In eleven dramatic years, Anwar Sadat changed history—not just that of Egypt, or of the Middle East, but of the entire world. As the architect of the 1973 war against Israel, he gained the support of other Arab nations and inspired the oil embargo that transformed the global economy. Following the war, however, he forever ended Arab aspirations of unity by making peace with Israel. Early in his presidency, Sadat jettisoned Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union and turned to the United States, thereby giving the West a crucial Cold War victory. Sadat’s historic tenure still resonates in the twenty-first century as the Islamic activists—whom he originally encouraged but who opposed his conciliatory policy toward Israel and ultimately played a role in his assassination—continue to foster activism, including the Muslim Brotherhood, today.
Thomas W. Lippman was stationed in the Middle East as a journalist during Sadat’s presidency and lived in Egypt in the aftermath of the October War. He knew Sadat personally, but only now, after the passage of time and the long-delayed release of the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic files, can Lippman assess the full consequences of Sadat’s presidency. Hero of the Crossing provides an eye-opening account of the profound reverberations of one leader’s political, cultural, and economic maneuverings and legacy.
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About the Author
Thomas W. Lippman is a journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy. He is a former Middle East bureau chief for the Washington Post, as well the author of numerous magazine articles and books, including Egypt after Nasser: Sadat, Peace, and the Mirage of Prosperity; Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia; and, most recently, Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally (Potomac Books, 2012).
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Hero of the Crossing
How Anwar Sadat and the 1973 War Changed the World
By Thomas W. Lippman
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Thomas W. Lippman
All rights reserved.
The War of Redemption
The war that could not happen began at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 6, 1973. Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and attacked Israeli positions on the other side, in the Sinai Peninsula, a rocky, arid land that Israel had seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Two hundred fifty miles to the northeast, on the far side of Israel, Syrian forces struck at Israeli defenses on the Golan Heights, which Syria had lost in the same 1967 conflict. The Arabs, attacking not to invade Israel but to regain their lost lands, had the advantage of nearly total surprise.
In the Muslim world, it was Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, when little of importance happens in the daylight hours. In Israel it was the Sabbath, when most government offices are closed. More than that, it was the day on which Yom Kippur would begin, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Most Israeli troops were at home with their families, not on the front lines. They went ahead with their preparations for the holy day because they saw no reason not to do so. Despite months of warning and ominous signals, the Israelis and their friends in the United States took it for granted that the Arabs would not start a war because they knew they could not win. Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, had contributed to this dismissive assessment by proclaiming 1971 the "Year of Decision" in the Middle East. When nothing happened in that year or the next, Israeli and American officials concluded that Sadat was bluffing and nothing would happen in 1973. This spectacular miscalculation brought the Jewish state to the brink of disaster.
When the war did come, the Israelis were caught off guard and driven back, reeling and panicked. Then they rallied, and reversed the tide. After nearly three weeks of intense fighting that included the biggest tank battles since World War II, Israel prevailed on the battlefield, but in every strategic and political sense, the Arabs won. Israel was victorious but shaken, successful on the battlefield but chastened in its collective soul. The outcome on the ground was not the same as the outcome in history.
For Israel's American allies, that phenomenon was all too familiar. They had experienced it at the height of the Vietnam War, with the Vietcong's Tet Offensive of 1968. After a month of horrifying combat, America forces prevailed. They wiped out most of the Vietcong's cadres, curtailing the Vietcong's ability to fight to such an extent that the indigenous South Vietnamese rebels were no longer a factor in the war; regular units from North Vietnam came down the Ho Chi Minh trail to replace them. Nonetheless, Tet proved to be a decisive political victory for the Vietnamese communists because it turned American opinion against the war, of which the eventual outcome was no longer in doubt.
In the same way, the Middle East war of October 1973 ended in military defeat for Egypt, Syria, and their Arab allies. Had the United States and the Soviet Union not imposed a cease-fire, Israel could have marched virtually unchallenged into Cairo and Damascus. But in a larger sense the man who planned and started that war, Anwar Sadat, achieved virtually all of his objectives, which were more political and psychological than territorial. Sadat, of course, wanted all of Egypt's territory back, but he understood that the land could be regained only through a negotiating process in which Egypt was an equal participant and had the support of the United States, the only country able to put pressure on Israel.
The October War restored the Arab honor shattered in the humiliating defeat of 1967. Sadat forced the United States to take him seriously and commit itself to a comprehensive regional peace settlement; his troops and, to a lesser extent, their Syrian allies, broke down the assumption of Israel and its allies that the Arabs were incompetent in war. Henry A. Kissinger, who as the only person ever to be secretary of state and White House national security adviser at the same time directed American policy throughout the October War, wrote afterward, "Sadat achieved his fundamental objective of shaking belief in Israel's invincibility and Arab impotence, and thus transformed the psychological basis of the negotiating stalemate."
