28. Paper Prepared in the Department of State1


We have important reasons for putting the peace process in the broader context of the threats we face in the area and our strategy for countering these threats. Perhaps, our most important reason is that Soviet threats to the region of both a direct and indirect nature are increasing. The size and increased readiness of Soviet forces along their Southern frontier, the erosion of “Northern Tier” barriers to Soviet expansion into the area, the growth in Soviet power projection capabilities, the development of Soviet military presence in and around the periphery of the region (in Ethiopia, PDRY, and Afghanistan), the potential significance of this presence,2 and the multiplicity of coercive instruments at the Soviet disposal, are building Soviet leverage within the region—something that can only increase the likelihood of local and allied accommodation to Soviet interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. While we have taken some important first steps, we need to do much more if we are to counter Soviet threats, reassure local countries against Soviet or Soviet-inspired coercion, and restore regional confidence in us.

What needs to be done can not wait the resolution of Palestinian grievances or the final disposition of Jerusalem. Indeed, rather than thinking that progress on these issues must precede forward movement on a regional strategy, we need to think about how fostering a sense of urgency about the Soviet threat, and projecting a sense of seriousness about countering it, can facilitate the peace process and also protect our vital interests in the area.

Herein, we need to recognize that putting the Middle East peace process in the proper perspective, linking it to our broader concerns [Page 96] and objectives in the area, and taking steps that demonstrate our seriousness about securing our regional interests can do much to:

1. Facilitate the willingness of the Arabs and Israelis to make concessions and take risks for peace. In tactical terms, it is easier for the U.S. to ask for concessions—and, indeed, for local countries to make them—if the concessions are presented as preconditions for an anti-Soviet effort and are clearly tied to serious efforts to improve regional security. For the Israelis, in particular, pressing for concessions because the Arabs require them or because they are “right,” will count for very little—and indeed, may even be counterproductive. However, pressing for concessions within the context of a regional strategy to counter the one threat the Israelis can’t handle on their own, i.e., the Soviet one, is likely to count for much more—especially if it is clear that the Israelis will play a major role in this strategy and that we recognize the importance of Israeli military strength in making this strategy work. From the Israeli standpoint, not making concessions in these circumstances may actually jeopardize their overall security position and, in any case, may be politically costly to resist.

In more strategic terms, focusing on the threats and actively working to restore the military balance in the area will make it easier for the countries that are disposed toward making peace to do so. So long as the Soviets or their friends (including at this point the PLO) can engage in coercion or blackmail and the U.S. or others can do little about it, there is little prospect that the Saudis, Jordanians, or Israelis will feel able to run the necessary risks for peace. In effect, if we want the locals to make concessions, we must first create a secure environment which makes it safe for them to do so.3

Creating a secure environment is also especially important for the Saudis. The Saudis feel threatened from within and without, are sensitive to the political costs of association with us, and are not convinced that we won’t desert them in their hour of need. Until and unless they have confidence in us and believe that we or others can protect them from internal as well as external threats, they are unlikely to support any peace agreements that potentially put them in an exposed position—regardless of the progress that may have been made on Palestinian rights in these agreements.

2. Overcome the myth that if we resolve the Palestinian problem, we will resolve our basic problems in the area. This is a myth that both the Europeans and a number of Arab states have found convenient to [Page 97] promote. In the European case, promoting this notion4 seemed useful for winning favor with the Arabs and also for minimizing the need for a greatly increased Western defense effort and presence in the region. The latter is held to be true because it is assumed that the Arabs are basically anti-Soviet, and their anti-Soviet tendencies—if not clouded by the Palestinian problem—will naturally induce them to come together and create a bulwark against Soviet expansion in the area. In effect, such a bulwark would keep the Soviets out, preserve our interests in the region, and allow us all to solve our problems in the Gulf on the cheap.

Apart from the obvious anti-Western sentiment that remains in much of the Islamic world, this assumption fails on several grounds; it ignores the significance of Soviet power and the new “facts” or “realities” it can create; the respect local leaders have traditionally had for power and those who wield it; the willingness of locals to accommodate themselves to the powerful; and the ideological and personal rivalries and conflicts in the area which are sure to render any broad anti-Soviet Moslem coalition illusory at best.

