Among those diplomats and journalists who don’t simply blame the Arab-Israeli conflict entirely on Israel, the preferred approach is “evenhandedness.” This approach, epitomized by the “cycle of violence” cliché, holds that both sides want peace and are equally to blame for its absence. Remarkably, this view has persisted despite decades of proving wrong in ways that hurt the very countries which espouse it – as demonstrated yet again by newly released documents from the Nixon Administration.
The documents, which Amir Oren reported this week in Haaretz, include redacted versions of the CIA’s daily presidential briefings on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The agency’s cluelessness is mind-blowing.
On October 5, 1973, one day before the war began, the CIA acknowledged that “The military exercises underway in Egypt seem to be on a larger scale and are being conducted more realistically than previous ones,” but nevertheless insisted that “they do not appear to be preparations for an offensive against Israel.” The agency even dismissed an obvious danger sign as a reasonable response to fears of Israeli aggression: “Cairo may have put its air defense and air forces on alert as a precaution against an Israeli reaction to the initial phase of the exercise.”
On October 6, just hours before the war began, the CIA’s briefing was similarly disconnected from reality:
Tension along Israel’s borders with Egypt and Syria has been heightened by a Soviet airlift that is in its second day. Neither the Israelis nor the Arabs seem bent on starting hostilities, but in this atmosphere the risk of clashes is greater than usual. … Both the Israelis and the Arabs are becoming increasingly concerned about their adversaries’ military activities, but neither side seems bent on starting hostilities … A military initiative at this time would make little sense for either Cairo or Damascus.
Once again, the agency seemed to view potential Israeli aggression as the main concern: “Syria’s cautious President [Hafez] Assad appears braced for a possible second blow from Israel rather than seeking revenge for his recent loss of 13 MIGs to Israeli fighters … Nevertheless, the Syrians’ fears could lead to a mobilization of their defenses, which in turn could alarm and galvanize the Israelis. Such a cycle of action and reaction would increase the risk of military clashes which neither side originally intended.”
And once again, it ignored clear danger signs, like the evacuation of Soviet dependents from Egypt and Syria. While admitting that this could be due to “fear of an outbreak of hostilities,” it optimistically suggested that instead, “The Soviets might be using the excuse of rising tensions to reduce their presence without annoying the Egyptians.”
What actually happened on October 6 is history: Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated assault on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. This had serious consequences for America, which I’ll get to shortly. But first, consider the question of why the CIA was so oblivious to the danger signs.
This can’t be attributed solely to its lack of good intelligence sources in Cairo and Damascus, though that lack is evident. First, as Oren noted, America had already received warning from someone with excellent sources in both capitals: King Hussein of Jordan. On September 25, Hussein took the extraordinary step of meeting with Israel’s prime minister, despite the countries’ lack of formal diplomatic ties, to warn that Syria and Egypt would soon attack. Israel relayed this to the White House, which informed the CIA.
Moreover, though the CIA asserted on October 5 that “the Israelis are not nervous” about the Egyptian exercise, on October 6, it acknowledged that the Israelis were now very nervous; they no longer viewed Egypt’s activity as “normal” and Syria’s activity as “defensive.” Since Israel had fought three wars with Syria and Egypt in the past 25 years and monitored its neighbors’ military activity very closely, the fact that Israel now deemed the Egyptian-Syrian activity unusual and worrying was an obvious danger sign, especially against the background of Hussein’s warning. Yet the CIA dismissed it as unimportant, blithely reiterating that “neither side” wanted hostilities and that its main concern was any Israeli move which could provoke “a cycle of action and reaction.”
The only explanation that makes sense is the one that emerges clearly from the briefings’ language: The CIA was so committed to its “evenhanded” approach, in which “neither side” wanted war, that it ignored all evidence to the contrary. Yet in reality, only one side wanted to avoid war. The other side, Syria and Egypt, was in fact “bent on starting hostilities.”
This ideological blindness ended up hurting not just Israel, but also America. Because the CIA insisted that neither side wanted war, and that the real danger was Israeli action, which could provoke a Syrian/Egyptian response, Washington exerted heavy pressure on Israel to refrain not just from launching a preemptive strike, but also even from a large-scale call-up of the reserves. This pressure might have been less effective had Israel’s own intelligence agencies not also blundered, but it nevertheless contributed to the final result: Israel ended up absorbing a two-front attack from two much larger armies without adequate forces in place to meet it. Consequently, it suffered a rout during the first few days and had insufficient weaponry left to launch a counteroffensive.
This was the height of the Cold War, and an American client was already losing to Communist forces in Vietnam; Washington couldn’t afford to have an American client lose to two Soviet clients in the Mideast as well. So Nixon ordered a massive airlift of arms, which enabled Israel to win a decisive victory.
But the airlift had two pernicious consequences. First, it inflamed tensions with America’s European allies, since European countries categorically refused to let the U.S. planes land and refuel (Portugal eventually capitulated to American pressure and permitted refueling in the Azores Islands). More importantly, it inflamed the Arab world, which responded with an oil embargo that inflicted major damage on the U.S. economy.
The oil embargo probably wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the airlift. The airlift might have been unnecessary had Washington not pressured Israel before the war to refrain from steps that could have helped it win quickly, like a preemptive strike or an earlier call-up of the reserves. And Washington might not have pressured Israel in this fashion had it actually understood that Syria and Egypt were “bent on starting hostilities.” But the CIA, stuck in its “evenhanded” mindset, provided policy makers with egregiously incorrect assessments. And America paid the price.
Forty-three years later, it seems the lessons still haven’t been learned. The Palestinians and Hezbollah have replaced Cairo and Damascus as Israel’s main Arab enemies (Iran is non-Arab), but the world still prates about the “cycle of violence” and insists that “neither side” wants war, no matter how many times the Arabs say otherwise. And Western countries are still suffering from their own cluelessness about the conflict’s real nature.
Originally published in Commentary on September 2, 2016