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The Soviet Scare – Cornerstone of American Partnerships

U.S. Presidencies and Strategic Relations in the Middle East

By Lilly O'Flaherty

President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, 1961. Credit: AP


When analyzing the early stages of U.S-Israel relations, we need a historical lens to unpack this dynamic friendship. From presidential approaches, unpredictable regional conflict, intimate bureaucratic ties, and arms supplies to domestic politics and active war in Vietnam, many authors have contributed to the conversation. Each provide their own manifold analysis, alluding to the inconsistency of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Retracing the major milestones, Quandt (2005), Little (1993), and Kochavi (2008), add their interpretations to this collection of ‘special relationship’ discourse. Reflecting on their scholarship, I posit that the ‘special relationship’ maintained by the U.S. and Israel can most effectively be described as a strategic partnership concerning the longstanding U.S. sentiment to combat Soviet influence. According to Kochavi, this may be an oversimplification, using Nixon’s presidency to expose the pitfalls of available literature. Suggesting that a strategic partnership argument is otherwise insufficient, Kochavi addresses how long-term consequences significantly resulted from domestic distractions and raging war in Southeast Asia. True, the salient factors of U.S.-Israel relations throughout Nixon’s time were undeniably associated with securing political legitimacy at home. Nonetheless, American efforts to delegitimize Soviet power in the Middle East was a consideration that found its way into every presidential attempt at a ‘special relationship.’ Investigating U.S.-Israel relations through an analysis of presidential approaches, we cannot underplay the impact of our communist opponent.

Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Suez

From Little, it is understood how two key American presidents formulated an Israel policy concerned with long-term international consequences and global stability. Peering through the Cold War prism, President Kennedy subscribed to the fears of nuclear proliferation. Eisenhower, Kennedy’s predecessor, was initially uncertain about the urgency of consolidating Israeli support. Secretary of State Dulles, alongside Eisenhower, saw an opportunity to use Israel as a counterbalance against Soviet dominance in the Arab world, though both were minimally passionate about a Jewish homeland.

These leaders were constantly provoked by the heightening of Russian support for Arab nationalism. In observance of all three scholars, one must also emphasize how insecurity has guided U.S.-Israeli correspondence in regard to Soviet threats. Built on ultimatums and arms deals, the Suez Crisis was an era of disorder. It was such events between 1956-1957 that transcended an American strategic partnership in the Middle East. Essentially, as the U.S. urged Israel to evacuate Egyptian territory, Israeli leadership grew eager to reinforce their objectives, doing so in the context of an underlying ideological war between superpowers. Israel and the U.S. used one another to satisfy national interests despite regional turmoil. Little effectively attributes Washington’s recognition of a shared desire to contain radical Arab nationalism to a trending American fear of growing Russian influence (Little, 564). According to the framework of an emerging U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership, it was during the Eisenhower administration that Dulles warned the Senate about a weak American presence in the region and the ‘curtains’ coming for Israel (Little, 564). Since the mechanisms for escalation and retaliation rested in the hands of irreconcilable superpowers, these conditions consequently shaped U.S.-Israeli relations.

With Israel’s eventual withdrawal from Egyptian territory in the Suez, prior Soviet threats had certainly brought both Israel and the U.S. to a crossroads. The USSR would deploy any means necessary to remove Israel, hinting at a potential turn towards nuclear warfare. Naturally, this drove the U.S. to press for Israel’s surrender; the Eisenhower administration grew restless as France and Britain worsened tensions. Unfortunately, even after Israel relinquished canal territory, 1957 would not mark the end of power instability throughout the Middle East. Yes, Israel experienced a relatively peaceful decade until 1967, but couldn’t turn a blind eye to lingering Arab radicalism. Seizing Syria, Arab control alerted the U.S. and Israel, with radical officers pressing for ties with Moscow (Little, 565). As Little presents, a pro-Soviet campaign in Damascus could be detrimental not be worse for Washington. Fearing the backlash of Israeli intervention, President Eisenhower put forth what would become a default mechanism for the de-escalation of Israeli constraints.

Always attune to abiding Soviet aggression, the U.S. responded with a minor load of military equipment and reminded the Soviet Union of America’s commitment to maintaining the “independence and integrity of all states in the Near East, including Israel” (Little, 565). Again, in the framework of Soviet deterrence, Little provides a relevant example to demonstrate both American and Israeli attempts at salvaging common interests – American influence in exchange for military hardware. By 1960, there were complications with the threat of Israeli nuclear reactors and French aid. Eisenhower and Ben Gurion were at odds, and the U.S. was unconvinced that operations were geared towards peace. Left to an office under nuclear pressures, Kennedy tailored his Israel approach accordingly. He became the poster child for crafting foreign policy through the prism of the Cold War, and, in this context, faced critical decisions to maintain a strategic partnership with Israel. The sale of HAWK missiles is possibly the most significant in light of Kennedy’s proliferation focus. Ultimately, Little’s interpretation of Kennedy-Kremlin politics predominantly influenced how I understood the making of a special relationship.

