Harry Truman faced many difficult decisions as president. But only one required him to overrule his secretary of state, George Marshall, his secretary of defense, James Forrestal, and all of his senior national security advisors.
That was recognizing the state of Israel, when its leader, David Ben-Gurion, declared statehood on May 15, 1948. All of the so-called “wise men” who advised Truman in shaping our approach to the Cold War and in establishing the Marshall Plan and NATO were against recognizing Israel. They were convinced it would make any relationship with the Arabs impossible and destroy our position in the Middle East.
Their assumptions about the region — and especially the high cost of association with Israel — became embedded in the consciousness of an important segment of our national security apparatus. So much so that in every administration from Truman to Obama there has been a constituency that embodied this mindset. It was not until the Reagan administration that there was a countervailing point of view in the foreign policy bureaucracy and among the national security professionals. Prior to Reagan, when different views were aired on Israel, they were presented primarily by senior advisers on the domestic side of the White House. It was Truman’s domestic counselor, Clark Clifford, who would write two memoranda explaining that it would harm us internationally to appease the Arabs by denying the fact that the Jews had actually created a state. It was Mike Feldman, Kennedy’s deputy counsel, who would argue for arms for Israel and to increase assistance to it. During Lyndon Johnson’s time, he had a Kitchen Cabinet, which included Justices Abe Fortas and Arthur Goldberg, who would raise a different point of view, particularly in the weeks before the 1967 war.
It was rare to find an opponent of this mindset on the Middle East among national security officials. Henry Kissinger was such a senior figure, but he stood largely alone and, for the first two years of the Nixon administration, he was kept out of Middle Eastern policy because Nixon believed his Jewish identity would cause us harm with the Arabs. Later, in explaining why he gave the responsibility for Mideast issues to the State Department and not Kissinger, Nixon wrote, “I did it partly because I felt that Kissinger’s Jewish background would put him at a disadvantage during the delicate initial negotiations for the reopening of diplomatic relations with the Arab states.” The irony, of course, is that it was Kissinger after the 1973 war who engaged in shuttle diplomacy that produced the first disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt and Syria — and Kissinger who was responsible for restoring our relations with both.
The presumptions about the Arabs that Nixon took as a given have consistently proven to be wrong. John Kennedy made the decision to break the taboo on providing weapons to Israel because he worried that an erosion of Israeli deterrence would make war more likely. His secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, supported Kennedy’s decision to provide Israel with Hawk anti-aircraft missiles — a purely defensive system, but his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, was against it. He argued that it would set a terrible precedent and greatly damage our relations with the Arabs. And yet, the same day that the news of the Hawk sale to Israel became public, Rusk was meeting with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, and Faisal did not raise it. He was focused instead on the coup in Yemen, which he saw as fomented by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and was a threat to Saudi Arabia. Similarly, when Faisal saw Kennedy a week later, his preoccupation was not U.S. arms to Israel, but the administration’s outreach to Egypt and the economic assistance that he argued was making it easier for Nasser to engage in trouble-making throughout the region. In response, he sought U.S. security assurances and weaponry.
Sound familiar? Substitute Iran for Egypt today, and think about the recent conversations that President Barack Obama has had with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf State officials. They expressed their fears that the nuclear deal with the Iranians would enable them —because of sanctions relief — to pose greater threats in the region and alter its balance of power in their favor. Just as Crown Prince Faisal sought U.S. assurances against its regional rival in 1962, so, too, does his successor, King Salman, seek them today. It was Saudi security then and now that was paramount — and that has been true for all the Arab states that have depended on the United States for their security.
No Arab state was ever going to make its relationship with the United States dependent on what America was doing with Israel. Arab leaders might not like what we did with Israel and might complain about it — I certainly heard such complaints in my meetings with Arab leaders over the years. But their priority has always been their own security and survival, and they needed America for that. Regional rivals were their primary threat and preoccupation: it was Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s; the Ba’athists, and then Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and 1980s; the Islamic Republic of Iran starting at the time of the revolution in 1979 and continuing today. And, of course, the emergence of al-Qaida and the Islamic State, as well as Iran’s use of Shiite militia proxies, preoccupy them now.
In the end, the U.S. relationship with those Arab states and leaders has not been a function of what we are doing with Israel but whether they see us as being reliable when it comes to their security. Fairly or not, the problem we have with our traditional Arab friends today is our perceived lack of reliability.
Dennis Ross has been an adviser or diplomat in the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations.