BY: SHAAN FYE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
As America grappled with its foreign policy in the Middle East under President Johnson in the early 1960s, its attempted three-pronged approach shifted in the aftermath of the Six Day War. While “carrying water on both shoulders” was originally seen as a way of preventing the USSR from picking up America’s losses, as demonstrated by the dual-sale of weapons to both Jordan and Israel, the Six Day War moved America’s strategy more toward countering the anti-Western regimes that had forged close relationships with the Soviets. In essence, the three-pronged approach shifted in importance from the third prong to the first. Israel’s complete victory over its Soviet-backed enemies presented an advantageous situation for the United States to shift its foreign policy strategy to supporting the more Western, dominating power in the region. The U.S. didn’t go into the 1960s with this strategy, but as the war and its aftermath played out, the combination of Arab animosity, Soviet overtures, and Israeli victory drew the U.S. into the Israeli camp, commencing the special U.S.-Israeli relationship that exists to this day.
America’s approach to the conflict in the Middle East first evolved as a result of the progression of the Six Day War itself and the Soviet reaction to its development. The removal of UNEF forces from Sinai and the quick closure of the Straits of Tiran by Nasser painted a clear picture—Egypt was neither America’s ally nor friend. The strategy of maintaining an even hand when approaching Middle Eastern powers had fallen apart as the Arab coalition received increased military support from the Soviet Union. In fact, the Egyptian occupation of Sinai was launched after the Soviets relayed false news that Israel had amassed troops on Syria’s border. Still, even after the clear division of client-states had taken place, Johnson was hesitant to unconditionally support the Israelis. As the fledgling Jewish state sought American support, Johnson bluntly communicated to Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban that “all of our intelligence people are unanimous that if the UAR attacks, you will whip hell out of them.” He also told Israel that the United States would not publicly support any action against the Arab states. Just a week later, as Israel dominated the surrounding Arab states, the Soviets communicated to the U.S. over the Hot Line between the two countries that there would be a “grave catastrophe” and that “necessary actions . . . including military” would be taken if the Israelis did not halt their advance across the Golan Heights. Receiving this message solidified that “the two superpowers had again squared off,” according to Richard Helms, the Director of the CIA at the time. In a display of solidarity with Israel, Johnson decided to send the Sixth Fleet toward the region, knowing that the Soviets would realize that the U.S. was prepared to defend Israel. The Soviets backed down, agreeing to a UN Security Council ceasefire. Tellingly, the USSR severed relations with Israel, again contributing to the growing concept of this conflict being a long-term proxy fight, even at the initial battle’s conclusion. Johnson remarked on June 14 that “the Russians had lost their shirts in the Middle East war.” Even if ardently defending Israel was not in line with the third prong of the original approach, initial Arab antipathy along with indirect Soviet bellicosity gave the U.S. no choice but to take the ally that was waiting to be courted.
While the outcome of the war and clear Soviet side-taking tilted America’s foreign policy toward Israel, the Arab response to the humiliating defeat sealed the deal. While Nasser had been issuing anti-US propaganda before the war, the loss of land to Israel provoked him and his fellow UAR leaders to take even more of an anti-Western stance. The Arab governments attempted to blame the United States for the Israeli victories as evidenced by the intercepted call between Nasser and Jordanian King Hussein, in which Nasser said that he would instruct media to report that Western aircraft carriers were taking part in the battle. In the months following the war, Egyptian media continuously alluded to Britain and American support of Israel’s military, even as Nasser said his public claims were false to other leaders at the Khartoum meeting. While the alleged involvement by Western powers could have been seen as an attempt to get the Soviets more heavily involved in supporting the Arabs, it was also a way of exculpating Arab leaders from blame. According to a British telegram sent from the Middle East, “The Arabs’ reluctance to disbelieve all versions of the big lie springs in part from a need to believe that the Israelis could not have defeated them so thoroughly without outside assistance.” In a 1967 memorandum by the National Security Council, the U.S. realizes that “in short we have chosen sides – not with the constructive Arabs and Israel but with Israel alone against all the Arabs.” The cumulative effect of the anti-Western stance and the Khartoum resolution, which refused to negotiate or recognize Israel, left America in the position where vehemently supporting the Jewish state was the best option for regional foreign policy going forward.
The Six Day War was a test of U.S. dexterity in its foreign policy, as the conflict quickly became yet another proxy battlefront in the Cold War. While the three-pronged approach to the Middle East was a noble attempt at avoiding this exact scenario, the U.S. realized that the best course of action would be to support Israel. As the special relationship took root, the seeds of anti-American extremist Islam also captivated the youth in Arab countries.
Let Shaan know your thoughts in the comments section below.