No fighting took place inside Israel itself. The war was fought entirely on Arab soil, on sparsely inhabited territory that Israel had seized in 1967 and the Arabs wanted back — and thus it was that rare modern conflict without civilian casualties. Yet the scope of the combat was vast. Israel and the Arabs — Egypt and Syria, plus token contingents from Iraq, Morocco, and Jordan — threw some eight thousand tanks into the battle, along with combat jets and antiaircraft missiles. In three weeks, twenty-two hundred Israeli soldiers and airmen were killed, equivalent in percentage of population to two hundred thousand Americans. More than eighty-five hundred Arabs died.
As with many great battles of the past, the details of the 1973 fighting matter little now except to military analysts and historians. There is scant reason decades afterward to rehash which unit attacked which outpost on a particular day. Events after the war would demonstrate that while Egypt's battlefield position when the shooting stopped was extremely perilous, in the larger context of the Middle East at the time, the country and its president had greatly improved their standing and their negotiating strength.
Within a few days of the war's outbreak, the U.S. ambassador in Israel, Kenneth Keating, reported that Israelis with whom his staff had been in contact "are saying they must rethink their previous assumption about Arab character, courage, ability to learn modern technology, and capacity for planning, coordination, and keeping of secrets." This had been one of Sadat's objectives: breaking the sense of invincibility that Israel developed after its overwhelming and lightning-fast triumph in 1967.
Many years after the October War, the prominent Israeli columnist and peace advocate Uri Avnery recalled watching news on television with a neighbor in the early days of the combat: "An image appeared on the TV screen: Dozens of Israeli soldiers crouching on the ground, hands over bowed heads, with terrifying Syrian soldiers crouching over them. Never before had we seen Israeli soldiers like this: Dirty, unshaven, obviously frightened, miserable as only prisoners of war can be. There was silence in the room. At that moment the myth of the Israeli superman, of the invincible Israeli soldier, which had dominated our lives for a generation, died. This myth was the ultimate victim of the Yom Kippur war."
When recriminations and finger-pointing among Israel's leaders broke out after the war, Avnery wrote, "their quarrels destroyed the prestige of the military leaders, who until then had been the idols of the public. It has never fully recovered."
Israel and the United States, its ally and protector, should not have been caught flat-footed and out of position when the Arab guns opened up. There had been ample signals for months that war was coming. William P. Rogers, Kissinger's predecessor as secretary of state, had told President Nixon in May 1972 that Sadat might "initiate at least limited military action" because he was "frustrated at the lack of stronger Soviet military and political support, at United States failure to produce any softening of Israel's positions while strengthening Israel militarily, at his own military weakness and at his inability to mobilize the Arab world against Israel and the U.S."
By the following spring, Sadat was making it clear that he felt he had no choice but to go to war. Raymond Close, at the time the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Saudi Arabia, recalled that in April 1973, six months before the first shots, he had been "informed by my official Saudi intelligence counterparts that Anwar Sadat had reached his decision to begin preparing for a major assault across the Suez Canal. He had informed King Faisal of this decision in a letter received that day, the 17th of April, 1973. Sadat acknowledged unashamedly in this letter that he did not expect to win a war against Israel, but he explained that only by restoring Arab honor and displaying Arab courage on the battlefield could he capture the attention of Washington and persuade Henry Kissinger to support a peace process." Sadat knew that his putative ally, the Soviet Union, had no influence with Israel. The United States was the key to persuading — or coercing — Israel to pull out of Arab lands.
"Sadat boldly all but told us what he was going to do and we did not believe him," Kissinger wrote. "He overwhelmed us with information and let us draw the wrong conclusions. ... Every Israeli (and American) analysis before October 1973 agreed that Egypt and Syria lacked the military capability to regain their territory by force of arms; hence there would be no war. The Arab armies must lose; hence they would not attack. The premises were correct. The conclusions were not."
In fact it was not true that "every Israeli (and American) analysis" at the time agreed that there would be no war. In May, Ray S. Cline of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research — who would have seen Raymond Close's report about Sadat's letter — wrote a memo saying that his department was "inclined to state the case on the risk of hostilities for a political purpose with a little more urgency." Cline said Sadat had decided that "the present situation is both an affront to his personal self-respect and ruinous of national morale, dignity, and constructive purpose. For him the key to an escape from this debilitating situation is the recovery of the Sinai." In the circumstances of the day, Sadat understood that there was no prospect of regaining Egypt's land through negotiation; therefore, absent some improbable break in the diplomatic stalemate, he could find it necessary to take "some form of military action which can be sustained long enough ... both to activate Washington and Moscow and galvanize the other Arab states, especially the major oil producers, into anti-American moves." Cline's projection was uncanny in its accuracy, but even a veteran, respected analyst such as he could not break through the entrenched attitudes of the leadership.
Even on the second day of the war, as the Arabs advanced, Kissinger belittled them: "By tomorrow the Israelis will be reversing the tide," he told President Nixon. "By Wednesday morning at the latest Israel will be in Arab territory."
