After the numerically inferior forces of Israel defeated the Soviet-armed Egyptians and Syrians in less than a week of warfare in 1967, the Soviet Union escalated their rearming efforts among these key Arabian allies. While the United States wanted peace in the Middle East, Moscow wanted to increase their influence and presence in the region. A humiliating defeat for the Arabs would not tarnish their resolve for the land which symbolized their gateway to the Mediterranean. Thus it was in this particular period of modern Middle Eastern history where the need for American leadership presented itself the most.
For Richard Nixon and the United States, restraining Soviet influence in the Middle East was priority, not because America needed to proselytize its ideology in the region, but because it held an interest in a sustainable region-wide peace-one that included the prolonged existence of Israel and all surrounding Arab states. Richard Nixon would develop a grand strategy that saw through the success of this goal.
What other American interests obliged the United States to maintain a political and military presence in the Middle East through the 1970’s and beyond, aside from mitigating the ever expanding Soviet sphere? On page 5 of a Department of Defense memo dated August 22, 1969, shown is a succinct list of basic American interests in the Middle East that may provide insight into this question.
Aside from access to an oil rich geographical region and the protection of Israel, the United States held a number of preexisting diplomatic commitments with Arab nations in the Middle East (and still do), including bilateral policy/security agreements and multilateral alliances. For the purpose of accessing major transportation routes, particularly the Suez Canal, the Middle East served as a critical region of interest for the United States. Additionally, years of interaction have contributed to a number of cultural relationships crafted between the two.
In his memoirs, President Nixon offers his opinion on America’s interest in the Middle East, citing Soviet dominance as the primary driving force:
It was clearly in America’s interests to halt the Soviet domination of the Arab Mideast. To do so would require broadening American relations with the Arab countries. Within the first few months of my administration I began taking the first steps in this direction.
In a special message to Congress on February 18, 1970, President Nixon delivered a first among U.S. Presidents-an annual report on foreign policy and a framework for foreign policy in the following decade. Nixon declared his intentions for a successful peace-building initiative among all the interlocutors of the world, not least of which included the nations of the volatile Middle Eastern region.
He concisely posed the fundamental problems faced in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiation process:
-Israel, having lived so long before on a thin margin of security, sees territories occupied in 1967 as providing physical security more tangible than Arab commitments to live at peace–commitments whose nature would be tested only after Israel had relinquished the buffer of the territories.
-For the Arabs, a settlement negotiated directly with the Israelis would require recognition of Israel as a sovereign state even while Israeli troops still occupy territory taken in 1967 and while Arab refugees remain homeless.
-For both sides and for the international community, Jerusalem is a special problem involving not only the civil and political concerns of two states but the interests of three great world religions.
In a memorandum written for the President dated September 6, 1969, the crisis in the Middle East was elaborated in twelve key points. This document can be viewed below.
The consensus of a perpetual crisis in the Middle East was acknowledged immediately in the first point:
The situation in the Middle East has during recent months been deteriorating rapidly and substantially. While no major war is probable in the near future–and Israel would win it if it came–the scale and scope of Arab attacks and Israeli retaliation are almost certain to increase even further, if means of settlement are not found by the end of this year.
The memorandum demonstrated the difficulty assigned to the U.S in regards to imposing a balancing act in a politically, militarily, and religiously polar region. The memorandum agreed that prolonged Israeli occupation of Arab-held lands, the United States’ vested support of Israel, the hardened polar positions of the Arab nations and Israel, and a growing Soviet influence in the Middle East all contributed to what seemed an almost insurmountable period of tension.
However, President Nixon had visions of a peaceful breakthrough, and it was to be attained through a completely new set of power relationships in the Middle East-“not only between Israel and the Arabs, but also among the United States, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union.” To do this would require certain diplomatic shifts-a liberation of American foreign policy from the the Manichean and inflexible policies in support of Israel and those recognized by the United Arab Republic (UAR), Syria, and Jordan. The early workings of Nixon’s grand strategy in the Middle East materialize in a memo dictated by Henry Kissinger to the President regarding U.S. talks with the Soviet Union and talks of a Jordan-Israeli settlement.
In it, Kissinger recommends that the Jordan-Israeli settlement receive priority treatment, suggesting that Jordan proved most compatible with President Nixon’s plans for broadening American and Arab relations given their pro-western intimations. The settlement was also critical in maintaining the fragile military balance that existed between the Soviet-armed UAR and Syria and the American-armed Israel and Jordan.
President Nixon’s Middle East grand strategy received its ultimate tests in September of 1970-the so-called “Black September” conflict in Jordan-and in October of 1973-the Arab-Israeli War.
In September of 1970, Palestinian refugees living in Jordan rose in revolt to the Jordanian regime led by King Hussein. The Palestinian militants were backed by Syrian arms and aid, and were further supported by a Syrian tank invasion of Jordan. To subdue the Soviet-backed insurrection, President Nixon indicated his full support of Israeli airstrikes on Syrian territory and maneuvered 20,000 American troops along with naval forces into the Mediterranean. The result: a victory for King Hussein and his army, and a full withdrawal of Syrian tanks from Jordanian territory.
The preservation of Jordan can be attributed to a tough American position, the Israeli threat, and the stout resolve of King Hussein’s troops. Israel’s intentions to protect Jordan also perhaps paved the way for future diplomatic relations with their neighboring adversary.
In October of 1973, when Israeli forces penetrated deep into Egyptian territory after the latter’s incursion, President Nixon again saw an opportunity to broaden American relations with a once Soviet-backed Arab country. With the Israeli threat, a well-timed military re-supply from the United States and Egypt’s realization that they could not conceivably defeat the Israeli army in prolonged warfare, the Egyptians initiated a pivot from the Soviet Union to the United States. This set the tone for the Camp David Accords signed six years later, formalizing an Israeli-Egyptian pact.
Successful foreign policy requires that a leader recognize the distinct opportunities that would, say, contribute to the goal of peace. President Nixon not only recognized these opportunities, he devised a decisive foreign policy strategy to which he faithfully abode to throughout the course of his presidency. The combination of the two helped Nixon achieve foreign policy success.