, and a massive resupply of its forces, during the 1973 October War. (two documents)
- The CIA's confidential description of the internal pressures within the Israeli leadership that tipped the Jewish state toward a preemptive attack on the Egyptian army in Sinai after the closure of Israeli shipping lanes in the run-up to the the Six Day War. (two documents)
Read the Documents
Document 1: Memorandum for: The President's Files, From: Henry A. Kissinger, Subject: President's meeting with General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev on Saturday, June 23, 1973 at 10:30 p.m. at the Western White House, San Clemente, California, Nixon National Security Files, National Archives.
Document 2: Telcon: The President / Secretary Kissinger, October 14, 1973, 9:04 a.m. National Security Archive collection.
An unscripted late night encounter in June 1973 between President Nixon and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev shows that Moscow was working assiduously to head off a Middle East war that its generals knew was coming. Yet Nixon refused to engage in pre-emptive Middle East diplomacy that might have averted the conflict.
In front of a roaring fire at Nixon's Western White House in San Clemente, California, Brezhnev apologized to Nixon for getting him out of bed, and the two men discussed the threat of war in the Middle East. [The Yom Kippur War broke out little more than three months later on October 6, 1973 ].
Weakened by the domestic scandal surrounding the Watergate break-in and cover-up, Nixon did not explicitly state his reasons for refusing Brezhnev's offer to open a private negotiating channel with a goal of winning long term "security" for Israel and of returning Arab lands seized by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967.
But Nixon later admitted to Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, that, "As far as the Russians are concerned, they have a pretty good beef insofar as everything they have offered on the Mid-East. You know what I mean, that meeting in San Clemente. We were stringing them along and they know it."
De-classified telephone conversation transcripts (Telcons) of Henry Kissinger are rife with references to opposition in the Senate to Nixon's policy of detente with the Soviets. The Senate, which would control Nixon's fate in any impeachment proceeding, was also hyper-sensitive to any pressures that Nixon and Kissinger might bring to bear on Israel in a superpower-brokered negotiation for peace and the return of Arab lands.
Both Nixon and Kissinger, writing in their memoirs, asserted that the Soviet purpose was to "browbeat me into imposing on Israel a settlement based on Arab terms," as Nixon put it. Kissinger, more pointedly, asserted that "twenty-four hours after renouncing the threat of force in the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War [signed during the 1973 summit], Brezhnev was in effect menacing us with a Middle East war unless we accepted his terms."
But there is scant evidence of this in the official memorandum of conversation drafted under Kissinger's direction. The document reveals Brezhnev pressing, cajoling, and almost pleading with Nixon to come to agreement -- not on Arab terms but on the "principles" for peace, with equal emphasis on Israel's security needs.
It appears that Brezhnev's effort may have been a genuine one to avert the war that he knew was coming because the Soviets had rebuilt Arab forces after their defeat in 1967. Israeli intelligence, according to Yitzhak Rabin, who had earlier shared intelligence with Kissinger showing that Brezhnev had been acting with "restraint" by admonishing Sadat "not to go to war without coordinating with the Russians."
But in the summer of 1973, the view in the White House appears to have been that it was politically too dangerous to step into the minefield of Middle East diplomacy. And war followed, as Brezhnev predicted.
Document 3: Memorandum for the President's File: From: Henry A. Kissinger, Subject: Meeting with His Imperial Majesty Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, July 24, 1973, 10:43 a.m. – 12:35 p.m. Nixon National Security Files, Mandatory Review release, November 2007, National Archives.
Protecting the supply of Persian Gulf oil has been a center piece of American strategy in the Middle East since World War II.
In July 1973, Henry Kissinger, with apparent approval from President Nixon, established a secret channel to the Shah of Iran –outside normal diplomatic channels -- to coordinate the development of contingency plans to seize control of Saudi Arabia and of its massive oil wealth in the event of instability in the House of Saud or of an invasion by neighboring Arab states, such as Iraq.
"Any contingency planning on Saudi Arabia must be most hush-hush," the shah told Kissinger as the two men met at Blair House, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The shah said that he was worried that a coup, whether Soviet-inspired or Arab-Nationalist-inspired, would invite chaos in Saudi Arabia and, therefore, steps would have to be taken to protect Western interests.
"As you develop your contingency plans for Saudi Arabia," Kissinger told the shah, "it should be discussed with no one except [Richard] Helms," the former CIA director whom Nixon had sent to Iran to serve as his ambassador.
With the United States stretched thin militarily and with Congress reluctant to support new foreign military ventures, Nixon's tentative Iran policy ceded the American security role in the Persian Gulf to the shah, a regional autocrat with ambitions to dominate the Gulf Arabs.
Though nothing came of these plans, the possibility that the United States might make a move into the Persian Gulf to seize oil assets arose later that year after the outbreak of war in the Middle East followed by an Arab oil embargo that heavily constricted supplies to the West and quadrupled prices. Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger remained interested in the idea and, with little subtlety, Kissinger warned, in comments to selected journalists, that a handful of "backward" nations could not expect to hold the industrialized world hostage.
Document 4: Memorandum of Conversation: Henry Kissinger, Kenneth Rush, Joseph Sisco, Robert McCloskey, James Schlesinger, William Clements, Admiral Thomas Moorer, William Colby, Gov. John Love, Charles DiBonna, Gen. Alexander Haig, Maj. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Cmdr. Jonathan T. Howe.
Subject: WSAG Meeting – Middle East, October 14, 1973, 9:16 a.m. – 11 a.m. Nixon National Security Files, Mandatory Review release, November 2007. National Archives.
President Nixon's top national security aides, meeting urgently on a Sunday morning during the 1973 Middle East war, laughed that they could explain their sudden decision to tilt toward Israel with a major airlift of arms by blaming "Russian treachery." They accused Moscow of undertaking a "massive" airlift, when that was not the case, according to the CIA's estimates.
When war broke out on October 6, 1973, President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev agreed to restrain their respective "clients" in the war by limiting superpower resupply of arms to modest amounts of arms and munitions – "consumables" they were called.
Nixon had told his aides that he would not replace Israeli tanks until after the war was over and though Israel had lost more than 50 warplanes in the first week of the war, Nixon said he would only replace them at a rate of one or two per day – not enough to assure Israeli dominance of the skies.
But Nixon's restraint quickly broke down when bureaucratic snarls prevented an orderly airlift using commercial charter flights, necessary, Nixon said, to keep the American re-supply low key. As the modest Soviet airlift went forward, the American government lapsed into internal quarreling over which agency was to blame for delays.
After a newspaper story called into question the Nixon administration's support for Israel, Nixon reacted angrily: "If we hear any more stuff like this I will have no choice domestically except to turn on them [the Israelis]."
Nevertheless, Israeli diplomats briefed influential senators on Israel's battlefield losses, and suddenly the war intruded into domestic politics, with calls from Congress questioning the Nixon administration's competence and commitment.
With Nixon was fighting for his political life against Watergate disclosures, he suddenly changed course, abandoning all caution to launch a high-profile military airlift to Israel.
In the White House Situation Room, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger warned that when the American military got moving with a wave of flights, "This is the most dramatic airlift since 1948. There is no way to avoid attracting attention."
He and other Nixon aides were concerned that as soon as American planes were spotted landing arms in Israel, an Arab oil embargo would commence. "It will be no secret," affirmed CIA Director William Colby.
Kissinger sketched out what the administration would tell the world: "We can now say there was Russian treachery on the negotiations. They have made an abortion of our peace move and sent in 200 flights [of arms]."
"We can run the Russians into the ground," Schlesinger added.
Added Colby: "We can say 200 Russian planes landed first."
"We can call it an act of Russian treachery," said Schlesinger.
There was laughter in the room when Schlesinger added, "We had anticipated that!"
Document 5: Memorandum for: The President, From Richard Helms, CIA Director, June 2, 1967; From private collection.
On the eve of the 1967 Six Day War in the Middle East, President Lyndon Johnson learned through intelligence channels that despite his urgent pleas for restraint by Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Israel's military and intelligence chiefs were bent on taking the country to war to destroy the Egyptian army and its leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, who had rallied the Muslim world against the Jewish state.
Johnson had been counting on Eshkol, with whom he had established a strong personal relationship, to restrain Israel's generals long enough for Johnson to convince Nasser to withdraw his army from Israel's frontier and re-open the shipping lanes to Israel's second largest port.
A warning that the forces of restraint were losing ground in Israel came from the chief of Israel's intelligence service, Meir Amit.
