Learning from Sadat: The Dividends of American Resolve
September 16, 2012
In November 1977, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat took the podium in the Israeli Knesset. Decrying fanaticism, Sadat challenged Israelis to “overlook the past, with all its complexities and weighing memories,” and to make a radical turn toward peace. Yet only seven years earlier, as he ascended to power, Sadat had echoed Gamal Nasser’s radical views regarding Israel and Western imperialism: “The time of revolutionary action has come. . . . The battle is the first thing. The battle is the second thing, and the battle is the final thing.”
Sadat’s words, in both 1970 and 1977, were each in their own way a response to the massive disordering of Arab politics that resulted from the failure of Arab armies to destroy Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. In 1977, Sadat abandoned the radicalism that sprang from defeat and chose a more responsible path. His courage tangibly advanced Egyptian interests—the recovery of Egyptian territory and thirty-five years of peace—and similarly advanced the long-term interests of others—Israel, of course, but also Jordan, Syria, and the United States.
Today Arab politics is undergoing another period of great disorder, similar in magnitude to its predecessor decades ago, although the result of different causes. As before, there are yearnings for dignity and political rejuvenation. As before, there are large hopes that Arab states might finally establish a politics that would be responsible, effective, and free; a politics that might advance the healthy interests of both the region and the United States. As before, the course that the Arab world takes will largely depend on whether responsible leadership emerges.
But today that is far from certain. If events follow their current drift, it is not beyond imagining that we could see a Middle East that is more Islamist, more entrenched, more volatile, more lethal, and more hostile to our interests than anything since the Barbary era, when the region weighed so much less heavily in the world balance.
As the US pivots away from the region and looks anxiously back over its shoulder in hopes that responsible leadership will once again somehow take firm hold, it could learn much from Anwar Sadat’s reorientation to the West more than thirty years ago.
When Sadat took power, both Egypt and the US seemed to hold unpromising geostrategic positions. Egyptian intellectual Saad Ibrahim recalls that “Sadat had come to power when Egypt was wounded and defeated, suffering the nightmare of an Israeli occupation, her ambitious [economic] development plans had ground to a halt.” Both US and British officials had concluded that Sadat’s tenure would be measured in weeks. Sadat, in turn, saw an America, in his word, “scarred” by Vietnam, rapidly bleeding money, troops, and prestige as it desperately sought a way out. The economy was unstable. America’s primary international goals, not unrelated to Vietnam, were détente with the Soviets and an opening to China.
Even in better circumstances, Sadat would hardly have seemed the man to strike boldly for peace. He had been jailed by the British during World War II for collaborating with the Nazis. An early colleague of Nasser’s, he joined the young officers’ movement that favored Arab radicalism. He was chosen to succeed Nasser not for his strong leadership, but for his supposed malleability. As president, he promptly echoed Nasser’s radical calls. To win arms to threaten Israel, he assiduously courted the Soviets. He seduced the hardheaded president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, into an alliance to attack Israel; and then he pulled off a remarkable surprise attack in 1973 that, at least temporarily, regained both sides of the Suez Canal.
However, in time it would be revealed that Sadat had been undergoing a slow-motion conversion. It was his confidence in American power—despite the long ordeal of Vietnam—that convinced him that a dramatic political change was both possible and shrewd. As he noted in a major address, Soviet support for Egypt fell far short of US support for Israel. “Russians can give you arms, but only the United States can give you a solution,” Sadat observed. If the Middle East were a game, he would say, “the United States holds ninety-nine percent of the cards.”
Henry Kissinger would later write, “Unlike Nasser, Sadat saw no future in being the leader of radical Arabs who confused rhetoric with achievement.” In Fouad Ajami’s phrase, “Sadat foresaw American primacy and placed his bet on American power.” Part of that power, Sadat saw, was America’s record of reliability. Even at a time when America seemed weak, Sadat believed that American strength would reliably be applied for peace.
And so Sadat began a cautious approach to winning American support, testing all the while America’s intentions. In 1971, he first cautiously signaled the possibility of a peace deal with Israel. In July 1972, Sadat threw the Soviets out of Egypt and sought a secret channel with the White House. Even then, none saw through to his full plans. The next year, Sadat launched a war that he knew in advance he could not win—indeed, that he could gain no strategic objectives from—in order, as Kissinger has noted, “to lay the basis for moderation in its aftermath.”
In that 1973 war, a preoccupied and weakened America nonetheless showed the strength of its commitments. Even while seeking détente to get Soviet assistance in pressuring Hanoi for a peace settlement, America rearmed Israel and raised its nuclear alert level to forestall Soviet intervention.
Neither a crippled Egypt nor an internationally weak and domestically divided US forestalled Sadat’s turn westward. With confidence in America’s strength and resolve, Sadat moved boldly for peace. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance later admitted that Sadat’s decision to go to Jerusalem surprised and “stunned” the Carter administration…