14. Memorandum From Harold H. Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1


It is not too hard to build a list of undramatic but constructive developments in the Middle East 1964-66. That may be all you can use in public. However, for in-house purposes, a much more sophisticated argument clinches your line.

The big question is whether our basic position in the Middle East is stronger or being eroded. The long-run answer is that, while the Soviets continue to inch their way in, this is inevitable and the important thing is that we keep a base from which to protect our interests and to build the kind of Middle East that will stop the USSR short of eventual predominant influence a la Eastern Europe or Cuba. We are doing pretty well.

We have succeeded in maintaining satisfactory working relationships on all sides of a series of local disputes that have threatened to drive us and the USSR into opposing camps. We have long believed that splitting the Middle East is a major Soviet objective. Our interests in the area are wide and varied enough that we judge it essential to avoid that kind of split. Carrying water on both shoulders sometimes seems immoral and is always difficult. But for power like the U.S. with its far flung conflicting interests there seems no other choice. The alternative is being driven to choose half our interests, sacrifice half and let the USSR pick up our losses.

In early 1964 shortly after President Johnson took office, we were writing that: [Page 30]

  • —1964 would be the year of the Jordan Waters crisis, forcing us to choose between Arabs and Israelis. The Arabs were strengthening their United Command and threatening to dry up the Israeli share of the Jordan.
  • —Cyprus would become the center of a minor war, forcing us to choose between two NATO allies with the USSR gaining from the split.
  • —Yemen would flare up again and force us to choose between defaulting on commitments to Saudi Arabia and opposing Nasser. None of these problems is solved. But none has erupted into the kind of showdown that would force us to take sides and effectively remove ourselves from the race in half of the Middle East.

Shortly thereafter we began worrying with the Israelis that a serious arms imbalance was developing against them with Soviet help. With a series of arms sales to both Arabs and Israelis in 1965 and 1966, we have temporarily succeeded in restoring a deterrent balance. While we have made modest moves toward dampening the arms race, they have not been ripe enough to avoid establishing a new balance of forces.

The USSR is making a new push in the Middle East, taking advantage of the new rift that seems to be opening between moderates and radicals and of neutralist pressures in Turkey and Iran. Recent modest successes in Damascus and Baghdad belong with the older Soviet position in Cairo and suggest that they are gaining ground. CIA argues that Soviet covert assets are building a formidable position. This argument demands consideration, but the fragile nature of Arab politics assures that the situation may change again and that the competition is still very much open. Soviet gains have been far less impressive than we feared in 1956. As long as we can avoid a complete split, we can compete.

The key question in assessing these developments is, who profits from Arab unity? The new unity of early 1964—via summits and United Arab Command—seemed a growing threat to Israel then. Now it is disintegrating again. Presumably we should rest easier. Our strategists have debated for years whether we gain more from Arab unity or from Arab fragmentation.

One side of the argument is that an efficient, united Arab movement backed by an integrated military could do a great deal of harm, although any such unity may be a pipe dream. One can also argue that, while we have nothing to lose from cooperation of like-minded Arabs or from Islamic friendship, our interests are better served by evolution of effective national centers than by a Nasser-dominated Arab union of some sort.

But it is discomfiting that Moscow is pleased with the breakdown of Arab unity. The disadvantages of this spring’s new fragmentation are that: [Page 31]

  • —It sharpens the Cold War confrontation in the Middle East and gives the USSR new encouragement to fashion a pro-Soviet camp.
  • Nasser is pretty rational in calculating Arab chances in a fight with Israel, and he actually dampened down the more radical talk of driving Israel into the sea. Now the restraining influence of mild-tongued Arab unity is lifted. While Nasser may not feel any readier to drive Israel into the sea, he may feel forced to talk a more radical game in order to stay in line with his radical company. This talk encourages groups like the Fatah and PLO.
  • —When Arabs are squabbling, both Israel and the US are convenient scapegoats, so tension and chances of a flareup increase. While on balance, the widening Arab split may seem a modest setback for us, Israel is a success and clearly here to stay—partly because of our help, largely because of Israeli’s own efforts. Whether our support for Israel in 1948 was right or wrong, this has been a main tenet of our Middle East policy. Our purpose now is to buy time for an Arab-Israeli accommodation. While Arab-Israeli animosity is as great as ever, winds of change have begun to blow in the past year. The New Israeli government (particularly Eban) is seriously looking for bridges to build to the Arabs. Bourguiba on the Arab side has broken the solid Arab line that Arabs and Jews can never coexist. Resolution is far off, but the seeds of détente may be in the ground.

On balance, then, the real answer to your question is that, since 1964, we have surmounted a steady stream of problems that could have undermined our stance in the Middle East. Since our main purpose is to stay there and plug away at basic development, we can argue that we have bought time for the undramatic achievements which are going our way.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Name File, Saunders Memos. Secret.