Politics & Policy

How We Used to Do It

American diplomacy in the Yom Kippur War.

Israel’s dashing victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 left it in control of the Sinai Peninsula and the Palestinian territories. It also lured the Jewish state into a dangerously self-satisfied complacency. On September 26, 1973, the Jerusalem Post proclaimed in an editorial, “There was never a period in which our security situation seemed as good as now.” Not even a large build-up of Egyptian and Syrian forces could shake Israel out of its torpor. On October 5, Israeli intelligence rated the possibility of war as “lowest of the low.” 

The next day, on Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked from the west and northeast. Israel was taken totally by surprise. Now well trained and superbly well armed with the latest Soviet weapons, the Egyptian army executed a brilliant crossing of the Suez Canal and quickly threw Israel’s front-line units into disarray, while the Syrians were soon mauling Israeli forces with wave after wave of tanks.


When the Israeli counterattack in the Sinai finally materialized on the third day of the war, it promptly ran into a withering barrage of Soviet-supplied anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Israel’s losses of tanks and planes were so severe that the counterattack had to be called off, and the government desperately appealed to the Nixon administration for help.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Yossi Klein Halevi argues that Prime Minister Golda Meir chose not to launch a preemptive strike against the Arab states, though she had several hours’ warning of the impending attack, because she was afraid of the U.S. reaction. But Israel almost certainly did not have that option. It had not yet mobilized, as before the 1967 war, and its front-line units proved too weak to defend themselves, much less conduct a preemptive strike that would only have run into the same barrage of antitank and antiaircraft missiles that blunted its counterattack of the third day.  

In any case, it would have been eminently sensible to worry about the American reaction. Egypt had not been threatening to annihilate Israel as in 1967, or as Iran has been doing for years. A preemptive Israeli strike would have been portrayed as an act of unprovoked aggression. This would have pushed the chance for a durable peace between Israel and Egypt even further away than it was already.

The Yom Kippur War presented the United States with a major foreign-policy crisis, carrying with it the potential for armed conflict with the Soviet Union. The Soviets’ position in the Middle East had been growing steadily stronger for years while America was paralyzed by the war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Americans had spent the summer of 1973 transfixed by the Watergate hearings. The Yom Kippur War broke just as the Nixon administration was starting to fall apart.

Onto this dramatic stage stepped Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to deliver the masterpiece of his diplomatic career. Today, on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, that performance stands in painful contrast with the appalling incompetence of President Obama’s Middle East policy, through which, one blunder after another, he is unraveling virtually all of what American diplomacy achieved then.

Egypt’s new leader, Anwar Sadat, was bent on recovering the Sinai Peninsula and eager for America to push Israel to the negotiating table even as he prepared for war. Sadat later told Kissinger, “You didn’t pay attention to me, and this was the result.” To gain maximum freedom of maneuver, Sadat had expelled Soviet advisers from Egypt, but he remained dependent on the Soviet Union for weapons and was still, to all appearances, a Soviet client.

 And yet Sadat had already decided to throw his lot in with the Americans, who, he realized, alone could deliver peace between his country and Israel. His motives for attacking Israel were more complex than he let on. Sadat appears to have understood all along that he could not win back the Sinai through force of arms alone. His primary purpose was political, not military. By 1973, he had come to believe that the diplomatic impasse over the return of the Sinai could be broken only by war.

Sadat also knew that compromise with Israel would be almost impossible as long as Egypt’s humiliation of 1967 hung in the air. Kissinger understood that as well. He believed that America had to ensure an Israeli victory but that the victory should stop short of humiliating the Arabs to that degree again. Charting a middle course would require deft diplomacy. 

Once the fighting started, the first order of business for the U.S. was to rearm the Israelis fast, but the airlift took a week to materialize. Though the delay was partly Kissinger’s fault, it proved salutary, at least on the diplomatic front. Because the Soviets began resupplying their Arab clients almost as soon as the shooting started, while the Americans dithered, the wily Kissinger was able to portray the U.S. airlift, once it began, as a reasonable response to Soviet provocation.

Diplomacy immediately focused on the terms of a cease-fire, which, given the Israelis’ frightening position after the first few days of war, they were only too happy to agree to. Sadat, however, rejected the proposal, his first major mistake. After blunting Israel’s initial counteroffensive, Egyptian forces went on the attack and fatefully pushed beyond the cover of their anti-aircraft-missile umbrella, his second mistake.

As the first week of war drew to a close, Israel’s mobilization was starting to produce large numbers of reinforcements, just as American weapons of every category started to arrive. The Israelis took just days to understand the new tactics of the Arab armies, and their countermeasures began tilting the casualty ratios dramatically in their favor. From this point forward, the Israelis prevailed in every engagement.

General Ariel Sharon, commanding a brigade in the center of Israel’s Sinai front, developed a bold plan for slicing through the seam between Egypt’s Second and Third Armies and then crossing to the west bank of the Suez Canal, well to the rear of Egypt’s army in Sinai. His attack was brilliantly successful; several brigades crossed the Suez Canal in short order and wheeled south, on the way to surrounding Egypt’s Third Army in a mirror image of Napoleon’s amazing counterattack during the battle of Austerlitz. In a matter of days, Egypt was on the precipice of total defeat. By this point, Israeli forces were also smashing the Syrian army to bits hundreds of miles to the northeast. 

The Soviets now realized that their Arab clients were in serious trouble, and that disaster loomed for themselves as well. After the Israeli breakthrough, Sadat agreed to a cease-fire and asked U.S. and Soviet troops to enforce it. The U.S. had no interest in a joint mission with the Soviets, but Brezhnev warned that he would send Soviet forces to Egypt unilaterally if the Americans didn’t join him. Kissinger was adamant that any such move be met with American force. The Nixon administration quietly put U.S. nuclear forces on worldwide alert. It was a powerful shot across the bow, and it clearly rattled the Soviets, who promptly backed down.

