[Nasional-e] If Arabs mistrust America, there's good reason
Thu Dec 19 04:00:16 2002
If Arabs mistrust America, there's good reason
Raymond Close IHT Thursday, December 19, 2002
Nixon and Faisal
WASHINGTON People who don't know the Middle East sometimes wonder why Arabs
mistrust the United States. Perhaps an old story - from another time when
people were worried about war and oil prices - will explain some of what
motivates the Arabs now.
In January 1974, President Richard Nixon's back was to the wall. Watergate
was only the most prominent of his troubles. The continuation of the OPEC
oil embargo, and the economic consequences of that situation, were a major
frustration and embarrassment. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
were looking impotent before the world and before the American people.
In late December 1973, there had been a meeting of Arab oil ministers in
Kuwait at which they had reached a decision that lifting of the oil embargo
should be accomplished in stages directly linked to commensurate steps
toward "full implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution
242," which called for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands in exchange
for full Arab acceptance of Israel.
Kissinger was furious, seeing this as another instance of intolerable Arab
"blackmail." A month of nasty bickering ensued, with Kissinger growing
Despite efforts by all the Arab leaders to find a compromise solution that
would placate Kissinger, the Saudis, Egyptians and Kuwaitis remained in
agreement on one crucial point of principle: No linkage to Resolution 242
meant no lifting of the embargo. The U.S. president had repeatedly promised
full implementation of the resolution, and his secretary of state should be
expected to honor that commitment.
On Jan. 25, Nixon sent another in a series of personal letters to King
Faisal, in which he made this crucial statement: "In earlier messages to
Your Majesty I have said that events have proven the wisdom of your counsel
over the years. My Government is now embarked upon and committed to a course
of action that can, I am convinced, bring a just and durable peace to the
Middle East. The first fruits of that commitment are reflected in the
agreement on the disengagement of forces signed last Friday, under which
Israel forces will withdraw into Sinai as a first step toward a final
settlement in accordance with Security Council Resolutions 338 and 242."
On Jan. 28, as the CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, I received an urgent
privacy-channel message from Kissinger explaining in confidence that Nixon
was becoming desperate. Would it be possible, Kissinger asked with
extravagant politesse, to obtain King Faisal's permission for the president
to announce to the American people in his State of the Union address two
days later that the oil embargo would soon be lifted?
I met that night with two of King Faisal's sons, Saud, now foreign minister,
and Turki, newly appointed ambassador to Britain. After lengthy consultation
with their father, they agreed that I could convey King Faisal's approval on
First, Nixon would be welcome to announce in his speech that he had received
assurances from "friendly leaders" in the Middle East that an urgent meeting
would be called to discuss lifting of the embargo.
Second, the president's announcement should include unequivocal linkage to
full implementation of a Middle East peace settlement based on Resolution
242. The explicit enjoinder conveyed by King Faisal was that Nixon should
employ in his State of the Union speech precisely the same phraseology that
he had used in his personal letter to Faisal just three days before: that
the recent disengagement in Sinai was only the "first step" toward full
implementation of resolutions 242 and 338.
I conveyed the Saudis' insistence that the key words "first step" be
included in the speech. This specific prearranged signal would confirm and
validate the public commitment of the president of the United States to
follow through on his repeated private promises to King Faisal to put the
full energies of the U.S. government behind the achievement of a just and
lasting peace for the Palestinians.
I clearly recall an observation made that evening by Prince Turki, a young
man of 27 at the time. He remarked that by asking the U.S. president to
employ the same words that he himself had just written in a personal letter
to a fellow head of state, we could be confident that no one, not even Henry
Kissinger, would dare to portray the request as an unreasonable "demand" on
the part of the Saudi king.
Two days later, Nixon declared the following before a joint session of
Congress: "Let me begin by reporting a new development which I know will be
welcome news to every American. As you know, we have committed ourselves to
an active role in helping to achieve a just and durable peace in the Middle
East, on the basis of full implementation of Security Council resolutions
242 and 338. The first step in the process is the disengagement of Egyptian
and Israeli forces which is now taking place."
"Because of this hopeful development," Nixon continued, "I can announce
tonight that I have been assured, through my personal contacts with friendly
leaders in the Middle Eastern area, that an urgent meeting will be called in
the immediate future to discuss the lifting of the oil embargo. This is an
encouraging sign. However, it should be clearly understood by our friends in
the Middle East that the United States will not be coerced on this issue."
It seemed that Nixon, with Kissinger at his elbow, could not bring himself
to honor the true spirit of the agreement. That last sentence, containing a
veiled but unmistakable threat, probably reflected the resentment that
Kissinger felt at having been outmaneuvered. Certainly in Arab eyes, Nixon's
choice of those words seemed to deprive the statement of sincerity and
credibility. After all, this tough talk was coming from a frightened and
insecure man who had been begging King Faisal for help just 48 hours
The writer, a CIA officer for 26 years, was the agency's chief of station in
Saudi Arabia from 1970 to 1977. He contributed this comment to the
International Herald Tribune.