271. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The Secretary
  • Gen. Scowcroft
  • Under Secretary Sisco
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Day
  • Ambassador Murphy
  • Bill Hyland, NSC
  • Jock Covey, Notetaker


  • Lebanon

The Secretary: I want to go over this cable from Cairo.2 There’s a phrase in there that sticks in my mind about “Asad’s pre-eminent position.” And did we ever talk to the Pope . . .?

Day: We have gone over all of the traffic and have found nothing to support . . .

The Secretary: I just have the uneasy feeling—can we make sure that there isn’t someone around here making independent policy?

Day: You know that all along our people in the Vatican . . .

The Secretary: What people in the Vatican?

[Page 965]

Day: That is our people in the Embassy in Rome have been consulting on the Lebanon situation with the Vatican.

The Secretary: Well, there’s no doubt that we have encouraged the Syrian role. There’s just this one phrase that bothers me because it sounds almost like something we could have said. Well, rather than waste time looking for it, let’s talk about where we are now. I am not prepared to risk our Egyptian relationship for the Syrians. If the Egyptians are that much up in arms about it, we are going to have to do our best to keep the Syrians out.

And now I see there’s another message from Hussein.3

Sisco: Yes, you will see he is saying to you that rather than restrain Asad, we should show him some understanding. In effect he is asking you quite directly, what is Asad to do if the leftists take over. He clearly is using this occasion to defend Asad to us.

The Secretary: It’s a god damn good letter. I think we ought to send a message to Hussein saying that we found his letter thoughtful, that we share his concern about restraining the Israelis, and that we want to be cooperative and help bring about a solution to the problems he describes—to avoid a takeover by the radical rejectionists.

Sisco: Except how are you actually going to prevent it.?

The Secretary: I agree we don’t know how, but we can say we agree with his analysis—that we haven’t identified a means yet to prevent what he is so concerned about. But we also see no way that the Syrians can move in without triggering a response by the Israelis. And we should say to him that we would be interested in anything that he can see that we should do to help achieve his political objectives.

Day: You know we have not really been active in Lebanon for quite some time now and it probably would be a good idea to talk to the factions.

The Secretary: Do we have someone there with brains, or are they all hotshots? I don’t know this fellow Lambrakis.4 Is he a Greek? (laughter)

Sisco: Yes.

Day: He carries out his instructions well, and he is cautious and careful. As a Chargé, when he is given instructions, he follows them carefully.

Scowcroft: You mean as opposed to an Ambassador (laughter).

[Page 966]

Day: In talking to the factions we should not take any risks. There should be no bold ventures, but it would be easy enough to contact some of the faction leaders.

The Secretary: What I really want is to hear from Asad and to tell him that we agree with his analysis and are trying to avoid the same outcome that he is. We could tell him that we’ve heard from Hussein. Although, on second thought, I think we better wait for his reply.

Day: Something that has been bothering me is that we may not get a reply from Asad. He may assume that what we sent him is our response.

The Secretary: No my problem is that I simply have no confidence in the judgment of the people who are there. I don’t know them. Even if I did have confidence, what objective would we be pursuing?

If we send a message to Asad, we could repeat some of what Hussein says, indicate we share the assessment and that we want to insure that our Embassy in Beirut is working in parallel with his efforts—not at cross purposes. So if he can give us an idea of what he is trying to do . . . But if Asad then shows that to the Egyptians we would be in great trouble.

Sisco: On this idea of trying to do something locally, I personally don’t feel that we have anyone there who can do it. It is essentially a job of brokering between the parties and we don’t have anyone at a sufficiently high level. I simply don’t have the same confidence in Lambrakis. I don’t think it would produce anything and I think it would be dangerous.

Day: Well, it’s not really a brokering role. In the past, we made ourselves useful convincing the Christians that they should . . .

Sisco: Well, of course a specific démarche would be another matter.

The Secretary: I think we ought to ask Asad again what he thinks we can do to encourage the solution that he envisiges.

Sisco: Well, we are still waiting for his answer to our first query.

The Secretary: Okay, but we should ask Hussein what diplomatic steps he recommends to achieve these objectives.

Sisco: He may want to seek Asad’s views.

The Secretary: That’s okay, but we should not be the ones to suggest that he do it. There’s no rush on this. It can wait for a few hours in order to see the cables before they go out.

What is your instinct? Mine is that they won’t move and that they won’t raise it with the Soviets. I told the British to go to the Soviets and say that they had their own sources that told them the Syrians were seriously contemplating a move into Lebanon. The British were then to [Page 967] ask the Soviets to use their influence to restrain the Syrians. That way the Soviets would share the responsibility for restraining the Syrians.

Murphy: It’s my personal feeling that the message last night to Damascus5 would have been very chilling to the Syrians if they were actually ready to make a move.

The Secretary: But do you think it was sufficiently friendly?

Murphy: Yes, it was warm enough, but where it counted it was firm.

The Secretary: Given the likely Egyptian reaction and the Israeli reaction, allowing the Syrians to go in would just be opening an impossible can of worms. If the Syrians go in, the Israelis would almost certainly go in themselves. They would probably tell us to buzz off—face us down.

Sisco: Can you tell the Secretary how all of this has affected Asad’s internal position in Syria?

Murphy: It’s the first time in years that he’s been so far out in front on such a major loss. The last time I saw him he told me, my people have a lot of relatives in Lebanon and they’re asking me why we haven’t been able to get a settlement. He is deeply involved.

The Secretary: But the sticky thing is the absolutely unconscionable Israeli behavior. I would risk Egyptian displeasure if we could keep the Israelis out. But we cannot risk a Syrian move, and an Egyptian, and an Israeli reaction. The end result would be exactly what we have worked all these years to avoid: it would create Arab unity. Worse yet, it could lead to a war.

