The Long Arm of the October War

tags: Israel, Egypt, October War, Yom Kippur War, Ramadan War

Kenneth Weisbrode is a writer and historian. His latest book is On Ambivalence: The Problems and Pleasures of Having It Both Ways (The MIT Press, 2012).

IDF soldiers in front of their Sherman tank during the October War.

“Maybe we will just be able to catch the last part of the tail of the détente.” -- Anwar Sadat

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the October War, also known as the Ramadan War and the Yom Kippur War, which took place during October 1973.

On the sixth day of that month, Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and Syrian troops entered the Golan Heights, surprising and overpowering the Israelis they encountered. About ten days later Israeli forces, helped by a large American airlift, had recovered their losses but not their prestige. Israel was no longer invincible or omniscient. Arab armies showed they could fight.

It was a curious war. Nearly everyone, apart from the Egyptians and Syrians who launched it, was caught by surprise. But many people had been warned: the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, had been hinting at it for some time, in rather blatant terms. The Jordanians and Saudis had done so, too. Leonid Brezhnev warned Richard Nixon -- albeit obliquely, and Nixon had neglected to pass along the word to the CIA. There was even a well placed Israeli spy in Egypt -- the son-in-law of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ashraf Marwan -- who gave a specific warning to the Mossad. The Israelis chose not to believe it.

Sadat, in Henry Kissinger’s words, had “paralyzed his opponents with their own preconceptions.” Like them, nearly everyone else, including the CIA’s analysts, regarded the warnings as another false alarm. The only Americans who apparently did not were a small group of officers in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The war plan had been written in great secrecy the previous August, although it had been in the works for some time, as had clashes around Suez since the end of the previous war. Once the war began, nearly everyone, again apart from the Egyptians and Syrians, was surprised by how successful the Arab armies had been. In one day the Egyptians secured control of the east bank of the Suez Canal after breaking defenses the Israelis claimed were impregnable; a little while later the Syrians had nearly reached the Jordan River.

The Americans were struck by this success. It was only then, Kissinger said, that he began to take Sadat seriously. Sadat passed a test; the Soviets failed one, for they did not turn the war to their advantage as the United States ultimately did. “The Arabs,” Mohamed Heikal has written, “were always insisting to the Soviet Union on their independence, while the Israelis preferred to emphasize to the Americans their close mutual dependence.” The putative clients had a veto over Soviet policy rather than the other way around. But it was hard to imagine a reason for the Soviets to want another war in the Middle East.

The third and biggest surprise of all, or at least the one of greatest potential consequence, was how easily the war escalated into what could have been a major superpower conflict. The war represented not only a failure of intelligence and warning but also of policy. The Soviet Union and the United States had long regarded the Middle East as off limits to direct conflict. Both had supported Israeli statehood in 1948; both had opposed the British, French and Israeli action at Suez; and both had tried, eventually, to end the war in 1967.

This time was different, almost. Both sides intervened to help their allies, and the United States raised its alert level to DEFCON III worldwide. It was done to impress the Soviets and it may or may not have done so. But it scared and angered others, not least several U.S. allies, which had not been told in advance. Had Brezhnev taken it seriously, the October War would be much better known today -- in infamy.

This was not the only near miss. The Israelis, we now know, had put their Jericho missiles on alert, very probably with nuclear warheads.

The three surprises raise some questions: why did the Arabs start this war? Why did Israel and its Western allies fail to see it coming? Why did the Israelis fight so badly at the start, and why did the Arabs succeed? Finally, why did the Soviet Union and the United States fail to stop the war from escalating to the point of jeopardizing their own security, not to mention a détente in which both had much invested?

The point of the questions is not merely historical. The October War brought about many things -- not only the Middle East “peace process,” which is still underway after many reversals, but also some less welcome results: the use of the “oil weapon” in the form of an embargo; the specter of Western division; and, more indirectly, a conservative, reactionary turn in the politics of the various regional powers which, by the end of the decade, became more sectarian in nature.

