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Blundering in the Mideast with Prince Bandar

Can a negotiatior for a Middle East settlement be both objective and produce results? Can a national negotiator ever be completely objective? How much does it matter? Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s famously principled second secretary-general, wrote personal guidelines for his task that included the following: “If, while pleading another’s cause, you are at the same time seeking something for yourself, you cannot hope to succeed.”1 A corollary for the Middle East might read: “And if you do not have materially substantial means of persuasion, you cannot hope to succeed either.”

In the early postwar years, disinterested international mediators were considered, especially by the United States, to provide the best hope for a settlement in the Middle East, and, in those relatively innocent days, they made considerable, if not decisive, contributions. Before he was assassinated in September 1948, the UN mediator in Palestine, Folke Bernadotte, was able to submit to the UN General Assembly a detailed proposal for a two-state solution that has now, sixty-one years later, reemerged as the basic objective of Middle East negotiations. His successor, Ralph Bunche, negotiated armistice agreements that ended the first Arab–Israeli war and provided a practical arrangement for an interim peace in the region, pending the conclusion of a permanent settlement. The conduct of both these mediators was generally recognized as living up to Hammarskjöld’s rigorous standards.

As the situation in the Middle East became more complicated over the years, it was increasingly clear that even the ablest and most objective international mediator lacked the necessary political, financial, and military backing to move the various parties toward a settlement. In the late 1960s the last of this breed, the highly respected Gunnar Jarring of Sweden, was unable, after intensive negotiations, to get simultaneous agreement by Egypt and Israel on peace between the two countries and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egyptian territory. That was finally achieved by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 in the Camp David Accords.

Since the Jarring mission, governments, and specifically the United States government, have become the preferred intermediaries for a Middle East settlement. The primary responsibility of a government is, naturally, the interest and well-being of its own country and people. This priority will inevitably be a major influence on the conduct of negotiations in a region that is critically important to the United States. Even disinterested expert proposals like the recommendations submitted to President Obama by the US/Middle East Project2 will, when and if they reach the official level, be subjected to all the crosscurrents, pressures, and controversies that swirl around Middle East matters in Washington.3

As Patrick Tyler puts it:

If history has revealed anything, it is that it takes American leadership, robust leadership that galvanizes the Congress and world opinion, to bring the two sides—Arab and Israeli—into a position where they have a chance to solve [their conflict].

That is one of the many great challenges that face President Obama. America’s conduct of Middle East peace negotiations will continue to be under the constant observation and criticism of all concerned. This inescapable fact of American leadership is the underlying setting for the two books under review.


Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East—from the Cold War to the War on Terror would have made great source material for a Shakespearean cycle of historical plays about the postwar presidents of the United States and the Arab–Israeli problem. His book brims over with tragedy, tragicomedy, battles, intrigues and backstabbing, farcical episodes, deceptions and misunderstandings, and the use and abuse of power, force, and money. There are few, if any, heroes.

Describing the 2003 American occupation of Iraq as “the most current expression of a half century of costly miscalculations in the Middle East,” Tyler writes that in six decades “it remains nearly impossible to discern any overarching approach to the region” and that “American leaders have been unable to agree on a firm set of principles, a consistent set of goals, or a course of action that could bring peace and stability to the Middle East.” In each of the many wars or crises, “blindsided or flummoxed presidents” wondered why surprise and unpreparedness seem to be the normal condition for the United States government in relation to Middle East developments.

The result, in Tyler’s words, is a “record of vacillation, of shifting policies, broken promises, and misadventures, as if America were its own worst enemy.” Such an indictment could well also be addressed to the United Kingdom, the mandatory power in Palestine from 1922 to 1948. Ralph Bunche, who wrote the Palestine partition plan adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1947, remarked that “about the only subject on which both Arabs and Jews seem to be in agreement is that the British must go.”4

Tyler’s survey of each administration’s efforts and mishaps, often vastly complicated by the conflation of the cold war with the Arab–Israeli problem, is dramatized by vivid, and often personal, detail. This is one of those books where one constantly hurries to the endnotes. Tyler’s wide research—especially his access to telephone records—gives a sometimes shocking picture of how mood, temper, temperament, and personal ambitions and antagonisms all too often influenced important decisions in Washington during the seemingly endless crises of the Middle East.


Tyler describes President Eisenhower’s handling of the 1956 Suez crisis in which he defended the principles of the UN Charter5 against three of America’s closest allies—Britain, France, and Israel—as his “finest hour.” In December 1960 Eisenhower first learned of the Israeli nuclear center at Dimona, which CIA Director Allen Dulles told him “cannot be solely for peaceful purposes.” A request for information only elicited a statement by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that Dimona was “designed exclusively for peaceful purposes” and that any allegation that Israel was making an atomic bomb was a “deliberate or unwitting untruth.” Such statements have a familiar ring today as the world worries about Iran’s nuclear activities. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, received the same reassurances from Ben-Gurion.

Israel’s response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1967 demand for the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping force from Gaza and Sinai and his move of Egyptian forces into Sinai was a simultaneous and devastatingly successful air attack on Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian airfields on June 5, 1967, followed by the occupation of Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. The Israeli action took President Johnson by surprise. In the seventeen days between Nasser’s announcement and the Israeli attack Johnson had done little except to urge general restraint.

