American Presidents and the Middle East
Viewing 44 years of American relations with the Middle East from the White House, beginning with President Truman in 1945 and ending with President Reagan in 1989, might seem too lofty a perch from which to discern the details. In fact, it is not. So complex and sensitive is the U.S.-Middle East relationship that every development of consequence affecting the area always lands on the president's desk. And presidential decisions affecting one Middle East country rarely fail to have an impact on the others.
For "old Middle East hands" and newcomers alike, American Presidents and the Middle East is the best available overview of the period that began with the 1945-1946 Iran-Azerbaijan crisis handled by President Truman and ended with the Reagan administration's indirect support for the Iraqi side in the latter part of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. There is real drama in many of the crises examined by Lenczowski. Presidents, it has been said, are the only American political leaders with any real power, and Middle East problems repeatedly have tested that power. Given the extreme sensitivity of the American domestic political scene to the area, actions there may actually measure the political longevity of presidents.
The relatively uninformed reader may be assured that Prof. George Lenczowski of the University of California at Berkeley has overlooked no important development. The already well-informed reader can count not only on learning new details of these crises, but often on seeing them from a different vantage point.
An example is the role of President Truman in 1946 in forcing the withdrawal of Soviet troops who had entered Iran during World War II to secure a resupply route from the Indian Ocean to their armies resisting German attack. When the war ended the Soviets remained, propping up breakaway Kurdish and Azerbaijani "republics" in northwest Iran.
Lenczowski quotes Truman as having sent a "blunt message" to Stalin, but the president's memoirs do not reveal what the message was. In Tehran in the 1970s the reviewer often heard that Truman had threatened Josef Stalin with the atomic bomb unless Soviet forces evacuated Iran.
After his memoirs were published, however, Truman said he had let Stalin know that American military chiefs had been ordered to prepare for movement of U.S. land, sea and air forces. The care Professor Lenczowski devotes to assembling all such material on the Azerbaijan crisis is characteristic of his thoroughness throughout the book.
Its actors are eight presidents. The arena is bounded by Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan. The political/economic imperatives remain the same throughout: the sensitive domestic implications of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the presence in the Middle East of two-thirds of the world's petroleum reserves, and the constant tension of the Soviet-American Cold War.
The author leans over backwards to maintain a scholarly approach on some highly emotional issues, and all who know him personally, including many U.S. diplomats who served in the Middle East during the period covered and met him during his regular visits to the area, can testify to his fairness and balance. Lenczowski leaves it to his readers to draw their own conclusions, but his own powerful analytical abilities and encyclopedic knowledge of the subject matter are reflected in his choices of quotations from sources who felt no need to avoid tough value judgments.
On the subject of Henry Kissinger's role in U.S. Mideast policy, for example, he quotes Egypt's former foreign minister, Ismail Fahmy, as describing the former U.S. national security adviser and secretary of state as "basically Israel's envoy."
On the other hand, he tends to absolve Kissinger of much of the blame for undercutting and eventually supplanting Secretary of State William Rogers, a conviction held by many foreign service officers. Rather, the author says that President Nixon ruthlessly excluded Rogers from major decisions because he did not want a strong and influential secretary.
Professor Lenczowski describes President Johnson's as "an unhappy, virtually tragic presidency." He cites LBJ's shipping of U.S. military equipment to Israel almost on the eve of that country's launching of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war while publicly declaring an embargo on arms shipments to the Middle East. Lenczowski carefully describes Johnson's total acceptance of Israel's concocted claim of "error" in its June 8, 1967 attack on the U.S. Navy intelligence ship USS Liberty, in which 34 Americans were killed and 171 injured. The author's own conclusion, scholarly dispassion aside, is that the Israeli attack was deliberate and that the attackers intended no one to be left alive.
The author's chapters on Presidents Carter and Reagan make especially interesting reading because of their focus on the intricacies of the U.S.- Israeli relationship. Lenczowski correctly depicts Carter's determination to be an activist in settling the Arab-Israel dispute. The author also details the pains President Carter took in explaining his policies to American Jewish leaders, seeking to enlist their support for the pressure on both sides necessary to produce a lasting peace, only to find that in a public showdown the vast majority of the American Jewish community would always side with Israel.
