127. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • Further Thoughts on Kosygin Middle East Message: An Inept Performance

The more I reflect on the Kosygin letter, the more inept, and for that reason, disturbing2 a performance I find it.

Regardless of whether it was intended as a serious diplomatic move or as a pressure play—and the simultaneous and ostentatious transmittal of the letter by Soviet Ambassadors suggests that it was intended to become public—the purpose of the operation presumably was to get the Israelis to desist. In addition, the Soviets no doubt would have wanted to keep the three Western powers off balance and arguing with each other and to maintain the gulf that has been opening between us and the Israelis. Beyond this, they must be anxious to keep their reputation as an effective protecting power of the Arabs alive.3

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It is doubtful whether any of these purposes will in fact be accomplished, at least with any degree of permanence; meanwhile certain other effects of the letters would appear to be distinctly to Soviet disadvantage.

It should not have taken much intelligence to expect at least the US (if not France and the UK) to reply that it favors restoration of the cease-fire on a reciprocal basis. Moreover, the Soviets must have known by January 31 that we were already busy diplomatically in both Cairo and Jerusalem to this end; and that the Israelis have already said that they will abide by a reciprocally observed cease-fire.

Thus the upshot of the Soviet move will be to place the onus for getting the cease-fire restored on Nasser and the Arabs, and through them on the Soviets themselves, rather than on us and the Israelis. But this produces a situation for which Nasser can hardly be grateful: if he gives any kind of positive response, he will be seen as doing so under pressure of Israeli military action. In addition, it would also point up Nasser’s, and Soviet, impotence since they seem unwilling or unable to control the Fedayeen whose activities will presumably wreck any cease-fire after a period of time.

If the cease-fire is not restored, as seems likely in view of Soviet inability to deliver their clients, the Soviets are stuck with their threat to provide means for a rebuff. But merely sending more equipment, even if it is more advanced, is unlikely to accomplish anything, at least if the past is any guide. So the onus of escalation is on the Soviets and the Kosygin letter has added to its weight.

If one of the letter’s purposes was to keep the Western powers at odds with each other, or at least not to drive them more closely together, its tone and content will tend to have the opposite effect. True, there will be continuing differences about the utility of the four-power forum, and to that extent the Soviets did not calculate incorrectly. But the threat element has also produced a quickening of Western consultation and efforts to attune the responses.

Another effect, which cannot be in Moscow’s interest, is to dissipate what had threatened to become a US-French confrontation on arms shipments. The new, explicit Soviet threat to increase arms deliveries has now, inevitably, drawn a response from us which explicitly ties the arms issue back into the US-Soviet context (even though the French angle remains as well).

Some have argued that whatever else the Soviets were attempting to do, their main political purpose was to re-emphasize US identification with Israel by (1) implying actual US-Israeli collusion, and (2) drawing from the US a new statement of support for and defense of Israel which will offset the impression of the last few weeks that we were drifting apart. Even if it is granted that when the exchange is complete [Page 378]we will again look to be somewhat more firmly on Israel’s side, the ultimate effect of this may well not be in Moscow’s interest: if Nasser is prepared to promise reciprocal observance of the cease-fire he will, as noted above, be doing so in response to Israeli military pressure for which we will also get some of the credit; if the fighting goes on despite the Soviet threats, we will be credited with having faced down the Soviets. Moreover, if there turns out to be some Soviet or Arab flexibility with respect to our4 October proposals, we will get the credit both for having made those proposals and for having induced Soviet/Arab flexibility by standing firm in the face of Soviet threats. While the ensuing situation would involve us in problems with the Israelis, the net effect would be to make us appear as the most influential outside power in the region.

But if for some or all the above reasons the Soviet move is inept, it is also disturbing. Since it is unlikely to produce a cease-fire, except under conditions little short of humiliating for Nasser, the pressure on the Soviets to make good on their threat will rise. This basic danger is not a new one; but the Soviets have engaged more of their prestige and thus stand to lose more of it if the Israeli attacks continue, and if our answer is widely interpreted as a rejection of their threats. The Middle Eastern problem has frequently lurked beneath the surface of Soviet leadership politics and in 1967 was used by a rebellious faction in an indictment against the present leaders. This could happen again under present internal conditions in Moscow and lead the leaders to do something brave to recoup.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 653, Country Files, Middle East, Sisco Middle East Talks, Vol. III. Secret; Nodis. According to another copy of this memorandum, it was drafted by Sonnenfeldt. (Ibid., Box 340, Subject Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger) Sent for information. A handwritten note on the first page indicates that a copy with Nixon’s comments was sent to Sonnenfeldt on February 23.
  2. Nixon circled this word and wrote: “I agree—Confused men do the unexpected and wrong things.”
  3. Nixon underlined most of this sentence and wrote: “(most important for them).”
  4. Nixon highlighted this part of the paragraph and wrote the following comments: “I completely disagree with this conclusion—The Soviets know that Arabs are long on talk. We have been gloating over Soviet ‘defeats’ in the Mideast since ’67—State et al said the June war was a ‘defeat’ for Soviet. It was not. They became the Arabs’ friend and the U.S. their enemy. [unintelligible] this is what moves their intent.”