How much of this was foreseen by the war’s architect, Sadat? The answer to this lies in his appreciation of a special moment in the Cold War as much as it does in realities on the ground. Zbigniew Brzezinski later said that SALT was buried in the sands of the Ogaden, referring to the Soviet role in the crisis in the Horn of Africa in 1977. Détente was declared dead. But the case could be made that the October War marked the real turning point in this story. Sadat’s action showed that détente brought more liabilities than benefits, to him and perhaps to others. Why not call its bluff while he still could?

Whether this was his real aim is open to question. A superpower war did not result but Egyptians, Syrians and Israelis were not proxies in the usual sense. They called many of the shots which their backers reluctantly followed. “It is often said that the two sides in the Middle East conflict were caught in a vicelike grip of the two superpowers,” Yevgeny Primakov has written. “It was, however, the other way round.” When push really came to shove, the Egyptians and others were made to listen. But compliance was not automatic. This was their war.

Sadat’s Gaullist moment came when he expelled Soviet military advisers in July 1972, little more than a year after signing a friendship treaty with the USSR. Many people were surprised by the action; a few welcomed it. For his part, Sadat's motives at the time were obscure. He probably saw it as a tactical move to facilitate the war he had planned. In retrospect, however, it underpinned a transformation of the Soviet-Egyptian relationship. “We grossly underestimated Sadat,” recalled Kissinger:

[W]e treated Sadat’s threats to go to war unless there was diplomatic progress as so much operatic gesturing. Even his expulsion of Soviet advisers… was interpreted with not a little condescension as one more symptom of congenital petulance, since Sadat had not tried to obtain any reciprocal gesture from us. It never occurred to us that he might be clearing the decks for military action and wanted to remove what he considered to be the Soviet obstacle to it.

Rather than switching sides, however, the move, like the war itself, appeared designed to involve both superpowers, or at least one of them, more heavily in Middle Eastern politics, not least by scaring them into taking his cause more seriously. This was one aim. The other two were to reverse the humiliation of 1967 and to show that Israel was still vulnerable. Sadat gained all three, partially at least, as prelude to securing a stronger position from which to negotiate peace. That he did so without permanently humiliating either the Israelis or the Soviets -- as the first rapidly converted defeat into victory and the second maintained a limited presence, and liability, in the region -- is perhaps even more remarkable. The only significant loss in the war was to the cause of Arab unity. Relations between Egypt and Syria were strained by poorly coordinated offensives and military reversals that gave rise to claims of betrayal. The effects of the breach spread to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

The superpowers meanwhile would be hard pressed to recreate the moment of the early 1970s that produced SALT and the Berlin Treaty. There was only left the Helsinki Conference of 1975, which historians have labeled the high point of détente, but the planning and negotiations for this began well before the October War (in 1969). By 1973 they were too far gone to call off. Helsinki in essence was less about détente itself than about Ostpolitik -- a liberalization in Central and Eastern Europe -- in the guise of a geopolitical treatise that brought formal recognition of their postwar borders. By the end of the decade, the Helsinki Accords had become a weapon of the Cold War, which the Soviets were too late to recognize.

Raising the subject of Helsinki suggests a larger effect of the October War, in fact. For all that the United States and the USSR would go on to assist proxies and would-be proxies throughout the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no longer a question of any of these conflicts, including the long and bloody one in Afghanistan, leading to a direct superpower confrontation. The traditional date for the beginning of this aspect of détente is 1962 when both sides walked back from the brink over Cuba and vowed not to let it happen again. But the story shifts if we recognize that the Cuban missile crisis was part of a longstanding Berlin crisis, since it was with Berlin in mind that Khrushchev took his gamble. It was he who launched the crisis, not Castro. The resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, in other words, meant that a nuclear war was unlikely to be fought directly between the superpowers, starting anywhere in the world, but with Europe as the prize.

The October War presented a different proposition. For all that the Cold War had been “stabilized” by the mid-1960s at its European center, it continued in the guise of various hot wars elsewhere in the world. Most of these conflicts -- from Vietnam to Yemen -- were locally driven and had as much to do with intra-bloc politics (following the Sino-Soviet split) as with any grand contest of prestige between the East and the West. Nevertheless, there was an unwritten rule, which was that neither superpower would allow them to threaten their own armed peace. It was not quite the collusion that some people (including Sadat) charged but it was a restraining force nonetheless.

