178. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter1

SUBJECT

  • Middle East Trip Report

You know from my personal messages2 about the highlights of my meetings with Sadat, Begin, Dayan, Weizman, Hussein and the Saudi Princes. I will therefore confine this report to a general assessment and some suggestions for future action.

Conclusions

My overall conclusions are these. First, we must press forward as quickly as possible to an Israeli-Egyptian accord. Time is probably running against success. To make this step by Sadat digestible to the other moderate Arabs, we need to do three things besides portraying the treaty as part of a process designed to achieve a comprehensive peace: be forthcoming on regional economic development; be forthcoming on arms supplies, although not nearly to the extent of the announced demands; and find some form of US military presence which will provide reassurance without carrying the political burdens of a presence so intrusive as a US military base.

These actions will also lay a basis for a greater degree of regional security cooperation, with US support. That cooperation will come, if at all, on an evolutionary basis unless the perception of the threat intensifies. All the countries were concerned about the events in Iran; but there was no panic and, indeed, less anxiety than I had expected. None of the leaders thought we should do more than “wait and see” on Iran for the moment.

My second conclusion is that the most likely threats lie in internal violence supported from across borders or from internal political, economic, and social instability. The first will hardly, and the second not at all, be cured by major military hardware, which can however inhibit direct aggression across borders. We need to promote regional security cooperation, particularly where there is a threat from a Soviet surrogate as in North Yemen, and perhaps Oman, from the PDRY. And we need [Page 612]to continue forcefully to assert our willingness and ability to oppose direct Soviet aggression in the area. But most important of all, we need to do our best to forestall development of internal instability. Our influence is necessarily limited on this score, but the steps outlined above may help to enhance it. In particular, assistance in sensible economic development is needed. Several leaders stressed in private that this took priority over arms, though this wisdom did not extend to moderating their own long lists of arms requests.

My trip had four main objectives. Pursuant to your instructions, the first was to restore confidence among the moderate states that the United States understands the dangers to the region and intends to act to protect its interests. This was achieved. But there will be backsliding unless we now follow through on the commitment to play a more active role in the Middle East—in frustrating Soviet interference, in displaying some modest presence of our own, and in cooperating more actively with the moderate states in security terms.

The second objective was to stimulate the development of a general strategy for the region. I outlined the major elements: close cooperation between the United States and the individual states, concerted actions among moderate states, bilateral politico-military consultations about hypothetical contingencies, a potentially greater US military presence, cooperation on economic issues (oil) and economic assistance, and, above all, rapid progress on Arab-Israeli peace.

In response, the countries’ leaders acknowledged a commonality of interest. However, not surprisingly, the Arabs do not see Israel as having a regional security role, and tend also to criticize each other’s efforts. Several urged a US military presence in other countries “which are weak and need it” but see it as a lightning rod in their own (the exception was Israel, which would welcome such a presence for reasons both plain and, to us, unattractive). It is quite obvious as well that each country views US interest in promoting regional security as a lever to obtain more US arms for itself. This presents opportunities for the United States as well as problems, for we may be able over time to establish some degree of implicit linkage between bilateral arms supply relations and regional cooperation.

The third objective was to emphasize the peace process, and its importance for regional strategy. I did this at each stop. I pressed hard the argument that sustained progress toward peace would make an essential contribution to the security of the region. While all professed dedication to peace, recognized the threat to stability posed by its absence, and wished to exclude the Soviets from the negotiations, reactions to the Camp David Agreements were along predictable lines.

Sadat and the Israelis are wedded to the Camp David process, but holding to their positions that progress be on their terms. Each is [Page 613]seeking maximum reward in US security support as an incentive for moving forward. Hussein and the Saudis are convinced that the Camp David process carries more immediate danger than eventual safety. They appear to have no constructive, practical alternatives and have difficulty focusing on the threat that stalemate in the peace process poses to their security. Neither wants to close the door completely—their desire for our support in security matters precludes this—but they both seem to be hoping somehow that the moment of decision will go away. I believe concentration on Gaza with respect to the autonomy issue would be a good tactic.

