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


  • The President’s Stake in the Middle East
I went to the Middle East2 with this question: Why should the President care about the Middle East? I’ve been up and down US interests in the Middle East many times. But this time I set out to decide what President Johnson’s interests are, given the goals that are closest to his heart. I came back with these thoughts:
He has more than the usual stake in peace for two quite personal reasons:
  • —Especially while we are engaged in Vietnam, we want to spare him the political—and the human—burden of having to commit American forces in the Middle East too.
  • —The “war of national liberation” as a technique has come to the Middle East—on Israel’s borders and now in South Arabia. President Johnson in Vietnam has invested much of himself in demonstrating that we will not tolerate this brand of aggression. His friends in the Middle East are asking how he can stand against terrorist attackers in Vietnam and not in Israel or South Arabia? We must find a way to contain them or risk losing the respect the President has won for his courage in Vietnam.
He has a political need as well as a personal desire to maintain a warm relationship with Israel. His friends in Israel see Arab terrorism as the greatest threat to their security today.
In his effort to keep the dollar sound, he has a substantial balance of payments interest in the Arab states. The Middle East is the one part of Afro-Asia where we’re solidly in the black. Our economists’ estimate that the balance in our favor runs $400-500 million yearly. Against a worldwide deficit of $1.4 billion, that’s significant.
He has a stake in arms limitation. Israel must maintain qualitative superiority. But beyond that, the President is deeply committed to nuclear non-proliferation. The main hurdle in the Middle East is Israel. Before signing an NPT, Israel may want assurance from the US and [Page 45] USSR that major arms suppliers will keep the lid on the Arab arms inventory while the conventional balance is still in Israel’s favor. In addition to his stake in the NPT, he is under increasing pressure on the Hill not to feed arms races and to reach an understanding with Moscow.
He has a stake in economic development and social justice. This will influence fewer US voters than the other issues, but it will influence how the world judges his Presidency. He has said that the Great Society is his foreign policy. We know how earnestly he means that. Many people around the world judge him a great President because he shows America’s concern for them as individuals. In the Middle East, he can be proud of our role in the many constructive things going on there. But on the political front we are cast only on the side of the remaining monarchies—the side of “Zionism, imperialism and reaction.” One issue in particular overrides all others—the failure of over a million Palestine refugees to win “recognition of their rights.” In their eyes, the President has compromised his own creed of justice by bowing to “Zionist pressure” and failing to force Israel to meet its obligations.

Some of these interests are contradictory. The only way we have managed to protect them all at the same time is via a policy of friendship for all and refusing to choose sides. That policy has been remarkably successful when we consider the sharp animosities we’ve had to work around. But that policy will be severely tested in 1967-68. It is no longer certain that it—at least as we have balanced it in the recent past—is feasible or can serve the President’s interests.

What hits the visitor to the Middle East hardest today are the deepening political cleavages. First, there is the widening gulf among the Arabs themselves, between the moderate (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon) and the pro-Nasser states. Second, the Arab-Israeli issue is heating up again. Third, there are the states who are making a good job of development and those whose political systems still seem unable to cope. This year, the pressures forcing us to choose sides—to abandon our past policy—are greater than at any time in this decade. How the Johnson Administration responds will affect each of the President’s interests.

Each Middle Eastern leadership group states the problem differently, but it all adds up to mounting pressure on us to choose sides:


In Egypt, Foreign Minister Riad told me bluntly, “You are working against us everywhere in the Middle East. You have chosen sides.” No amount of logic or argument will break this strong web of suspicion among the political leaders. One is almost forced to agree with many of our Israeli and Arab friends that the only language Nasser understands is firmness backed by unmistakable military power and the willingness to apply it. Nowhere in the Arab world is there cooler calculation that now is not the time to take on Israel. But Nasser sees clearer sailing in South Arabia and may stop there only if met by force.

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While this Egyptian suspicion makes Nasser all but impossible to work with, the visitor comes away convinced that nowhere else in the Middle East—save Israel—is there such a potential modern power to reckon with. If Egypt ever gets over revolutionary phobias and inferiority complexes, its 30 million people, its economic inheritance, its drive to lead, its pride of achievement and its military power make it unquestionably the Arab power. One could even go so far as to say that the UAR and Israel together or separately hold the key to the future of the Middle East. This is why I cannot believe it would serve the President’s interests to break with Nasser.

