163. Memorandum From William Hyland of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Soviet Intentions in the Middle East and Our Options

Any decision made on the Middle East necessarily involves some basic assumptions about the character of the Soviet position.

The point is correctly made that had it not been for the deep penetration raids the Soviets would not have involved themselves directly. This is probably right. The Soviets had no master plan. We have the hardest possible intelligence that the decisions leading to the present situation were approved by Brezhnev on January 28–29, in the wake of Nasser’s secret visit to Moscow. The Soviets had no choice but to support Nasser, and strong moves were obviously called for.

Nevertheless, it is highly irrelevant to our present policy choices whether the Israelis are at fault. The character of the Soviet move into the UAR should not be underrated simply because Israeli action precipitated it.

It is a unique turn of Soviet policy—never before have the Soviets put their own forces in combat jeopardy for the sake of a noncommunist government. They have only done so now because of the enormous stakes involved for their power position. One of the dangerous consequences of their forward policy in the Middle East is that having accumulated a large vested interest, they have had to devise new ways to protect their gains. It is not only a question of Soviet willingness to accept a much higher level of risk, it is their willingness to do so in a situation over which their control is limited, and in which no one, including the Kremlin, can foresee the outcome. This is why it is a dangerous path the Soviets have embarked on, and why we must treat it with the utmost seriousness.

It is argued that now [that] the Soviets have rescued Nasser both of them may suddenly change their spots, and be prepared to negotiate seriously. This is to say the least, doubtful. Having scored an immense psychological gain, with apparent impunity, it has generally [Page 498] been the Russians tactic first of all to consolidate their gains, and then press forward, testing the ground as they move. Clearly, there is no evidence from the Soviets that their bargaining position has softened. To seize on minor changes in old Soviet formulas as “movement” is a delusion. If anything, the Soviet position is tougher now than only a few weeks ago.

The toughening can only spring from their estimate of what their moves have cost thus far and what the future risks and gains are. Looking at our position and the Israeli standdown from deep raids, the Soviets must conclude that we have acquiesced in their direct intervention. Indeed, they could well read our latest statement (Rogers to Dobrynin)2 as confirmation that we accept the Soviet claim of “defensive” involvement, and are only concerned that a movement toward the canal would not be “defensive.”

Thus, the question of whether the Soviets will in fact, begin to inch forward becomes a crucial determinant. The policy issue is: are the Soviets more likely to extend their protective umbrella if we proceed with the sale of aircraft to Israel, or if we withhold them?

The conventional wisdom is that the Soviets will probably not move, mainly because of the risk of combat with the Israelis. There is, however, some evidence that they are indeed already “inching” forward (the construction sites along the canal). Moreover, it would seem a logical extension of Soviet strategy to do so. The near term Soviet objective in the Middle East is to destroy Western influence. The main enemy is not Israel but the West in general and the United States in particular. The road to the displacement of the West, however, now lies through Soviet demonstration that they cannot only protect their clients, but reverse the losses they suffered in 1967.

One means of doing so is to negotiate a settlement. But this presumes that the Soviets prefer a stabilized situation to one of controlled tensions. The history of Soviet involvement demonstrates that their major gains have come during periods of tension and crises, and that during periods of relative quiet on the Arab-Israeli front, Soviet influence suffers. Thus, there is every reason to doubt that the Soviets want a settlement on any terms but Israeli capitulation, unless the Arabs themselves are prepared to make the concessions.

The means to humiliate Israel and force their withdrawal is first of all to demonstrate that Israel has waning international support and, of utmost importance, waning support from the US. Second, the Soviets and the Arabs must demonstrate in practice that Israel’s options are gradually but steadily narrowing.

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The Soviets could conclude that the present situation represents a sufficient gain to test the possibilities of discussion with us. Their opening moves in New York and in the conversation with Secretary Rogers do not support such a conclusion. Indeed, the two and four power talks seem a dismal failure. Thus, one suspects that the key to the next phase is our reaction on the ground. If we do nothing or very little to support Israel, the Soviets will then be tempted to cut a further slice of the salami and inch forward to the canal. If, however, we support Israel the Soviets will be forced to pause and consider the consequences of their increasing involvement.

