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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Six Days of War and Arab anti-Americanism 

If you read just one book on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I unreservedly recommend Michael B. Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. It is both immensely interesting and -- true to its cover blurb -- "riveting reading."

The book is full of interesting anecdotes and detail about the both the personalities -- Egypt's Nasser and 'Amer, Jordan's Hussein, and Israel's Ben Gurion, Dyan, Rabin, Begin, Eshkol, Sharon, America's Lyndon Johnson and his team of advisors, and critical Russian players -- and the historic geopolitical struggle that swirled around them. I was most interested, though, in Oren's account of the Nasser's Big Lie -- that Egypt's embarrassing defeat was the direct consequence of American and British intervention.
Egyptian leaders appeared to agree, at least with regard to the military struggle. In the wake of the retreat, Egypt's emphasis swerved from tanks and guns to political propaganda, specifically the charge of U.S. and British intervention for Israel. Here, at least, the coordination between Nasser and [head of Egypt's armed forces 'Abd al-Hakim']Amer was complete. Both held conversations with Soviet ambassador Pojidaev, evincing the collusion claim as a means of securing direct Soviet support. 'Amer, unable to furnish proof of U.S. and British attacks, accused the USSR of supply faulty weapons to Egypt. "I'm no expert on weaponry," Pojidaev replied, "but I do know that the arms we've given the Vietnamese have certainly proved superior to the Americans'." But Nasser left little room for debate. He simply dictated a direct letter to [Soviet Premier Alexi] Kosygin informed him that the 6th Fleet, together with U.S. bases in the region, was actively aiding the Israelis. The Jews now stood to reap a great victory unless Moscow extended similar help to Egypt, which was desperately in need of planes.

The myth snowballed rapidly as the day progressed, reaching all corners of the Arab world. "British bombers, taking off in engless waves from Cyprus, are aiding and supplying the Israelis," Damascus Radio declared. "Canberra bombers are striking our forward positions." Radio Amman claimed that three American aircraft carriers were operating off Israel's coast. American warships were reportedly sighted off Port Said, in Haifa harbor, and blocking the entrace to the Canal. [The Sixth Fleet was more than 200 miles away. - ed.] Other sources spoke of Israelis piloting American planes with CIA-supplied maps of Egypt and of American pilots flying incognito for Israel. Captured Israeli pilots purportedly "confessed" to collaborating with the U.S. Israel, which had attacked Egypt with 1,200 jets, could not possibly have acted alone -- so the argument ran. In a widely distributed communique, Nasser called on "the Arab masses to destroy all imperialist interests."

Within hours of the broadcast, mobs attacked American embaassies and consulates throughout the Middle East. In Baghdad and Basra, Aleppo, Alexandria, and Algiers, even in congenial cities such as Tunis and Benghazi, American diplomats barricaded themselves in their compounds and prepared for the worst. Oil facilities were shut in Iraq and Libya, while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain banned oil shipments to the United States and Britain. "America is now the number one enemy of the Arabs," proclaimed Algiers Radio, "the American presence ... must be exterminated from the Arab homeland." Americans in Egypt, many of them long-time residents, were given minutes to pack and then, at gunpoint, searched and summarily deported. "This is how people felt on their way to Auschwitz," wrote Thomas Thompson, a Life correspondent, who was among the hundreds banished [I doubt it. - ed.]. In Cairo, Richard Nolte watched as an angry crowd gathered outside his office. "We are burning all -- repeat all -- classified papers and preparing for demonstration and attempt to clear building," he wired. Yet, at the height of this tension, Nolte was summond and escorted to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, there to be told the "facts" of the Anglo-American conspiracy with Israel.

"You say you are against aggression, but when you have aggression of Israel against Egypt you do nothing," Mahmoud Riad excoriated Nolte. "You say you don't know who is the aggressor. It is perfectly clear who is the aggressor and there are 90 or at least 80 ambassadors in Cairo who know this to be true." The ambassador's only reply was to stress the international sympathy Egypt could reap by accepting a cease-fire resolution that would specifically label Israel as the aggressor. [Note Washington's willingness to curry favor with Arabs even as they were lying about American involvement. - ed.]... But his words failed to impress the foreign minister, who continued in a similar vein: "If Egypt had been the aggressor, the Sixth Fleet would now be on its shores!"

Of course, Nasser's big lie wouldn't get any traction if Jordan's King Hussein didn't sign on. Hussein was in desperate straits, for having attacked Israel on the West Bank, by the second day of the war Jordan's army was in a lot of trouble. It was clear that Hussein would say anything to get out of his jam:
Over the course of the night [of June 6], Hussein conveyed no less than four requests for a de facto cease-fire [via the Americans], but each time the response was negative. "I believe it is probably too late to arouse any interest in Israel for the preservation of Hussein and his regime," [American ambassador Wally] Barbour explained from Tel Aviv. Citing the continuing battles in both the Jerusalem and Nablus sectors, the Israelis claimed that Hussein had either lost control of his troops or was trying to deceive them into canceling their attack. While it supported a halt to the fighting, Washington's reply to Hussein was no warmer: Either take personal charge of your army [Hussein having ceded command to Egypt] or else remain a target.

Gravely disappointed, desperate, the king retorted with a warning of his own. If the fighting continued, Jordan would have no option but to corrogorate Nasser's charged of Anglo-American conspiracy.

It was not an idle threat, as Hussein proved a half-hour later, when a phone call arrived from Cairo. "Will we say that the U.S. and Britain [are attacking], or just the United States?" asked Nasser, inquiring whether the British even had aircraft carriers. Hussein responded, "United States and England," and agreed to issue a statement to that effect immediately. Nasser was heartened. "By God," he exclaimed, "I will make an announcement and you will make an announcement that American and British airplanes are taking part against us from aircraft carriers. We will stress the matter. And we will drive the point home."

Unfortunately for Nasser and Hussein, they were speaking on an unscrambled civilian line, and the entire conversation was recorded by Israeli intelligence. So was born the conspiracy to defame the United States, which Lyndon Johnson dubbed "the Big Lie."

Nasser invented the Big Lie to explain away his own humiliating defeat and to goad the Soviets into direct intervention on behalf of the Arabs. The consequences for American credibility in the Arab world were disastrous, and probably persist to this day. The consequences for the Arabs weren't so good either -- as Oren shows, Lyndon Johnson was so angry over the Big Lie that even those American diplomats inclined to sympathize with the Arabs were forced to back Israel in the crucial days leading up to the cease fire.

Read the whole thing (even though it's a book).

1 Comments:

By Blogger Barbara, at Sat Oct 06, 08:13:00 PM:

Exactly here was the Sixth Fleet when all this was going on? I've read they were in Crete, my understanding is they were off the coast of Libya because Wheelus Airbase was evacuating military and civilian families. Also what is your source for saying the oil fields were shut down? Do you know what is involved with capping a well?  

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