- The Cold War in the Middle East: Regional Conflict and the Superpowers, 1967–73
A challenge in teaching students today about the Middle East during the Cold War is to explain the complicated links between regional politics and superpower relations. One can go wrong in several ways: placing too much emphasis on the strings being pulled from Moscow or Washington, ascribing too much autonomy to regional actors, or ignoring domestic political factors that affect all decision-makers. This volume, skillfully edited by Nigel Ashton, is a welcome contribution to these debates, although the contributors at times disagree and leave a number of issues unsettled. Ashton portrays the links between regional politics and superpower relations as complex and unpredictable, which is probably about right but not necessarily very helpful for understanding specific cases. Fortunately, the individual chapters contain plenty of substantive material to satisfy the empirically minded reader, and they are of uniformly high quality.
I was impressed in most of these essays by the thorough use of recently released archival materials and, in some cases, of interviews as well. Unfortunately, we still do not have complete access to relevant documents, and by now the memories of those who lived through these events are not necessarily reliable. At some point researchers will obtain fuller information from Soviet, Arab, and Israeli archives. Even on the American side a bit more is still to be released. But the interpretive challenge will never be fully settled by documents and interviews alone.
After reading these unusually well-written essays, I found that most of my previous [End Page 159] understandings of these events remained essentially unchanged. Where I am most willing to cede ground to a new interpretation is on the issue of the “expulsion” of Soviet military advisers by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in mid-1972. Isabella Gilnor and Gideon Remez, as well as Dima Adamsky, convincingly show that the Soviet personnel who left Egypt were the combat troops that had come during the War of Attrition, not the advisers. The latter remained and were present at the time of the October 1973 war. This seems like a useful correction to conventional accounts, but it does not explain the intriguing evidence that the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev tried to warn Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger during the San Clemente Summit in mid-1973 that war was coming in the Middle East. It is also conceivable that Soviet leaders were trying to signal that war was coming when they began to remove dependents from Damascus in early October 1973.
Why both Israel and the United States missed the evidence that war was coming is still a bit of a puzzle, but both governments were captives of a mindset that led them to conclude that war could not happen as long as Israel had the upper hand militarily. That was certainly part of the problem, but I now think that the Israelis expected that their agent, Ashraf Marwan, would warn them if war really was imminent. He did, but his warnings were too late to be of use, and no one really seems to know which side he was working for. The fact that Marwan was given full honors in Egypt when he recently died suggests that he might never have been the double agent that the Israelis thought he was. We get glimpses in these essays of the role played by intelligence and agents, but there is doubtless more to be said on these topics.
Peter Hahn has carefully reviewed the American archival material and has some qualifications to offer to my “yellow light” hypothesis. I agree with him that Lyndon Johnson remained unenthusiastic about Israel’s steps to go to war. But I still believe that Johnson had reached the conclusion that he could do little to help, had no basis for telling the Israelis not to take action, and was not surprised when he learned on the morning of 5 June 1967 that war had broken out. Until a few years ago, I thought...