Here I think Tyler is unjust to UN Secretary-General U Thant, whom the United States and its Western allies later designated as scapegoat-in-chief for the Six-Day War. U Thant, alone among world leaders, went to Cairo to try to convince Nasser that although Sinai had been Egyptian territory for some four thousand years, it was a disastrous mistake to redeploy his newly Soviet-equipped army there and thus provide the justification for an Israeli invasion and occupation of Sinai in the name of self-defense. U Thant got no support in this effort, and subsequent Security Council meetings quickly degenerated into barren cold-war exchanges that had little or nothing to do with the impending disaster.6

After the Six-Day War, a new era of brutal Palestinian militancy began, including the massacre of eleven members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympic games. There was plenty of evidence that Arab governments, and especially Anwar Sadat’s Egypt, were as determined as ever to recover the lands lost to Israel in the 1967 war—by diplomacy if possible, and, failing that, by force. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev certainly understood the danger of the situation and tried, at a meeting in San Clemente in June 1973, to persuade President Richard Nixon to cooperate with the Soviet Union in preventing another war. Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger turned down Brezhnev’s urgent plea. Tyler calls this “a tragic failure of American diplomacy.”

In the late summer of 1973, UN military observers reported a large Egyptian military build-up on the Suez Canal, but both the CIA and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir apparently thought that Sadat was bluffing. The successful Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal on October 6, 1973, came as a painful shock both to Israel and Washington.

After four days of battle Israel had lost five hundred tanks and fifty aircraft. Golda Meir mobilized nuclear forces, and Kissinger pressed for sending immediate military aid to Israel against the advice of Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who maintained that such aid would be seen by the Arabs as helping Israel to hold on to the Egyptian territory it had captured in 1967.

The only hope of stopping the war would have been peace negotiations under the auspices of the two superpowers, Brezhnev’s idea that Nixon had rejected three months earlier. Kissinger, who, in Tyler’s account, comes out poorly both as a colleague of Nixon’s and as a strategist, apparently felt that Egypt could not be allowed the victory of getting Sinai back, because that would also be a victory for the Soviet Union. As Schlesinger had predicted, Nixon’s lavish provision of military supplies to Israel “triggered a major response from the Arab oil producers and prompted them to enforce an embargo that ravaged Western economies.”

The episode ended with a hair-raising crisis between the US and the USSR, when Israel, with Kissinger’s com- plicity, according to Tyler, continued to ignore a Security Council–ordered cease-fire in order to complete the defeat of the Egyptian army in Sinai. The Soviet Union, after another unsuccessful call for joint US–Soviet action, began moving airborne forces toward the Middle East, causing the US to activate the highest global nuclear alert ever declared, Defense Condition III. Recognizing the very great danger of the situation, the Security Council finally took practical action. The rapid deployment of a UN peacekeeping force (in less than twenty-four hours) to police the cease-fire in Sinai finally marked the end to this lamentable chain of events.

Tyler does not specfically mention Kissinger’s brilliant negotiation of the “disengagement agreements” between Israel and Egypt and Syria that were executed by the UN and subsequently stabilized the situation. (The disengagement agreement on the Golan Heights is still functioning pending an Israeli–Syrian final agreement.)

The Middle East Peace Conference met for a one-day session on December 23, 1973, to approve the first stage of these agreements but, with the exclusion of the PLO, to which the Arab governments strongly objected, it could go no further. In retrospect this seems a great missed opportunity and one that would not come again. In 1973 there were no Israeli settlements; and Islamic extremism had not yet become a divisive element of the PLO.

Jimmy Carter, Tyler writes, “was the first American president to come to office strongly committed to working for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab–Israeli dispute in the Middle East.” His secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, a public servant of great integrity, was also committed to that objective, which would entail including the USSR as co-partner and establishing a homeland for the Palestinians. Neither the Israelis nor the Arabs warmed to this idea, and Carter soon ran into all the trouble that a combination of Israeli opposition and cold-war obsession could create in Washington. Carter appealed to President Sadat of Egypt for his help, but Sadat’s later response—to go to Jerusalem to address the Knesset—left Carter “unhinged” and inactive for some time. Menachem Begin, who had become Israel’s prime minister in June 1977, reacted sullenly to Sadat’s courageous, and in the event suicidal, initiative, and Begin’s relationship with Carter steadily deteriorated.

  1. 1

    Markings ( Knopf, 1964), p. 114.

  2. 2

    A Last Chance for a Two-State Israel–Palestine Agreement: A Bipartisan Statement on US Middle East Peacemaking. The panel members were Zbigniew Brzezinski, Chuck Hagel, Lee H. Hamilton, Carla Hills, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Thomas R. Pickering, Brent Scowcroft, Theodore C. Sorensen, Paul A. Volcker, and James D. Wolfensohn.

  3. 3

    A just-published book, Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky (Viking), presents a powerful and revealing series of reflections on the Israeli–Palestinian problem by the negotiator under both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Ross is now a member of the National Security Council staff.

  4. 4

    Letter to Ben Gerig of the State Department, July 23, 1947. Quoted in Brian Urquhart, Ralph Bunche: An American Life (Norton, 1993), p. 146.

  5. 5

    A simple way of being objective that is now used surprisingly rarely.

  6. 6

    I was closely involved with U Thant during this episode. We were all frustrated that there were no further practical options for the secretary-general unless the permanent members of the Security Council were prepared to put aside their differences and cooperate in removing the pretext for an Israeli preventive strike. They were not.

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