Part Six of “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity”
This is part six of Professor Paul Merkley’s series, “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity.” Access to the previous installments can be found by clicking on the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
Israel, the United States and Syria: Recent history of a grotesque relationship
Richard Nixon’s very last foreign policy exercise was an adventure in personal diplomacy – a tour of the major capitals of the Middle East, undertaken in the hope of persuading the dictators of the region to join the Peace Process. This took place in the second week of June, 1974 – by which time Nixon’s impeachment seemed all but inevitable and even his own cabinet members had ceased defending him in public. Seeking to re-direct the reporters’ speculative gifts away from the fate of his Presidency, he spoke to the American press on his departure about the fate of Israel: “As a matter of fact,” he told them, “whether Israel can survive over a long period of time with a hundred million Arabs around them I think is really questionable. The only long-term hope lies in reaching some kind of settlement now while they can operate from a position of strength, and while we are having such apparent success in weaning the Arabs away from the Soviets into more responsible paths.”
It is poignant to contemplate that it would occur to Richard Nixon that the best way to save his Presidency at this late hour was to make himself indispensible to the world by starting up an exercise that would swiftly bring peace to the Middle East – a goal that has evaded statesmen of every stripe since long before the State of Israel came into the world.
In Syria, Nixon had a long chat with the dictator Hafez al-Assad, and was escorted in and out of Damascus by huge crowds singing their praise of Richard Nixon. Nixon found Assad to have “a great deal of mystique, tremendous stamina, and a lot of charm … elements of genius.” President Jimmy Carter’s personal interview with President Assad came in May, 1977, just a few weeks after his own inauguration. Afterwards, Carter told reporters that Assad was “great”, “brilliant”, and one of his “favorite leaders.” In his diary he noted:
It was a very interesting and enjoyable experience. There was a lot of good humor between us, and I found him to be very constructive in his attitude and somewhat flexible in dealing with some of the more crucial items involving peace, the refugee problem, and borders… Assad stressed to me that the origin of many problems was the arbitrary subdivision of the region by the colonial powers, Great Britain and France, without regard to natural boundaries, ethnic identity, or tribal unity. Since then, Israel’s actions were even worse.
Assad explained to Carter that he “depended on high levels of Soviet economic and military aid … [because he was] threatened by the military forces of Turkey and Israel.”
Carter was mightily impressed by Assad’s self-confidence: “He never deferred to the other Syrian leaders with him, nor did he seem interested in their reaction to his comments.” As he reflects on the possible source of this admirable, numinous, self-confidence possessed by Assad, it occurred to Jimmy Carter that, “He seemed to derive great patience from his obvious sense of history…[which has made him] a strong and forceful leader.” Conceding Assad’s “reputation among the other Arab leaders for ruthlessness and brutality toward those Syrians who resisted his authority,” Carter provides exoneration by noting that its source is “his singleness of purpose in protecting his region from outside interference and in expanding Syria’s role as a dominant force in Middle East affairs.” “As a matter of conviction and principle,” Assad explained to Jimmy Carter “no Arab leader could ever agree to give up any territory no matter how great his desire for peace.” (Paul C. Merkley, American Presidents, Religion, and Israel (Westport & London: Praeger, 2004), 76–78, 98–99.) Carter’s ineffably naïve judgment upon Assad, expressed for all the world to study today in the hour of that regime’s death-agony, conforms to the line proffered by the State Department since the Eisenhower years.
Every American President since Truman had longed to be remembered as the man who brought Peace to the Middle East. Translated into plain language, this meant causing all the Arab neighbours of Israel to recant their error in 1947–1948 of rejecting two-state future for what had been the Mandate of Palestine.
This dream appealed powerfully to Eisenhower and Kennedy; it appealed as the Holy Grail to Nixon. Each was confident that the United States, and the United States alone, had it in its power to persuade an Arab tyrant to come on board the Peace Process. That effort would require the studied determination not to believe what all Syrian governments had done and said out loud from 1948 forward. Assad himself, back in the days when he was Syria’s Minister of Defense Minister, summed up this determination in an address of 24 May 1966: “We shall never call for nor accept peace. We shall only accept war. We have resolved to drench this land with your blood. To oust you aggressors, to throw you into the sea.”