The message and was delivered to Johnson's CIA Director, Richard Helms, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, both of whom were met with Amit during his secret mission to Washington on June 1-2, 1967. Amit's determination to portray war as the only available option for Israel may explain why Johnson did so little in the final days of the build up to war to head off the conflict that proved disastrous for the Arab states and left Israel holding Arab lands whose occupation continues to bedevil a comprehensive settlement until today.
"The success of Egyptian President Nasser in manipulating the current crisis in the Middle East will, if left unimpeded, result in the loss of the area to the United States," Amit boldly asserted to CIA officials, who transcribed his "views" and presented them to Johnson. Amit also confided that "Internal pressures are at work against the present Israel Government," setting up a situation where Eshkol would be blamed "for the lives that will be lost" as a result of "the government's decision not to react quickly" to the Egyptian military buildup.
A memorandum from Helms to Johnson shows that those pressures were coming from Amit himself, along with Moshe Dayan, both of whom believed that Israel had a unique opportunity to destroy Nasser's army and buy 20 years worth of security for the Jewish state.
Much about Amit's mission has been written in histories of the war that proved a devastating defeat for the Arabs, but Amit's precise conversations with top CIA and Johnson administration officials have been somewhat blurred. Amit came to Washington ostensibly to determine whether the United States and other nations would act swiftly to counter Egypt's naval blockade of Israel's Red Sea port. This was the provocation that Israel considered an act of war.
President Johnson, beleaguered by the War in Vietnam, pressed the Israeli prime minister, Eshkol, to hold off any decision to go to war until Washington could organize an international response to Nasser's assault on freedom of navigation. Johnson had made his appeal to Abba Eban, Israel's foreign minister.
But Amit argued, "The commitments of the United States in the Middle East are no less than those in Vietnam, but the Middle East offers the United States a chance to demonstrate its commitment at a much lower price than Vietnam."
Helms, in his memorandum to Johnson, pointed out that Amit and Dayan were close allies in the Israeli leadership. "Both are sabras – men born in Israel," he said. "It seems clear from Amit's remarks that the 'tough' Israelis, who have never forgotten that they are surrounded by hostile Arabs, are driving hard for a forceful solution, with us and with their own government."
Almost as Helms was writing, Eshkol was forced to accept Dayan as defense minister, which meant the "war camp" had won. Amit returned from Washington, arguing that Johnson was doing little to open the Egyptian naval blockade, an assertion that is contradicted by the urgent secret efforts the Pentagon and State Department were making to build an international maritime coalition to assert freedom of navigation in the shipping lanes approaching Israel.
Johnson wrote a final letter to Eshkol urging restraint on June 3, but Israel's cabinet, with Dayan in charge of military strategy, voted the next day to launch a pre-emptive war on Egyptian forces.
Document 6: Entry in Ronald Reagan's Diary, Monday, March 4, Cited in The Reagan Diaries, edited by Douglas Brinkley, New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2007 p. 305.
In early 1985, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd made a state visit to the White House at a critical moment in the cold war. Saudi Arabia was actively cooperating with the United States in a covert campaign to expel the Soviet occupation force from Afghanistan. The Saudis also were secretly financing the U.S.-backed contra rebels fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. And King Fahd had a long list of American weapons he urgently wanted to purchase.
In short, the Saudi monarchy was establishing itself as a critical ally of the United States and King Fahd wanted to cement the relationship further by bestowing lavish gifts on President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.
For the president, King Fahd had selected two prize Arabian horses, but his ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar, warned him that well-established American law prohibited presidents from accepting expensive gifts. The horses would end up with the United States Park Service, Bandar counseled.
"Leave it to me," Bandar told the king.
Thus began a scheme to circumvent the law and to fly the horses to the California ranch of Reagan's close friend, and long time public official, William P. Clark, whose ranch adjoined the president's property.
In a little noticed entry in Reagan's diary, published in 2007 after his death, the president's own words confirmed the artifice employed to circumvent federal law.
"Fred Fielding, Don Regan & Mike D. came in to see me about the Arabian Horses that King Fahd wanted to give me. I had stated I couldn't accept them as a gift -- due to our stupid regulations. As it stands they are now in Prince Bandar's (Ambas.) name & he has asked Bill Clark to take care of them for him. Now what happens 4 yrs. from now is anyone's guess."