Now if I could design the solution, I would go to Asad and say “if you could move in quickly, and if you could give us an iron clad guarantee that you will get out again quickly and that you will not go south of the river, we will keep the Israelis out.” I would tell that to Hussein too. The problem is, under the present circumstances, I don’t think we could bring it off. The Egyptian displeasure we could handle. But if Israel goes in, Egypt would lead the charge against Syria and then Syria would be forced to attack Israel. You don’t seriously think that Asad could permit Israel to move into Southern Lebanon without attacking it, do you?

Murphy: That’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit overnight and I have come to agree with that. I think he would have to attack.

The Secretary: He would have to defend those PLO camps.

[Page 968]

Murphy: All he really wants is to maintain his own little kingdom. To keep his relations with the PLO, and Jordan, and Lebanon all in tidy order.

The Secretary: The thing those idiots in Tel Aviv just don’t seem to be able to get through their heads is that if they back Asad up to the wall in Lebanon and he survives it, they still have UNDOF to go through.

Scowcroft: But there is still a great deal of danger in doing nothing. There is the effect it would have on Asad, and the fact that the PLO would probably take over.

The Secretary: Let’s be realistic. The only plan that would really work is the one we simply cannot do. The penalty for an Israeli move into Southern Lebanon is just intolerable. The ideal of course would be for the Syrians to move rapidly in and out.

Murphy: If you could actually get them to promise that they would get out quickly, would you take it to Israel?

The Secretary: How would we get them to promise that? Mechanically, how? You would have to be approached at a high level. Could Hussein do it?

Sisco: Hussein could do it. But he would have to get specific commitments about the level of augmentation, the precise political objectives, and get him to tell us that he needs exactly this amount of time. If we could get him to lay it all out like that, it’s just conceivable that the Israelis might consider it.

The Secretary: They would never consider it unless the President called in Dinitz and told him that if they didn’t agree, there would be no more military assistance, that we would speak against them in the United Nations and support sanctions. Anything short of that would have no effect at all. I tried last night to reason with Dinitz.6 We simply have to be a bit careful. They are so inflamed after that speech at the UN. You know I talked to Sam Lewis and I expected that we would be making a statement basically explaining the veto about an hour before the vote. The next thing I know, we’re delivering it 48 hours before the vote.7

Sisco: Well, I think that we will have to explain it to Sadat.

The Secretary: I’m not worried about Sadat. So long as he has no fulcrum for his displeasure.

[Page 969]

Sisco: I see what you mean. As long as they are in and out quickly.

The Secretary: No, no, so long as there is no Israeli occupation, Sadat has no leverage. Even if he believes that we colluded with the Syrians—he will be unhappy, but after all, we colluded with Sadat too. His displeasure would not be unbearable.

Sisco: Well, then it should be fairly easy to go to them and argue that there simply is no other way to keep the Israelis out. After all, he doesn’t want the leftists and the PLO to take the ascendancy . . .

The Secretary: But of course he does. If they take over, it would discredit the Syrians and get them off his back. It would probably drive the Jordanians back into the Egyptian camp. And Israel wouldn’t mind if the PLO took over because their position would be easier to maintain in American public opinion if they faced the PLO across their border.

Sisco: I can see it would be good for them. It may even protect their position on the West Bank and in the Gaza.

Murphy: If we don’t get an answer soon to the message last night to Asad, would you consider escalating it to a message from the President to Asad rather than wait for Hussein’s visit. That would mean another six days.

Sisco: No, I think we ought to wait until we see the reply. Give it another couple of days.

Hyland: What possibility do you see that Asad might digest our message, decide that there are no other options, and move anyway.

The Secretary: It’s certainly possible but I have always found him to be a cautious man. We have handed him a tough problem.

Hyland: Maybe. But I wonder if it’s possible that they might just let Israel come in.

The Secretary: They would never agree to that.

Hyland: No I don’t mean agree to it, but just let it happen. They would of course scream and yell but they might just let it come about without attacking.

The Secretary: Egypt would do its absolute utmost to get Asad to attack Israel. He would have to. Unless I completely misjudge the man, he does not want to be known as the man who permitted Fatahland to be destroyed. He is the one who always says to you, I am first and foremost an Arab. Sadat never tells you that.

Murphy: Have the Israelis tipped their hand at all about the points they would want to occupy?

The Secretary: No, no answer whatsoever. Maybe we’ll get an answer later today, or maybe not at all.

Murphy: Maybe it would pan out that they would want less than Dinitz described last night.

[Page 970]

Scowcroft: That’s very unlikely.

The Secretary: We simply have no answer.

Murphy: That’s a good answer.

Day: One last thing before we go, would you have any objection to our arranging for Pickering to come back on Saturday?

The Secretary: Rather than . . . ?

Day: Rather than coming earlier. That would give you a chance for one good talk before the visit.

The Secretary: Okay.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, CL 347, Department of State Memorandum of Conversations, Internal, December 1975–March 1976. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. Apparently a reference to telegram 3885 from Cairo, March 24. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, P850107–1780)
  3. Telegram 1581 from Amman, March 24. (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Country Files, Middle East and South Asia, Box 23, Department of State Telegrams to the Secretary of State, Jordan, Folder 23)
  4. After Ambassador Godley left Beirut on January 13, Lambrakis served as Chargé of the Embassy.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 268.
  6. Apparently a reference to the short conversation on March 23. See footnote 8, Document 268.
  7. The United States vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution that deplored Israeli attempts to change the status of Jerusalem and called on Israel to respect the inviolability of the Holy Places and the rights of Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories. See Yearbook of the United Nations, 1975, pp. 250–253.