The October War threatened this understanding, probably for the last time. The superpowers faced being drawn into a 1914-style scenario which they could neither control nor escape. At least this is how it must have then appeared; more research may prove or disprove the hypothesis. For now it's reasonable to treat it seriously.

Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that the Americans sought to go even further than their DEFCON III alert. The man then serving as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Andrew Goodpaster -- who, incidentally, had been at Eisenhower’s side in the White House during the Suez crisis -- once said that it was the only time in his career he disobeyed a direct order. He did so in his capacity as the commander of U.S. European Command. Kissinger in his memoirs has cited a modest directive to delay the end of an annual NATO exercise, but Goodpaster recalled a much more dramatic escalation order, which the general (wearing his SACEUR hat) refused to obey without the approval of the other NATO allies. The White House fortunately backed off.

Despite NATO's stance, the October War strained relations between the United States and several European allies, which already were in a fragile, post-Vietnam state. They spent the rest of the decade repairing the damage. The Soviets meanwhile accelerated their rearmament.

By now Europe had resumed its position as the main setting of the Cold War. The most significant moments of the 1980s were not in Nicaragua or Angola but over the deployment of the Euromissiles, over martial law in Poland and, in 1983, over the mixed signals sent by NATO’s Able Archer exercise. The Cold War would end with two superpower nuclear summits (Geneva and Reykjavík) and with the fall of a wall in Berlin, not in an African or Asian jungle, or in an Arabian desert.

This reminder goes against the grain of the latest scholarship. For example, in a recent book John Lamberton Harper has claimed that the critical Cold War year was 1965 when Brazil, Congo, and Indonesia moved decisively into the “Western camp.” The correlation of forces, as the Soviets liked to say, had tipped in the West's favor. As it happens 1965 was the year that Lyndon Johnson decided to cut grain supplies to Egypt during an economic downturn there, which led, among other things, to the near abandonment of its missile program.

Johnson was the most pro-Israel president since Truman, and his support for Israel during the 1967 war is well known. It should not have surprised the Arabs who went on to lose so badly. Yet Nasser’s solicitation of the Soviets predated this policy, and Egypt did not become a true Soviet satellite after it. For all that the Soviets were drawn to the Middle East with their support of Egypt and other states, most of these patron-client relationships worked both ways. Many in various parts of the Third World continued to mutate after 1965. Yet none, after 1973, threatened to bring about World War III with the United States. So, 1973, not 1965, may be the real Cold War turning point, at least along its North-South axis.

This is a rather large claim. It should be tested, someday, by evidence from all sides about a conflict which still lacks an authoritative, multiarchival-based history.

The October War was about more than superpower conflict, of course. Yet reconstructing it in a Cold War setting illustrates how serious the crisis was and, in particular, how much it revealed the complicated and opportunistic character of the relations -- material, ideological, political and psychological -- between the superpowers and their presumed clients.

Today’s social and political explosions throughout the Arab world have been long in coming, and few are separable from the actions of outsiders. The Cold War kept some of them under wraps; today's divisions among the major powers help to keep them alive. Alas, Kissinger’s diagnosis of the Syrian condition (in 1982) reads as though it could have been written today:

Syrian history alternates achievement with catastrophe, with the accent on the latter…. Syria has neither Egypt's faith in its own civilizing tendencies nor Saudi Arabia’s wealth and haughty aloofness. Its leaders live by confrontation without the self-confidence to sustain it. They aspire to leadership of the Arab world without the strength to claim it. So they cling defiantly to the purity of their cause, while sullenly recognizing the practicalities of implementing it.

Then, as now, Middle Eastern conflicts are cases of fragmentation amid contagion. They demand containment but offer weak grounds for it. And they reaffirm the indivisibility of security between Europe, North America and the Middle East. For all the alliance's hesitation, by 1973 this region was no longer “outside” NATO or beyond other major powers’ scope of vulnerability. This may be even truer in 2013 than it was a generation ago.

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