The next day, Monday, when it was clear that Egyptian forces had crossed the canal in large numbers and were moving eastward, Kissinger reassured the president again that the incursion was doomed. "They'll cut the Egyptians off," he said of the Israelis. "Poor dumb Egyptians getting across the canal and all the bridges will be blown up. They'll cut them all off–30 or 40 thousand of them."
To which Nixon indicated that a decisive Israeli victory might not be desirable: "Just so the Israelis don't get to the point where they say to us, 'We will not settle except on the basis of everything we got,'" the president expostulated. "They can't do that, Henry. They can't do that to us again. They've done it to us for four years but no more." This was the first hint of the deep anger at Israel that would overtake the White House at a later stage of the war. Had he known of this outburst from Nixon at the time, Sadat would have been delighted: changing Washington's attitude was one of his primary war aims.
The Great Intelligence Failure
Even as Nixon and Kissinger spoke on that Monday evening, panic was beginning to wash over Israel, but Washington had still not understood that the Arabs this time were better equipped, better trained, better led, and better motivated than they had been in 1967.
This intelligence debacle was not the result of a lack of information, it was the result of failing to grasp the significance of the plentiful information that was available. Looking back years later, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that its analysts, like political leaders and policymakers, had failed to evaluate the information correctly, Cline's paper notwithstanding, because of their near-universal belief that no realistic national leader would start a war he knew he could not win. Because it was taken for granted at the time that another war would result in another major defeat for the Arabs, most analysts believed that starting one would be irrational and therefore the Arabs would not do it. The fact that Sadat a year previously had expelled all his Soviet military advisers and trainers because Moscow did not deliver all the weapons it had promised reinforced the conviction in Washington that Egypt was not capable of going to war against Israel. So deeply entrenched was this assumption that it prevented policymakers from understanding what Sadat was trying to accomplish. Had they recognized that his war was more about attitudes than territory, their response might have been different.
"Sadat had done a brilliant job of misleading the Israelis — and American intelligence," according to the CIA. "By orchestrating a false war scare in May, and then repeating more 'scares' in the form of Egyptian and Syrian troop concentrations opposite Sinai and the Golan, Sadat lulled Israeli watchfulness. Hence Israeli and U.S. intelligence judged the Arab military concentrations in the first week of October to be simply more of the same." According to Sadat, Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan, asked after the war why Israel had not mobilized in the days before, replied that Sadat "made me do it twice, at a cost of ten million dollars each time. So, when it was the third time round, I thought he wasn't serious, but he tricked me!"
The reason those feints succeeded, the CIA concluded, was that they were assessed through the conviction in Tel Aviv and Washington that Sadat and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad were rational people who would not undertake a suicide mission. "A 'rational actor' model can fail because what seems rational to the analyst — or generally rational in that analyst's culture — may not be rational to the actor in question," CIA historians wrote. "To Sadat and Asad, for example, it may have been irrational to attack Israel on a purely military basis, but it may have been rational to do so to restore Arab prestige or force other countries to intervene and press for a settlement more favorable to the Arab side than if there had been no attack."
That was exactly how Sadat saw it. He knew that Egyptian forces were not going to march into Tel Aviv and compel Israel to surrender, but he believed war was necessary to restore Arab honor and break the debilitating stalemate that was crippling Egypt. He was convinced that Egypt would never recover the land lost in 1967 unless war transformed the international atmosphere. He had expelled the Soviet advisers, even as he sought more and more Soviet weapons, because he believed the Soviets, for their own reasons, did not want another Middle East war and would hamper his preparations. He knew that Egypt and Syria could not achieve a decisive triumph, but he went to war anyway because he had a different definition of victory.
"What literally no one understood beforehand was the mind of the man," Kissinger wrote in his memoirs. "Sadat aimed not for territorial gain but for a crisis that would alter the attitudes into which the parties were then frozen — and thereby open the way for negotiations. The shock would enable both sides, including Egypt, to show a flexibility that was impossible while Israel considered itself militarily supreme and Egypt was paralyzed by humiliation ... rare is the statesman who at the beginning of a war has so clear a perception of its political objective. Rarer still is the war fought to lay the basis for moderation in its aftermath." Kissinger could not have said the same of Syria's president, Assad, whose war aims were not the same as those of his ostensible ally, Sadat. Assad soon came to feel that Sadat had misled him about his reasons for starting a war from which Syria gained little.
Excerpted from Hero of the Crossing by Thomas W. Lippman. Copyright © 2016 Thomas W. Lippman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments A Note on Arabic Words and Names Introduction Chronology of Key Events 1. The War of Redemption 2. The Eclipse of the Soviet Union 3. Oil Goes to War 4. Stranger in a Strange Land 5. The Separate Peace 6. The End of Arab Nationalism 7. The Rise of the Islamists 8. The Tarnished Legacy Notes Bibliography Index