Richard Nixon's Mideast Blunder
What Might Have Been if Nixon Had Supported His Secretary of State's Efforts to Secure Israel-Palestine Peace?
In her acclaimed new book, "Nixon and Mao," Margaret MacMillan reminds readers, quite accurately, that Richard Nixon's bold act of diplomacy in promoting the American opening to China in 1972 made the world a safer, more stable place. But, at the same time, readers reflect on Nixon's missed opportunity for boldness in the Middle East, which has left the world far more volatile and dangerous than it might have been.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tries to patch things up between Palestinians and Israelis in 2007, we forget that Nixon's first secretary of State, William P. Rogers, made a similar effort in the region. The situation was more fluid then. Though Israel's huge victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 had ripened local animosities, the occupied territories were still free of Israeli settlers.
Rogers' most formidable obstacle wasn't those belligerents, it was Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security advisor. The two saw the world differently. Rogers' concern was that the region was a powder keg for World War III. Kissinger saw it as an arena for defeating the Russians. And, of the two, Kissinger was the better political infighter.
The Rogers Plan was based on U.N. Resolution 242, which the U.S. had pushed through, establishing the land-for-peace principle. In 1969, Rogers declared: "To call for Israeli withdrawal as envisaged in the U.N. resolution without achieving agreement on peace would be partisan toward the Arabs. To accept peace without Israeli withdrawal would be partisan toward IsraelÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. Any changes in the pre-existing [border] lines should not reflect the weight of conquest [but] should be confined to insubstantial alterations required for mutual securityÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. Our policy is and will continue to be a balanced one."
But, in fact, the "balance" that Rogers proposed was not U.S. policy at all. Israel, claiming the right to design its own borders, was upset at Rogers' call for "insubstantial" territorial changes. Its politicians were also being pressured by right-wingers to allow the colonization of the conquered lands. Israel, calling the Rogers Plan appeasement, rejected it outright. Stubborn themselves, so did the Arab states. Rogers persisted but, under Kissinger's influence, Nixon declined to make the plan his own. Without presidential support, the Rogers Plan died.
It was not until after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, in which thousands of Israelis and Arabs died, that Kissinger embarked on his famous "shuttle diplomacy." He succeeded in persuading Israel to make territorial concessions to Syria and Egypt in return for U.S. arms shipments and financial aid. But he meekly caved in when Israel objected to similar concessions to Jordan in the West Bank — land coveted by Israeli settlers. Since then, half a million settlers have colonized the West Bank and the Jerusalem suburbs.
Although Kissinger understood the strategic value of Syria and Egypt, he dismissed the West Bank and its Palestinian inhabitants as inconsequential. In our own time, his misjudgment is reaffirmed almost daily in the bloodshed of Arab-Israeli warfare.
It is clear that in dealing with China and the Middle East, the major concern of Nixon and Kissinger was Soviet power. They made the Beijing overture only after they abandoned the long-held myth that Taiwan would one day reconquer the mainland. The United States continued to guarantee Taiwan's territorial integrity, but it profited from undermining China's relationship with the Soviet Union.
In the Middle East, however, Nixon and Kissinger pursued a very different course. Seeing Israel as an anti-Soviet asset, they made a military alliance with it, polarizing the region and sowing the seeds for the explosive divisions that jeopardize global security today.
Whether or not Secretary Rice knows it, she now walks in the haunted footsteps of her predecessor William Rogers. After years of near silence, she has made clear her conviction that the national interest requires Israeli-Arab peace. Like Rogers, she has been circuit-riding throughout the region to enlist support. At home, instead of Kissinger, Rice faces Vice President Dick Cheney and Elliot Abrams, deputy national security advisor — committed neocons who have the president's ear. As a result, the peace campaign on which she has embarked has emerged as her policy, not Bush's. Not only has the passage of time made her goal more elusive, the absence of presidential support means that, as with Rogers, she is freelancing without little prospect of success.
History cannot simply close its eyes to what might have been. In restoring relations with China, Nixon and Kissinger made a huge contribution to world peace. Had they made an equal effort in the Middle East, we might have been spared the nightmare through which we are living today.
Milton Viorst has covered the Middle East for 40 years. His most recent book is "Storm from the East: The Struggle between the Arab World and the Christian West."
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times