371. Information Memorandum From the Chairman of the Policy Planning Council (Rodman) to Secretary of State Shultz 1


  • The Soviet Role in the Middle East

As we head into US-Soviet discussions on the Middle East, it would be useful to review what the Soviet role has been and what our objectives should be in these talks.2

Why the Soviets Have Been Excluded

There are many reasons why we have not wanted a major Soviet role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, but the essence of it is that we doubt the Soviets have a real interest in a peaceful solution as we conceive it.

The Soviet Union has an interest in avoiding a war—since its clients usually lose, it has to replace vast losses of equipment, and it usually ends up in mutual recriminations with its clients over whose fault it was that the Soviet equipment didn’t produce success. But the Soviet interest in avoiding war has never translated into a serious willingness to contribute to peace—even though the Soviets are committed to UNSC Resolution 242 and have no trouble endorsing Israel’s right to exist.

Our strategic interest is in a settlement that strengthens moderates—that vindicates the policies of pro-Western Arabs like Mubarak, Hussein, and moderate Palestinians; that dampens the forces of radical[Page 1369]ism and strengthens the US position in the region. In conditions of successful peace diplomacy, our economic and political relations in the Arab world flourish and resentments over the Palestinian problem diminish. The Soviets can hardly be expected to exert themselves for such an outcome. By choice or otherwise, they have thrown in their lot with Syria. The military relationship cements this tie (though the Syrians basically despise the Soviets and certainly do not follow Soviet dictates). Whatever their differences with Syria on other issues, the Soviets have been comfortable with the Syrian policy of frustrating the Arab moderates and blocking US diplomacy.

Thus we have grounds for suspecting that bringing the Soviets into a major role in the diplomacy would do no more than put them in a better position to obstruct. They have never been willing to spend political capital to put pressure on their clients for moderation the way we are expected to squeeze Israel. In this sense, they have excluded themselves from a useful role in peace diplomacy. Their impotence in the face of the Syrian assault on the PLO suggests that they are unable or unwilling to exert real pressure on the Syrians. It also suggests that the Syrians, not the Soviets, are the decisive factor in the region that needs to be neutralized.

Proposals to bring the Soviets into the game are a recurring feature whenever our own diplomacy seems to be going nowhere. Precisely for this reason it is dangerous: It would symbolize US failure; it would further demoralize Arab states who have long sided with us against the Soviets and would legitimize the trend of growing ties between these Arabs and the Soviets; it could feed Arab illusions that some deus ex machina will relieve them of the need to make their own hard decisions; it would convey a signal of flagging US resolve to the Syrians, bolstering their determination to wait us out. Especially when our diplomacy is not making progress, we have an incentive to keep demonstrating that end-runs around us won’t work. The fact is, the Soviets cannot deliver Arab land and cannot even take the initiative away from us when we stumble. It has long been a cardinal principle of US policy to demonstrate to the Arabs that the Soviet connection gets them nowhere and that they have to come to us. This remains the best strategy for us.

Some Arabs may see value in a Soviet role, not for its own sake but as a means of putting additional pressure on us. The theory is that the United States will be spurred to greater effort (i.e., pressure on Israel) out of fear of the Soviets. This explains part of the Arab flirtation with an international conference. Clearly, we have a general strategic interest in showing that using this Soviet card against us doesn’t work either. Otherwise we send a message around the world that the Soviets (not the Americans) are the pivotal factor.

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Our Objectives in US-Soviet Talks

A number of conclusions follow from this.

1. The main value of bilateral US-Soviet talks is as a substitute for a greater Soviet role in Mideast diplomacy.3 The Soviets are sensitive to considerations of status, and such a dialogue will be somewhat of a political boost to them. This might be a useful card to play in US-Soviet relations. For the reasons stated above, however, it is in our interest to downplay its regional significance.

2. At the same time, it never hurts to have a chance to explain to the Soviets candidly why we have not welcomed a greater role for them. These meetings are an opportunity to put the onus on them and to read the bill of particulars of what we want them to do: restore diplomatic relations with Israel; put pressure on the Syrians to permit a West Bank negotiation; stop siding with the rejectionists who are obstructing the chances for peace, etcetera.

The only risk of making these points to them is the risk that they may do something along these lines (e.g., diplomatic relations with Israel) and then claim their right to a greater role—a claim that it would be harder for us to block. We might conceivably be better off the way things are. On the other hand, while restoring relations with Israel would strengthen their claim to a greater role, it would also complicate their relations with all the Arabs: It would protect Egypt’s flank as Israel’s peace partner; it would infuriate the Syrians; it would provide an excuse for a number of African states to restore their relations with Israel. It would even vindicate Israel’s decision to take the risks of accepting VOA/RL facilities.