In Saudi Arabia, King Faisal’s main concerns are Nasser’s foothold in Yemen and fear that he will expand this by moving into South Arabia when the British pull out. For Faisal, Nasser is the agent of Communism and is out to topple moderate regimes throughout the area. Our failure to oppose a Nasserist takeover in Aden would be in Faisal’s eyes our failure to oppose the advance of Communism in the Middle East and would cast doubt on the reliability of our commitment to preserve Saudi integrity. Faisal backs our stand in Vietnam and could not understand our hesitation to oppose openly the beginnings of terrorism in Saudi Arabia. He feels no one can trust Nasser and that our policy of trying to build a bridge to him has completely failed.
In Jordan, King Hussein told me that the breach between Arab moderates and Nasser is complete. Hussein says this more in sorrow than in anger because he admits there was a time when he himself believed Jordan must back Nasser to the hilt. But Nasser has failed to live up to his responsibilities. Wasfi Tell, former PM and still a power behind the throne, told me bluntly, “It’s time for you to choose sides.” He believes that radicalism is on the wane and that Nasser will have to adopt more moderate policies or be replaced. In their eyes, Nasser’s brand of revolution and “progressivism” is a dead wave of the past—not the wave of the future. These Jordanian leaders believe that our interests lie with the moderates. They feel we’re wrong if we think we can still build a bridge to Nasser. Only by taking a firm stand against him can we halt the spread of subversion, buy time for the Arabs to learn to accept Israel (they were remarkably frank about this) and create an atmosphere conducive to development.
Among the Palestinians on Jordan’s West Bank, there is no sign of resignation to loss of their homes in Israel. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that time will solve the refugee problem,” I was told over and over. “We have been wronged. America must acknowledge that our rights have been violated. President Johnson is a just man; he will help.” From among the bitterest of these refugees the Palestine Liberation Army recruits its ranks and the Fatah terrorist group sends its saboteurs into Israel. But even the prosperous ones who have jobs [Page 47] in the fast-growing Jordanian economy say they will never forget and will look to the President for justice.
Syrian officials are quite frank to say privately that their strategy is to make life in Israel so dangerous by their terrorism that new immigration will cease and people will even begin to leave Israel. At the same time, officially they disclaim responsibility for the terrorists. They hold us responsible for Israel’s every move and believe—somewhat inconsistently—that the “Zionists exercise a veto over the President’s policy.”
In Israel, Prime Minister Eshkol told me of the agony he suffers—not to mention the political pressures—when terrorists’ mines take Israeli lives. They believe that limited use of force may be the only way to stop terrorism. They can’t see why we should disagree. Chief of Staff Rabin as well as top officials in the Foreign Office argue that the US and the USSR have drawn the de facto limits of Communist expansion in Europe, Northeast Asia, Latin America and now in Southeast Asia. The time has come, they say, to draw the line in the Middle East. The Soviets are mounting a new offensive and must be stopped in their tracks. They see South Arabia as the potential turning point.

Curiously, while they believe Nasser and the Soviets are working hand in hand in South Arabia, they admit that he has been the most restrained of the Arab leaders against them. They doubt we could buy him off from his main objectives today—which are largely directed against other Arabs—but no one took issue with our trying to maintain some kind of foot in the Cairo door.


What this adds up to is great pressure on us to join a confrontation with Nasser and prediction that the US will lose its stature in the area if we refuse and fail to stop him, the USSR and the liberation armies. Against this is the almost unanimous feeling of our people in the area that, prickly as Nasser is, we’re better off talking than fighting and we’re better off working in Cairo than slamming the door.

The problem, then, is to call a halt to aggression without open confrontation or appeasement. Our success—and our success in protecting all of the President’s contradictory interest—will depend on two separate sets of decisions through the rest of this year: (1) How we deal with Nasser. (2) What we do in Aden.

The great temptation—greater even now than when I was in Cairo before the current mess in Yemen—is to conclude without our friends that Nasser is a lost cause and throw in the sponge on trying to deal with him. But the question to answer is whether the President’s interests will be better served by an open showdown or by trying to find some basis for cooperation. We will be looking at this in greater detail in the next few weeks, decision-by-decision, but my own conclusion—even [Page 48] after extensive talks in Cairo, Saudi Arabia, Aden, Jordan, Israel, and London—is that we can’t afford to give up on the UAR.

So in my book, working out a scenario for putting our relations with Nasser back in perspective is the first item on our agenda. Wheat is a dead issue for the moment now that Nasser has withdrawn his request, and we couldn’t do much anyway in the wake of his recent speeches and humiliation of our people in Yemen. But there are other less conspicuous ways for us to be economically helpful. The main problem, however, is to break down the web of suspicion in Cairo that we are actively working to unseat Nasser’s regime. In the end, this can only be done at the top political levels—and even then success isn’t assured.

The second problem is whether we stand by and allow a pro-Nasser element to take over in South Arabia and Aden as the British pull out. Even the British in Aden and London, I found, are not optimistic about their ability to avoid chaos. This is one of the most emotion-charged issues in the Labour Party and Parliament, and the Wilson government is determined to pull out on schedule. However, it has shown new flexibility in the last few weeks, and the President may want to press Wilson to stick with it during their talk next month. Our NSC meeting on 24 May will deal with this problem in more detail.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Name File, Saunders Memos. Secret.
  2. On his trip to the Middle East, February 26-March 15, Saunders visited the United Arab Republic, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Aden, Jordan, and Israel. For his report on U.S.-UAR relations following his visit to Cairo, see Document 394 in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XVIII.