As for the argument that this is exactly what the Soviets want us to do because it will demolish our position in the Arab world, this also is debatable if not altogether wrong. (It is made exclusively by Arabs and not Sovietologists.) The Soviets respect power and strength. They understand military strength best of all. This does not mean, of course, that they are eager to fight, or that they believe in the indiscriminate use of force. But they do not understand restraint; it confuses them, and in the end leads them to conclude that there is room for their own forward movement.

If the United States does not support Israel demonstratively with military assistance, the Soviets will ponder why we refuse to do so. Ultimately, they will conclude that we are deterred because of either domestic, political and economic concerns or because of the consequences of military escalation. Soviet denials, talk of confrontation and their attempts to blame Israel for such notions suggest sensitivity (and vulnerability) to strong US moves. No one can guarantee what the Soviets will do if we do reinforce Israel but one can be fairly confident that a display of weakness will not be met with conciliation and compromise.

Our Options

The two strategies presented in the first Review Group paper in effect reject this analysis. The essential judgment as presented in that paper is that it is preferable to exploit the present situation to put Israel under pressure, than to “confront” the Soviet Union. And that if this fails we can always confront Moscow.

The way in which the Options and argumentation are constructed, one cannot but agree.

No one should want to confront the USSR deliberately in the way it is described in the State paper. It would be insane. For example, having decided on some undefined posture of “confrontation” we close off all escape hatches for the USSR by breaking off the diplomatic contact.

There are a number of aimless military “moves” described. The only principle seems to be that to move pieces on a chess board is a [Page 500] policy. What would the Soviets conclude? That we were about to fight? Not likely. More likely that we were engaging in some bluff. What would be the objective of military posturing? What would our demands be? They are nowhere spelled out. Are we seeking Soviet withdrawal? A settlement? Or, as is seen from this scenario, a whopping open-ended crisis.

One can only conclude that this course was described in such a way as to increase the attractiveness of the second strategy—the “path of accommodation.”

Presumably, no one opposes the “path of accommodation” but how to embark on such a course is the real issue. The paper presumes that putting Israel under pressure is the best way. Suppose, by some wild stretch of the imagination, that Israel buckled under our pressures. Would a compromise settlement then be likely? If the Arabs and the Russians sense this trend why should they make concessions. Better to wait, they would reason.

Our aim should not be an imposed settlement, which could not possibly be durable, but one that emerges from the common interests of both sides. This is a cliché, but still valid. The course described in the State paper, however, could only feed Arab ambitions and frustrate the Israeli to the point of desperation.

The immediate task is to create a political-military environment that provides an incentive to both sides to either stabilize the present situation or make mutual concessions.

This leads to the main point. It is mandatory to the creation of such an environment that we counter the Soviet intervention with a credible demonstration of our own—a demonstration that we are not cowed by the prospect of escalation or by the costs to our political and economic interests in the Arab countries.

Warnings alone are not enough. Indeed, since we have presented several serious warnings, the more we present the less credible. Breaking off contacts serves no end, and moving military forces is at least premature (the Pueblo fiasco should demonstrate the futility of moving aircraft carriers and airplanes that we do not intend to use).

Because the dispatch of aircraft to Israel has become the symbol for measuring our policy, it has, perhaps unfortunately, become the only immediate issue.

Only after demonstrating our willingness to take up this option can we expect to convince Israel of the need to make some political concession and convince the Soviets and Arabs that we are not deterred by their recent actions.

How many planes [and] in what sequence are secondary issues which should not obscure the primary challenge of the Soviets. The [Page 501] announced basis for such a move should be that the Soviets by their direct involvement have threatened the military balance, that we have failed to receive a satisfactory explanation of their aims or reassurance of their intention. Accordingly, we are committed to maintain the position of Israel.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 712, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. VIII. Secret. Sent for information. A notation on the memorandum indicates Kissinger saw it.
  2. See Document 159.