Reminding the Europeans of the new realities in the Middle East that have changed the political-military calculus in the area and made us all far more vulnerable (i.e., an Iran that is a questionable buffer, a Soviet presence in Afghanistan, on the Iran-Iraq war,5 the siege at Mecca,6 etc.) is essential. These new realities haven’t been caused by the Palestinians and they won’t be ameliorated by a resolution of the Palestinian problem—even if one were readily available. The point is not to convince the Europeans that we need not address the Palestinian issue; rather the point is to persuade them that their old “truths” for dealing with the area need revision and that the Palestinian question and the peace process as a whole must be put in perspective. More than anything else, this means embedding the peace process in the context of the urgent threats we face in the area and recognizing that Arab-Israeli peace must be an important part of our strategy, but it can and must not be a substitute for it.

It is, of course, easier to make these points than it is to convince the Europeans and the local states of them. Even if,7 they believe them to be true, they are not about the expose themselves to the risks that may accompany their acceptance—unless, of course, we are able to convince them of our sense of purpose, our willingness to expose ourselves to [Page 98] the kind of risk we are asking others to run, and our capability to carry through on the commitments we make.

Aside from taking unilateral steps to improve our military capabilities, one way to communicate our seriousness on these issues may be to engage the relevant European countries and local Middle Eastern states in bilateral strategic dialogues. We could use these dialogues to explain our view of the new threat realities in the region and what we are doing to cope with them; we could also use the dialogues to explore with our allies how they think we, collectively, should respond to the pressing threats in the area and how they perceive their own and others’ roles.

At a minimum, these discussions should help to embed the peace process in a broader strategic context. Beyond this, these discussions—though varying in scope and character with the different countries—could build our credibility and provide the foundation on which a regional security framework for the Middle East can be built.8 Indeed, what may start out as a series of bilateral discussions and resulting arrangements could over time turn into overlapping or multilateral discussions and arrangements. At any rate, that should probably be one of our long-term goals.9

To sum up, our current strategic position in the Middle East requires that we emphasize and take steps to confront the growing Soviet threat in the area. Making the Soviet threat our primary concern (and placing the Middle East peace process in this context) is necessary from the standpoint of protecting our vital interests in the region. By providing us a useful fulcrum on which to justify mutual concessions, it may also prove useful in resolving Arab-Israeli differences.

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/P Files, Memoranda and Correspondence from the Director of the Policy Planning Staff to the Secretary and Other Seventh Floor Principals: Lot 89D149, S/P Chrons PW 2/1–10/81. No classification marking. An unknown hand wrote in the top right-hand corner of the paper: “2/10/81 from: D. Ross to P. Wolfowitz.”
  2. If the Soviets build air bases in southwest Afghanistan, they will be in a good position to establish air superiority over the approaches to the Strait of Hormuz. Aside from sending a signal about their potential capability to cut off Western access to the Gulf, Soviet airbases in southwest Afghanistan would permit them to provide air cover for airborne or ground forces that might be deployed into Iran and to the Strait of Hormuz. Given the short ranges of many Soviet combat aircraft, this is something the Soviets are currently unable to do. [Footnote is in the original.]
  3. Creating a secure environment will also make U.S. guarantees more credible—something that will be critical to finalizing any Arab-Israeli peace agreement. [Footnote is in the original.]
  4. An unknown hand inserted “has” following the word “notion.”
  5. An unknown hand crossed out the preposition “on” preceding “the Iran-Iraq war.”
  6. Reference is to the November-December 1979 Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) seizure.
  7. An unknown hand struck through the comma here.
  8. Given Saudi sensitivities, we may find it mutually convenient—at least initially—to avoid certain subjects with the Saudis—e.g., Israel’s role in Gulf contingencies. Alternatively this may be a subject that we agree to disagree on. Here the point would be that we are not going to force them to cooperate with the Israelis, but by the same token they can not prevent us from doing so if we deem that the military realities in the area dictate such cooperation. [Footnote is in the original.]
  9. Initially, the political realities in the region and among our European allies rule out any but bilateral approaches. The cleavages and rivalries among our Middle Eastern friends, together with the continuing nationalistic sensitivities that foiled earlier alliance attempts (i.e., the MEDO, Baghdad Pact, CENTO), doom any multilateral efforts to failure. Similarly, an attempt to get NATO as an alliance to contribute to a Middle Eastern defense strategy is a non-starter. The members of NATO see the alliance as being applicable only to Europe. If Britain, France, Germany, and Turkey are to play significant roles in an anti-Soviet strategy in the Middle East this will have to be worked out outside of a NATO context and on a strictly bilateral basis. [Footnote is in the original.]