The Johnson Years

Investigating the Johnson (LBJ) presidency, Quandt presents a detailed review of decision-making processes amidst crisis in the late 1960’s. Unlike Kennedy, LBJ was not entirely concerned with nuclear power, though he enhanced Kennedy’s initiative for a stronger U.S.-Israeli friendship. It was the Six-Day War that would soon situate the president’s response in the context of Soviet strategy. The taunting of Johnson’s yellow light was powerful, and a typical example of American promises left open for interpretation. Considering the U.S. to be unopposed, Israel took it as ammunition to retaliate against Arab violence. With rising tension, avoiding Soviet intervention remained a priority. LBJ’s squabbles with the cease-fire agreement are comparable to events highlighted in Eisenhower’s second term. Arab radicalism post-Suez Crisis, as outlined by Little, nearly mimics Quandt’s analysis of June 1967. Skeptical of Soviet intentions, both Eisenhower and Johnson cautiously provided support, careful of how it was framed. After all, 1967 was an Israeli victory, but as Quandt proposes, Johnson’s approach towards Israel was majorly attentive to Soviet behavior (Quandt, 44). The same goal to undermine Russian aggression can be identified between the U.S. persuasion of Israel to withdraw from the Suez in early 1957 and Johnson’s efforts to inform the USSR of Israel's plans for peace in June 1967. Like his predecessors, LBJ was sensitive to Soviet exploitation of Arab nationalism, threatening regional Western influence (Quandt, 24). Engaging with Quandt’s LBJ analysis in Chapter 2, I feel that drawing these connections strengthens the argument on how the ‘special relationship’ was customary to an anti-Soviet agenda.

The Nixon Age

An analysis of the ‘special relationship’ would be incomplete without reference to Nixon’s strategic interests. With his Machiavellian nature and strong anti-communist campaign, the president had a rather contradictory position towards Israel and the greater Jewish community. Following suit with his predecessors, Nixon subscribed to impartiality, likewise concerned with the implications of Soviet advantage. Overall, his shift to Israel was dominated by bureaucratic politics, personal connections overseas, and domestic pressures. The literature significantly emphasizes Nixon’s central view of Israel as a tool against Arab violence and Soviet monopoly. We know from Quandt primarily, how a Nixon-Kissinger relationship was based on confronting the Soviets. They even went so far as to consider cooperation; a renewed partnership could prove effective for matters of global security (Quandt, 58). Understanding both Little and Quandt’s take on presidential strategy in the Middle East, I feel Kochavi’s rendition of Nixon’s Israel approach is too critical of the ‘special relationship’ discourse. He condemns the traditional ‘honeymoon’ analysis of the 1970s, unwilling to account Nixon and Kissinger’s shift as a guiding effort to maintain unilateral advantage (Kochavi, 451). Kochavi directly questions Quandt’s inability to deliver a complete analysis of Nixon’s role during the early developments of U.S.-Israel policy. According to my reflection, however, Kochavi’s recognition of Soviet impact should still be referenced. Despite efforts to debunk cliché interpretations of the strategic partnership, I agree with his claim on Israeli loyally considering USSR restraints on America’s regional foothold. Though I am less inclined to place the Nixon approach more in the framework of domestic political opposition, Kochavi has a distinctive perspective on Soviet influence as superpowers collided and word spread through the Washington-Jerusalem channel.

Closing Remarks

Like many instances of U.S. foreign policymaking, our position on Israel was characterized by a tenacious battle, pinning independence against influence. Being a student in Eastern European studies, I recognize my bias in presenting a review of ‘special relationship’ analyses through the Cold War lens. Even still, available literature is persuasive in an attempt to draw on these observations. Washington’s desire to act as a legitimate player in Middle Eastern politics was driven by a trademark American obligation to suppress communist ideology. The formation of a U.S.-Israeli alliance was no stranger to these motives. Evidently, the Soviet scare undercut every outstanding presidential approach for consolidating a mutually favorable relationship with a country grappling for sovereignty.

Lilly O’Flaherty is a Russian Studies and International Relations senior at American University, graduating May 2023. She is also a member of the American University Honors Program. In addition to her formal curriculum, Ms. O’Flaherty is the founding president of the university’s Student Association for Slavic Studies. This past summer, she was a Development Intern at the American Enterprise Institute, learning how a public policy think tank operates. Ms. O’Flaherty also worked as a Research Assistant to Dr. Vladimir Goldstein, Chair of Brown University’s Slavic Department; in this role, she researched contemporary issues in Russia. Currently, she is a Public Diplomacy intern with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Belarus Affairs Unit. Prior to her college career, she trained professionally in ballet, and was invited to study for two years with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Russia. This overseas experience gave her a strong foundation in the Russian language. Post-graduation, Ms. O’Flaherty hopes to pursue a career with the State Department or be awarded a Fulbright grant.

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