But for precisely these reasons, the Soviets are unlikely to do it. (The KGB may also have an internal-security concern about an Israeli Embassy in Moscow stirring up Soviet Jewry—not to mention a Mossad station.) If they continue to be too paralyzed by their own immobilism to make these positive moves, then the onus is clearly on them for their continuing exclusion.

3. Perhaps the most useful message to convey is to warn the Soviets of the risks of war. This, as noted at the beginning, is their point of weakness and their main incentive to behave constructively. Our theme should be that Lebanon is still a powder keg, that Syria is acting irresponsibly, and that Israel’s military prowess and strength of will [Page 1371] should not be underestimated. The Israelis are confident they can handle Syria; the question is whether Syria, with all its new Soviet equipment, will be tempted into some reckless move. Soviet nervousness on this score would be healthy, and it could, on the margin, turn the Soviet-Syrian connection into a factor for restraint on the Syrians.

4. The Iran-Iraq war, of course, is another useful topic to discuss. Had the crisis last year necessitated US intervention, we probably would have wanted to talk to the Soviets to make clear we were not threatening Soviet interests. In the present context, discussions on this subject could be a way of deflecting their approaches to us for a role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and also a way of testing their bona fides: A serious Soviet effort to restrict East-bloc arms sales to Iran would be in the general interest; if they fail to make such an effort, we need not be shy about playing this back to Iraq and the other Arabs.

5. As a general matter, on either the peace process or the Gulf war, it is not our objective to reassure the Soviets too much. Certainly we can tell them that our policies are not hostile to Soviet interests. At the same time, their incentives for restraint come from their fear that the United States (and Israel) would be dealing from strength in any crisis; assuring them of our goodwill and self-restraint would only confirm that their nonconstructive behavior runs no risks. Our talking points should be fashioned with this in mind—emphasizing risks, not reassurances.

6. As noted, it is in our interest to downplay the importance of these talks. We should slow them down, in the sense of not scheduling another discussion of the Middle East for a long while. At the same time, we might make the Middle East talks seem more routine by scheduling other talks at some point on other regional subjects (e.g., Southern Africa). We want no communiqué from these talks, no joint action, and no joint follow-up. Indeed it is not clear we want any outcome, except to be able to reassure all our friends that nothing harmful resulted.

7. The Soviets, too, will have nervous clients to reassure. We should be alert for opportunities to sow discord between the Soviets and the Arabs. Any signs of Soviet willingness to improve relations with Israel, to move toward more even-handed positions, to restrain the Arabs, etc., should be played back to the Arabs—just as any Soviet waffling on the Iran-Iraq war could be used to complicate Soviet relations with Iraq or Iran as the case may be. The Soviets are likely to do the same to us if they get the chance.

Just think what we might be doing to each other if this constructive dialogue on regional issues were not taking place!

  1. Source: Department of State, S/P, Memoranda/Correspondence from the Director of the Policy Planning Staff, Lot 89D149, S/P Chrons PW 02/85. Drafted by Rodman. A notation reading “GPS” appears on the memorandum, indicating Shultz saw it. In a covering note to Murphy, Shultz wrote: “—this looks to me like a good basic paper and source of talking points for the meeting—share with the NSC as soon as you are satisfied with it.”
  2. In telegram 44264 to all Near Eastern and South Asian posts and copied to Moscow, February 13, the Department informed the posts: “We have reached agreement with the Soviets to hold experts’ talks on the Middle East in Vienna on February 19–20. Assistant Secretary Richard Murphy will lead the U.S. delegation. We have been informed that the Soviet interlocutor will be Vladimir Polyakov, Head of the Near East Division of the Soviet Foreign Ministry. In view of considerable speculation that these talks would represent a process of negotiation with the Soviets, we believe it important that our friends in the region and allies be assured that the talks will be held within the context of our bilateral relations with the Soviet Union and will consist of an exchange of views on regional issues, rather than negotiations. We would like to allay both fears and expectations that we intend to enter into a joint effort with the Soviets to seek a solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute. We also want to make clear that our focus is bilateral, and that significant results are not to be expected from this dialogue.” (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D850101–0073)
  3. Background and information on these talks are in the following telegrams to Near Eastern and South Asian posts: telegram 48445, February 15, and telegram 49273, February 16. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D850109–0850 and D850111–0487) Analysis after the conclusion of the talks is in telegram 52867, February 22, and telegram 55542, February 23. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D850120–0886 and D850124–0488)