Nixon’s trade and credit negotiations with Moscow have bought him a free hand in the Middle East. This is the real meaning of President Sadat’s action in expelling most of the Soviet military from Egypt. The carrot-and-stick tactics which led both Moscow and Peking to continue their rapprochement with Nixon despite the escalated bombing and mining of North Vietnam’s harbors have proven fruitful, too, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sadat’s shift reflects his recognition that Moscow will not assume the risk of backing Egypt in a new military effort to regain its lost territories, and that the key to their recovery now lies with Washington, and with Tel Aviv. The tactics that made it possible to escalate the bloodshed with impunity in the Far East have also set the stage for peaceful negotiations in the Middle East.
At least as far back as June, 1970, the Nixon Administration was saying, at least in backgrounders, that its purpose was to expel the Soviet military from Egypt. Even earlier it was “linking” a Middle East settlement with arms control and other matters under negotiation with the Kremlin. One would expect Sadat’s action, especially in an election year, to be hailed as a triumph by an Administration with a weakness for hyperbole rather than discretion. The caution in commenting, even in “deep” backgrounders, to use the Washington phrase, is strange. When the President was asked at his press conference of July 28 what impact the Soviet “withdrawal” would have on American policy in the Middle East, his answer had a cat-who-swallowed-the-canary flavor. It is worth examining in full. Mr. Nixon said coyly:
This question I noticed has been reflected on by some lower-level officials in the government, but not because Secretary Rogers and I have talked about this matter, and Dr. Kissinger and I, not by us. For this reason, our goal, as you know, is a just settlement in the Middle East. The situation there is still one that is not clear, and any comment upon it, first, might possibly be erroneous, and second, could very well be harmful to our goal of a just settlement.
So I am not trying to dodge your question, but I don’t think it would be helpful to our goal of a just settlement in the Middle East. It might exacerbate the problem to try and evaluate what happened between Sadat and the Soviet leaders.
No doubt one reason for discretion is that if the two superpowers are to coexist and even cooperate, neither must gloat over the painful backdowns of the other. Kennedy set the pattern for this after Khrushchev’s withdrawal of his missiles from Cuba. But another reason is the factor of inertia in Israeli and US domestic politics. The “no war, no peace” line is the line of least resistance in both. Negotiations require compromise, and compromise is always a political risk, even under the best of circumstances.
But in the Israeli case, the longer the…
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