Trying one last time to snatch victory from the impending disaster, the Soviets agreed to impose a cease-fire on their clients if Israel agreed to return the land it took in 1967. To Kissinger, this proposal was “preposterous.” If the cease-fire depended on a comprehensive settlement, the war would continue.

The momentum was now shifting irrevocably in Israel’s favor, which presented new challenges for U.S. diplomacy. The Israelis seemed determined to complete the encirclement of the Third Army, and could hardly contain the desire to avenge the thousands of young Israelis who had fallen in two weeks of war. Kissinger realized that the Israelis’ determination would ruin the chance for a durable peace, mire post-war diplomacy in a new set of grievances, and likely cost the U.S. support around the world.

Kissinger flew to Moscow to negotiate the terms of the cease-fire that the superpowers now expected to impose on the combatants through a U.N. Security Council resolution. By now the Soviet position was eroding fast, along with that of its Arab clients, and Kissinger’s stalling tactics soon led them to abandon their demands for a comprehensive settlement. They agreed to the U.S. proposal for a cease-fire “in place,” with a vague allusion to the land-for-peace formula, and agreement by all parties concerned (chiefly the Arab states) to engage in a post-war conference. America’s preferred text was adopted as U.N. Security Council Resolution 338 on October 22.

The Israelis were initially furious, but the government of Golda Meir soon accepted the resolution, though in the Israeli press it was pilloried as a Soviet–American “diktat.” Abba Eban, then Israel’s foreign minister, explained the government’s thinking: “Perhaps the ambivalence of the military result would be more conducive to a negotiated peace than if we were to trample the Egyptians into the dust.”

After the cease-fire, Kissinger embarked on his famous tour of “shuttle diplomacy,” to negotiate the details of a significant disengagement of Israeli forces from the front lines. An international conference was convened by the superpowers in Geneva in December, but this was a smokescreen. Kissinger intended to exclude the Soviets from a meaningful role in the post-war diplomacy and set to work negotiating bilateral agreements in which the U.S. would be the sole mediator between Israel and its enemies. The only purpose of the conference was to establish the precedent of Arab governments’ talking directly with Israel, thereby ending the Arab states’ refusal to negotiate after 1967. The conference accomplished nothing else. The foundation was now set for the historic Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and President Jimmy Carter would put the finishing touch on the process that Kissinger and Sadat had set in motion.

Egypt and Syria had been defeated, but a measure of honor had been restored to Arab arms, and the mood in Israel was anything but jubilant. For the Soviets, on the other hand, the Yom Kippur War ended in total humiliation. As Peter Rodman recounts in More Precious than Peace, the Syrians now held the Soviet Union in the deepest contempt, for enticing them to war and then caving in to the Americans. When Sadat reopened the Suez Canal in 1975, he insisted that an American aircraft carrier lead the first ceremonial convoy through it, rubbing the Soviets’ noses in America’s ascendancy. The Soviets would never again play more than a marginal role in the Middle East.

Though it never fired a shot, the real victor of the Yom Kippur War was the United States. The U.S. became entrenched as the dominant stabilizing force in the region. “Paradoxically enough,” Chaim Herzog recalls in The War of Atonement, “the courageous and unequivocal American stand in favour of Israel gave the United States a standing in the Arab world such as it had not known before, and showed the countries of Western Europe in their craven and abject surrender to the Arab sheiks to be the weak, leaderless and divided community that they are.”

“Weak, leaderless, and divided” is an apt description of America’s role in the Middle East today. Where America won the respect of all sides by firmly supporting its allies, Obama is losing the respect of all sides by wavering in his support for Egypt, Israel, and Iraq. Where America diminished Russia, Obama has gratuitously enhanced its power. Where America assumed a role of paramount influence in the Middle East, Obama is abandoning it. Where the U.S. pursued maximalist goals with determination, and achieved them, Obama fails to deliver even on his own modest goals. 

Obama’s disastrous Syria policy is a microcosm of these failures. When Bashar Assad’s regime attacked the outskirts of Damascus with sarin gas, killing more than a thousand civilians, Obama proposed military strikes that would be carefully designed not to advance any strategic interest of the United States, not even to push Assad to the negotiating table. Instead the strikes would be designed to “send a message” about the importance of the “international norm” against the use of chemical weapons.

When Secretary of State John Kerry later foolishly intoned that Syria could avoid strikes by putting its chemical-weapons arsenal under international control, the Russians pounced, luring the U.S. into a plan that would give the previously marginalized Kremlin a central role in managing Syria’s civil dispute. Obama’s failure to deliver on his clear word to act if a red line was crossed has brought American credibility to its lowest point since before the Yom Kippur War.

Syria has now dispersed its chemical weapons to some 50 locations throughout the country, making a mockery of Obama’s tough talk. Assad’s recent disclosure of his chemical-weapons stocks may be in substantial compliance with the U.S.–Russian agreement — it will be impossible to know for some time, if ever — but the agreement appears to legitimize his rule generally as long as he appears to try to comply with it. The implication is that force will be off the table in the meantime, something that was not clear before. Obama’s reaction has turned Assad’s use of chemical weapons into a huge success for the regime, and a disaster for the rebels.

One is tempted to chalk Obama’s Middle East policy up to incompetence, but there may be a deeper explanation. Virtually every American president from George Washington to George W. Bush has believed that American influence is a force for good in the world. But Barack Obama appears to believe that American influence is intrinsically bad. That may be the real reason Obama is now frittering away the legacy of America’s brilliant diplomacy of the Yom Kippur War. 

— Mario Loyola is a former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee. This article was adapted from the October 14 issue of National Review.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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