The final objective was to strengthen bilateral relationships. Overall, I sought to convey the idea that a comprehensive peace settlement and other forms of defense cooperation are far more important to regional security and well-being than additional arms. I made very few commitments, handling most requests by undertaking to consider them on my return to Washington or to arrange for US teams to survey requirements or make staff visits in order to examine the need in greater depth. In some cases, I was frank in warning them not to expect approval.

In the main, however, offers of consultations and joint planning and intelligence exchange were welcomed but were not enough. We were judged in this functional area by how favorably we responded to arms requests. My approach was all right as a stop gap but will not work for more than a few months. No one was satisfied. Everyone had his list. Saudi Arabia renewed earlier requests for advanced systems, such as the XM1 tank, without addressing quantities or timing. Jordan presented a $2 billion plan for filling shortfalls and for force modernization, including F–16 aircraft and ROLAND missiles. Israel scrapped MATMON C, substituting a new eight-year force development plan for equipment which could cost $6–8 billion. The new plan does cut back significantly on MATMON C’s planned force expansion and is said to be 20–25% less expensive, but most of the savings appear to be in the later years. Egypt listed equipment which would total $15–20 billion, in effect an “Americanization” of Egyptian forces.

I’m sure none of these nations expected us to respond fully to their requests. We cannot ignore them, however. I believe we should now approve military hardware items at a somewhat faster rate (without increasing dollar levels where credit is involved) than we have in the recent past for Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. I believe we need to plan for a sharply increased arms supply to Egypt, including FMS credits, although not to anything like the extent of Egypt’s full request. The Egyptians have a genuine self-defense need to reverse the continuing decay of their military forces flowing from loss of Soviet support. And, with Iran gone, Egypt’s role in regional security becomes more impor[Page 614]tant; no other country in the region can play a comparable role. The expanded relationship must, of course, be paced by the peace talks; our survey teams will tide us over until May–June. Also, we will face a difficult task in adjusting Egyptian appetites downward to fit the threat and competing economic development needs.

You also asked that I report on the view of the regional states toward a greater US military presence. Israel favors a US presence, preferably one in Israel, but even one in the Arab states would be all right with them. Dayan and Weizman raised the possibility of our taking over the Sinai air bases. Weizman distinguished between a naval base at Haifa, which he said would not be antagonistic in an Arab-Israeli context, and other kinds of ground or air bases which would be.

Neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia wants a base on its soil, although they might acquiesce in a US base in some other Arab country. Sadat thinks a US base would be a sign of Egyptian weakness and showed no interest in a US presence in the Sinai. The Saudis did not think direct Soviet military action sufficiently likely to warrant the political risks to them that, in their view, would follow from a major US military presence. Some Saudis thought a US presence somewhere else in the Gulf was worth considering, but it is by no means clear this represents a consensus.

It may be that, on reflection, one or more of the Arab countries may be interested in a form of US presence less intrusive than a military base, such as periodic aircraft deployments, joint exercises, and the like. It may be that we can develop arrangements for use of facilities in a crisis, perhaps with some pre-positioning of critical items. This would give us some of the military advantages of a base with fewer of its political burdens. We will learn more about this as our security consultations progress.

There remain two other “presence” questions. First, the possibility of base facilities in another country, such as Oman. In 1977 Oman agreed in principle to our use of Masirah, the former British base, but at a very high cost. I did not get a clear view of Saudi Arabia’s or Egypt’s attitude on such a base, although I understand Crown Prince Fahd had expressed reservation about the idea in late 1976. We should examine this further within our government and perhaps with Saudi Arabia, to see whether the question should now be reopened with Oman. More importantly, I believe we ought to promote assistance from moderate Arab states to Oman to replace the capability withdrawn by Iran. The sooner this is done, the more South Yemen will be discouraged from seriously considering renewed efforts against Oman.

