December 20, 2002
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 increasingly intemperate.
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 two conditions.
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 earlier.
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.