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.
The world has changed since Sadat’s day, in part because of the man himself. To bolster his own domestic legitimacy, he caved to “moderate” Islam. Among those clerics were some who stoked extremism. Egyptian intellectuals of Sadat’s day cried out against the dangers these clerics posed to democracy, but their warnings about the long term were overcome by the short-term costs of reversal. The radicals who killed Sadat in 1981 eagerly delivered the bill he left due. Crouched beside Sadat’s body in that ruined reviewing stand was Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s chosen successor, whose uninspired path led by the early 1990s to widening radical violence in Egypt. The military and bureaucratic regime that bolstered Mubarak enriched itself, and the opportunities Sadat had sought from Western support were squandered. Slowly, the democratic space corroded away. By 2011, when Mubarak threatened to turn an autocratic presidency into a dynastic one, maneuvering for his son to be his successor, even the military bulwarks of his regime left him. Mubarak was soon through, his order lost. Wasted prospects for democratic freedom may descend into an illusory, Islamic order.
As a result, a renewed turn to the West may be harder today than before Sadat, both because of a population that has been diverted into radical paths, and because Sadat’s course may be seen by them to have been tried and found wanting. The leaders we will need to sway in months to come may not necessarily be aligned with our principles. If a strong, committed American leadership was needed to swing Sadat’s reorientation in his day, can a less confident worldview be expected to convince his successors to turn westward today?
In the week after the attacks of September 11th, our leading scholar of the Islamic world, Bernard Lewis, asked the most important question. What would make Middle Eastern leaders, otherwise not committed to Western ideals, turn against violent radicalism and work with the West? Policies of Middle Eastern leaders toward us, he noted, “will be determined by their assessment of America’s position. What is needed is clarity in recognizing issues and alignments, firmness and determination in defining and applying policy.” Lewis concluded, “Even with these, there is no certainty of success. Without them, there is a certainty of failure.”
Looking around today, would wavering Middle Eastern leaders conclude that American policy reliably had their backs if they undertook a prolonged campaign to confront the most destructive elements of Islamism? Sadly, in the eyes of the region, recent American policy has often proved weak and inconsistent, leaving friends exposed and enemies exultant.
In the aftermath of his father’s assassination by Syrian proxies, the Lebanese moderate Saad Hariri won power through the ballot box and America rallied to him. But America did not lift a hand to save him when Iran’s proxy Hezbollah took to Lebanese streets. Bahrain has hosted US forces, but the Sunni Arab world sees us doing little to back Bahrain’s ruling family when it faces Iranian-supported Shia opposition. Surely, the region thought, America has no interest in seeing Iranian influence in Iraq unchecked, but America offered the Iraqis only a token stay-behind deployment of American forces. Small wonder, to the dismay of regional leaders, that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki saw in such an offer no advantage worth bucking Iranian interests.
In a region that prizes loyalty, we have done something worse than prove ourselves ineffective: we have often turned on friends. The region may not have admired Mubarak, but it saw in him America’s best Arab friend. Yet American support for Mubarak vanished quickly in the face of street protests that began with young democrats, but were soon fueled by anti-American Islamic movements. Libyan President Muammar el-Qaddafi was no model of good government, but the region saw that he had cut his deal with the West, abandoning weapons of mass destruction and paying off his Lockerbie debts. Even so, the West hastened to attack him when a convenient moment arose.
There is an old Arab saying, often honored in that region: if you cannot chop off the hand of the king, kiss it. The current American administration, frustrated with the Iraqi premier that they had once chosen, supported his rival, Ayad Allawi’s, successful bid to win a plurality of seats in Iraqi elections. But then America seemed to abandon Allawi in the power-sharing negotiations that followed, leaving Prime Minister Maliki to weaken the opposition he represented, stripping it of power, and hardening his rule. America created Afghani President Hamid Karzai, building him up to take a leadership role, maneuvering him into power, seating him by the American president for praise, but then tried to undermine his reelection. Karzai persevered, kept power, and subsequently showed his ire toward a US administration that, having once called Afghanistan the necessary war, sheepishly prioritized withdrawal.
America has proven even more unreliable in confronting enemies than in supporting friends in the region. Iran supported attacks on American forces in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. But the US has done little to exact a price for these outrages. Indeed, the Obama administration sought to engage Iran, even honoring it, in hopes of talking the mullahs out of their cherished nuclear objectives. All the while, regional leaders shook their heads at what they saw as the naïveté of such gestures. More mystifying yet, when democratic forces took to the streets to challenge the rule of the bloody Iranian clerics who call America “Satan,” Washington long held its tongue.
In defiance of America, Syria admitted terrorists into Iraq to kill Americans; assassinated Rafik Hariri, the Western-oriented power broker of Lebanon; supported Hezbollah’s armed takeover of Lebanon, which threatened America’s allies; and secretly undertook a partnership with the outlaw regime in North Korea to build a nuclear reactor. For this behavior, America extracted no price. Indeed, even with Syrian President Assad on the ropes, America does little to aid his internal enemies.
Good reasons may have supported American policies in these complicated regional problems. But the net results have left regional leaders with doubts about America’s resolve. Such leaders will have little sense that dealing with America will, in the long run, result in reliable Western support. They are clear about this, even if we are not. It will not be easy for such leaders to do the difficult things needed to turn westward in the face of strong, even violent, opposition, as Anwar Sadat did.
America should neither overestimate its influence, nor underestimate the important role that trust in its support can play. In today’s Middle East, there may be practical and skilled leaders of courage and principle who see the advantages of a turn to the West. Who else might be assumed to share their hopes of responsible, decent democratic politics in pursuit of their peoples’ progress? Certainly not China; still less Russia and Iran. Yet there is reason to wonder whether such leaders will judge Americans reliable partners for the difficult path they would face.
Recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lamented the absence of leaders in this post–Arab awakening world, asking why more had not appeared. “I am always quick to point out that my own country . . . has a similar problem,” he added. “But in the Arab world today it is particularly problematic, because this is a critical juncture.” In fact, the lesson of Sadat may be that the absence of our leadership helps explain the absence of theirs. Bernard Lewis had it right: With firmness along the proper lines, we may or may not succeed in wrenching from this region tolerable behavior. That is, behavior that does not attack Western interests and spill Western blood. But without such firmness, failure beckons.
Hillel Fradkin is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Lewis Libby is a senior vice president at the Hudson Institute.