Decade of Decisions

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Suppose that the common Israeli nightmare came true: the Arabs defeat Israel in battle, and threaten to overrun the country. Lives are at stake: thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or more Jews might soon perish in the second holocaust of the twentieth century. Would the United States intervene to save Israel, even at a serious risk of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union?

To answer such a question, or any other of the key questions about the Middle East, it would be of value to know exactly how our policymakers have acted and what they have thought during the Middle East crises of the recent past. Surprisingly, the general reader must search hard to find a comprehensive, objective account of American actions and motivations. The abundant journalistic and academic literature on the Middle East is selective, if not sensational, in coverage, and partisan in tone. To this generalization, Quandt’s book offers one of the few exceptions. It ranks, indeed, as the best book now available for the general reader inquiring into recent American policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The solidity of Quandt’s contribution in this, his third book, will come as no surprise to those acquainted with his career. He has already established himself, at a young age, as a firstrate political analyst. Born in Los Angeles in 1941 and educated at Stanford and M.I.T., Quandt has been employed during the last decade by the RAND Corporation, and has served on the staff of the National Security Council (1972-1974; 1977- ). His first two books explored “intraelite divisiveness” in radical Arab political causes: a 1969 work on the Algerian revolutionary elite, and a 1973 work (co-authored) on the Palestinian movement. He published several noteworthy articles in the early 1970’s on the comparative study of elites and on the domestic sources of United States Middle East policy. These books and articles have earned Quandt a reputation for excellence in both style and substance. They are not only well-written and well-organized, but also rigorous in methodology and meticulous in scholarship. All these virtues are displayed again in his current book. But the topic is one of such scope and complexity that even Quandt’s talents are insufficient to provide us with a completely satisfying account.

This view holds true despite an additional advantage Quandt enjoyed in writing his current book—proximity to the centers of power during two of the most crucial years in the decade he covers. As a member of the National Security Council staff, he attended interagency meetings at which Kissinger and others discussed policy. He also was able to obtain, then and subsequently, interviews with American, Arab, and Israeli leaders who might not have been so accessible to a scholar less respected and less highly placed. Not surprisingly, his account of the 1972-1974 period is written with a conviction and force not matched elsewhere in the book. Yet, even with these additional resources, questions can be raised both about Quandt’s general approach, and about his handling of many specific points.

To be sure, Quandt’s approach is a popular one. He centers his attention on the top-level foreign policy “decision makers” in the executive branch of the government—on Johnson and Nixon, Kissinger and Ford. Most journalists and many political scientists also analyze foreign policy at the level of the individual. Not all of them would take Quandt’s next, and narrowing, step: a focus on the “definition of the situation” held by our policymakers, and a particular concern with how crisis changes these definitions. Quandt chronicles three Middle East crises, and attempts to show that each one generated a “definition of the situation” that governed United States actions in the (usually) three years before the next crisis. Thus, the “lessons” of the June, 1967, war led to the “Rogers Plan” of 1969-1970; the September, 1970, Jordanian crisis was so interpreted as to create the “standstill diplomacy” of 1971-1973; and the October, 1973, war sparked the Sinai I (1974) and Sinai II (1975) disengagement agreements. Quandt’s general plan is to devote one chapter to each crisis, followed by another chapter on the postcrisis period of diplomatic maneuvering; Sinai I and Sinai II, however, are each given a separate chapter.

One flaw in this book by a scholar noted for rigorous methodology is that he fails to define either “definition of situation” or “crisis.” Perhaps these omissions were designed to make the book less formal and forbidding to the general reader; and specialists can easily supply the standard definitions. A “definition of the situation” relates to perceptions about the future behavior and basic characteristics of other nations, and to conceptions of appropriate ways for dealing with them. A “crisis” is a threatening event that comes as a surprise, and that allows only a short time for response. Thus, in the September, 1970, Jordanian crisis, the United States had to decide quickly on a response to the Syrian tank invasion of Jordan in support of the Palestinians. The situation was defined as one in which a hostile Soviet Union was using Syria as a proxy to bolster the Palestinians, and in which a sequence of Israeli and American military threats was the appropriate response.

More fundamental problems beset Quandt’s endeavor to use a “decision-making” approach as the best means for explaining United States foreign policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, the evidence available is inevitably incomplete and unreliable. Quandt has had unusual opportunities to learn what really happened, and he has used these opportunities well. But interviews, public statements, government documents, and personal observations—the constituents of Quandt’s “data base”—still leave gaps in our knowledge of what occurred. Only the two principals know what was said in...

(The entire section is 2427 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, October 31, 1977, p. 54.