When Carter sought U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill's advice, the speaker told him that like President Eisenhower in 1957 when he forced Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai and Gaza Strip, Carter could go public on a clearly posed issue and the public would support the president against the Israel lobby. Carter, however, chose not to take the risk.
Lenczowski lists Carter's good points but found him prone to give in under pressure. During the 1978 Camp David negotiations, for instance, he let Israel get away with what amounted to making a separate peace with Egypt, which left prospects for the other Arabs to reclaim their Israeli-occupied lands in the lurch. Lenczowski describes a Carter critical of Muhammad Reza Shah's human rights record in Iran, and then inexplicably praising Iran publicly for its stability in a troubled area.
Those who might see the U.S. government as a monolith will have their eyes opened by Lenczowski's recounting of the bureaucratic infighting and divided counsels inside and outside the U.S. government during the Iranian political cataclysm of 1978-1979. It brought down the Pahlavi monarchy and, by clearing the way for the eventual assumption of absolute power by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, brought on President Carter's later defeat. The author lists many ways by which the U.S. might have influenced, perhaps decisively, the outcome of the revolution in Iran, a view that will not be shared by all readers. In this reviewer's opinion, nothing the U.S. could have done would have stopped Iran's revolutionary juggernaut once the violent urban disturbances began in early 1978.
Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig is quoted as saying that Israel never had a better friend in the White House than Ronald Reagan. And what a price the United States paid for abandoning any semblance of balance between the pressures exerted by the Zionist political apparatus at home and the needs of American foreign policy to support friendly Arab moderate states abroad. The bloody and destructive Israeli aggression against Lebanon in 1982 was one result.
Another was the arms-for-hostages affair, or Irangate, the worst foreign policy scandal in U.S. history. Dr. Lenczowski makes crystal clear in exact detail that the shipments of U.S.-made arms to Khomeini's Iran were initiated and in many cases carried out by Israel. His list of leading Israeli or pro- Israeli actors in the scandal makes depressing reading: National Security Council Chairman Robert (Bud) McFarlane, his assistant Howard Teicher, NSC "consultant" Michael Ledeen, Donald Fortier, the sinister Israeli Mossad/Foreign Ministry operative David Kimche, and Israeli spies-cum-arms- dealers Manuchehr Ghorbanifar, Adolph Schwimmer, Yaacov Nimrodi and Amiram Nir.
American readers of these truly scary pages may come to understand for the first time how, with a detached and strongly pro-Israel president such as Ronald Reagan in the White House, Israel and its sympathizers in this country effectively controlled the Middle East and related foreign policies of the United States. Readers also will be forced to ponder the long-term health of the American-Israeli relationship.
Dr. Lenczowski attempts no psychopolitical analysis of the U.S. presidents covered. Rather he relies mainly on "primary" sources such as the memoirs of presidents, their principal advisers and a few foreign statesmen. This gets rid of a lot of underbrush. His methodology provides the history of events as they are likely to appear in the history books.
In one instance, in the reviewer's opinion, this gives Israel credit where none is due. That was in the 1970 "Black September" battle in Amman between the Jordanian army and the PLO. Israeli intelligence claimed that Syrian tanks had massively invaded Jordan from the north to assist the Palestinians, and departed only under the threat of Israeli intervention. Later, in his memoirs, present Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's ambassador in Washington, quoted President Nixon as saying the U.S. was lucky to have such a helpful ally as Israel in the Middle East.
The facts are that Israel was of no help in the "Black September" crisis. And in one of Seymour Hersh's books, President Nixon is quoted as expressing not gratitude to Israel but suspicions of its motives in urging the U.S. to permit it to intervene with tanks of its own at the time.
This reviewer highly recommends American Presidents and the Middle East. It is an informative and accurate review of nearly half a century of U.S.- Middle East relations by a scrupulously honest, careful historian who knows how to write.
Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.
Photo (Cover of American Presidents and the Middle East)…