Second is the question of increasing US military presence off-shore. I believe we should carefully consider augmenting the Middle East Force (which now consists of 3 ships) and expanding the facilities [Page 615]on Diego Garcia. This is not for purposes of reassuring the moderate Middle East states, who showed little interest. Rather, its justification would rest on broader geo-political grounds or on improvement in our rapid deployment capability. I will send you a separate memorandum on this.

My impressions of the military capabilities of these countries can be only very sketchy ones, but I’ll give them anyway.

Israel’s forces are very capable, very tough, and very ready. In a short war with Egypt and Jordan, they should have no trouble winning, but could take casualties substantial for their small population. I have no way to judge their expressed strong concern about Syrian and Iraqi capability (the latter is touted in many of the countries of the region as the coming military power) but I hypothesize that during the next few years this would not change the outcome.

Egypt’s forces have rather good morale, are quite large, and claim to be ready. I doubt the last, and their denials of equipment unreadiness are undercut by their expressed concerns about spare parts. They are competent technically and professionally. I think they’d do well against anyone in the area except the Israelis, if we help them solve their equipment problems.

The Jordanians show spit and polish, are probably well trained (I saw only the honor guard!) but their forces are both small and very modestly equipped. They probably have considerable defensive capability, but would be wise to stay out of offensive operations. They can make a useful military advisory contribution in the Peninsula (there are said to be about 1500 Jordanian military personnel seconded to various countries in the Gulf and North Yemen).

The Saudis, though they are moving ahead toward a professional air force, seem to me a military zero at this time.

Recommendations

Our assurances of greater US interest and involvement are perishable. We need to follow through:

1. By means of the follow-on security consultations with the four countries to which I have agreed, we should:

(a) Further explore forms of US presence—short of permanent bases—which would be politically acceptable to host nations and militarily useful to the United States in deterring Soviet adventurism or enhancing our capability for rapid deployment of US forces in a crisis.

(b) Lay the basis for multinational regional security cooperation. We should concentrate on situations where stability is threatened by Soviet surrogates, in particular North Yemen and potentially Oman.

2. We should modestly step up the pace of our arms supply approvals within present dollar levels with Israel, Jordan, and Saudi [Page 616]Arabia. In the case of Egypt, we should substantially increase our program, post-treaty, both quantitatively and by extending significant FMS credits. We should not, however, lend our assistance to force structure expansion in any of the four countries, and we should in particular encourage post-treaty force structure reduction in Egypt in exchange for our help in modernizing its forces. In Saudi Arabia we should encourage the development over time of a more professional army, not based solely on heavy and sophisticated equipment, but equipped and tailored to the environment and the Saudi capabilities to absorb. We should recognize that, at least in the case of the Army, the prospects for real military capability are very limited.

3. We should not encourage at this stage build-up of arms in the Gulf states. This issue needs further analysis.

4. The most serious threat to security is likely to be internal instability. We should review in depth our assessment of the political, economic and social conditions in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states to make sure our policies are best designed to minimize the development of internal instability in those countries. This is particularly important in the case of Saudi Arabia, for reasons that are self-evident. It is also true in Egypt, where former MOD Gamasy told me privately he is worried about the effects on Army morale and attitudes of an eroding economic position military personnel experience in their personal lives. Where we have to make a choice we should give priority to economic assistance designed to promote internal stability over arms transfers.

5. We should plan further speeches and statements—by you and others—built around the themes of my visit. This declaratory policy will help maintain momentum and credibility. In doing this, we should recognize that declaratory policy is no substitute for action and, indeed, can be counterproductive if not matched with concrete implementing steps.

Harold Brown
  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Cyrus R. Vance, Secretary of State—1977–1980, Lot 84D241, Box 5, Middle East—1979. Secret; Sensitive. A handwritten notation at the top of the memorandum reads: “Sec State Eyes Only.” A different version of Brown’s memorandum is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XVIII, Middle East Region; Arabian Peninsula.
  2. Not found.