Syria had been Egypt’s principal ally in the aborted effort to drive the Jews into the sea in 1967. One of Syria’s innumerable coups was brought on by disappointment at this result; this was the coup that brought Hafez al-Assad into the office of President (1970.) Buoyed by the public acclaim that always followed his anti-Jewish tirades, and egged on by the Soviet Union’s confident new leader, Leonid Brezhnev, Assad in turn egged on Sadat – and the two started up the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Another bloodbath, another defeat of Arab armies, and more loss of Arab land.
Perversely, the top-level of Arabists in the State Department now began to argue that Syria’s loss of the Golan Heights provided the right incentive for serious diplomacy. Assad, a deep-thinking man (as Nixon and Carter discovered) would grasp the need to save face with his people by offering a Peace Treaty in exchange for recovery of the fertile and strategically valuable Golan.
For over forty years, Israel has been under pressure from American Presidents and Secretaries of State to seek the opportunity for closure with Syria that is obviously afforded by the unequal results of all those wars. In talks with Israeli leaders, and with the door closed, American diplomats have promoted the notion that Assads are at heart reformers – not like the others. They key is to understand that the Assad regime is only as authoritarian as it has to be to keep domestic peace while a longer-range plan of liberalizing of institutions is unfolding. This notion figures in the published references to Syria that we find in the Presidential memoirs of Nixon, Carter, and Clinton and is even more conspicuous in the memoirs of Secretaries Christopher, Baker and Albright.
It was all moonshine.
Over the last two decades Israeli leaders have been compelled by the absolute necessity of appearing to value the views of American Presidents and Secretaries of State to pretend an interest in such diplomacy. The successful outcome of the war to liberate Kuwait deluded G.H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker into believing that this was the one-in-a-lifetime moment when the Syrian dictator would see the virtue of securing peace with Israel. A beginning was attempted at the Madrid conference of 1991–1993, which opened (October 30, 1991) with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Syria’s Foreign Minister throwing insults at each other in full view of the television cameras. Ever since Madrid the State Department has been assuring Israel that Syria’s ostensibly adamant position is really meant to provide cover for a deep desire for frank discussion. Since then, Israel has been repeatedly cajoled into secret diplomacy with Damascus, without result. All such approaches, from Yitzhak Shamir to Binyamin Netanyahu, during the Presidencies of G.H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Barack Obama, have ended with the door slammed in Israel’s face and Israel blamed for failure to be pleasant to Assad. The memoirs of Jim Baker, Madelaine Albright and other lesser State Department figures consistently blame Israel for lack of progress.
Spring in Syria
Even as the first signs of “Spring” were appearing in Damascus, Secretary Clinton, in a statement of March 27, 2011, suggested her agreement with “many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months [and] have said they believe he[Bashir al-Assad] is a reformer.” This remark, said the American columnist, Charles Krauthammer, exposes “the moral bankruptcy and strategic incomprehensibility” of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
Krauthammer recalls the long history of this fantasy about the liberal heart beneath the tyrannical surface of the Assad regime, As for Bashir al-Assad,
It was hoped that President Assad would be a reformer when he inherited his father’s dictatorship a decade ago. Being a London-educated eye doctor, he received the full Yuri Andropov treatment — the assumption that having been exposed to Western ways, he’d been Westernized. Wrong….Bashar made promises of reform during the short-lived Arab Spring of 2005. The promises were broken” …. Sometimes you cover for a repressive ally because you need it for U.S. national security. Hence our muted words about Bahrain. Hence our slow response on Egypt. But there are rare times when strategic interest and moral imperative coincide completely. Syria is one such — a monstrous police state whose regime consistently works to thwart U.S. interests in the region. During the worst days of the Iraq war, this regime funneled terrorists into Iraq to fight U.S. troops and Iraqi allies. It is dripping with Lebanese blood as well, being behind the murder of independent journalists and democrats, including former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. This year, it helped topple the pro-Western government of Hariri’s son, Saad, and put Lebanon under the thumb of the virulently anti-Western Hezbollah. Syria is a partner in nuclear proliferation with North Korea. It is Iran’s agent and closest Arab ally, granting it an outlet on the Mediterranean (Charles Krauthammer, “Syria’s ‘reformer’,” Washington Post, March 31, 2011).
Now that the Obama regime has belatedly taken up its rightful place at the head of the anti-Assad chorous at the UN, Israel is surely free at last to give up the fool’s errand of “quiet diplomacy” with that regime. We should not assume that Syria will even have a government for some time. What we can safely assume is that any government that eventually emerges will not even pretend to be interested in diplomacy with the Zionist entity.
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