A Middle Eastern nation becomes a nuclear power and refuses to admit arms inspectors, an American president threatens intervention: news from today’s headlines, now more than 40 years old.
Bass (Foreign Policy, Middle East Studies/Council on Foreign Relations) has several purposes here. First among them, he shows with admirable clarity just how keen a student and practitioner of foreign policy JFK truly was, and especially in contrast with his recent successors. As Bass writes, again with an eye to today’s news, “In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the American electorate knew what it came to forget in the 1990s: that it could not afford ill-preparedness in its commander-in-chief.” He goes on to examine the evolution of America’s relationship with Israel, which, he points out, has not always been friendly; when JFK took office, Israel was far closer to France, though David Ben-Gurion sought to establish closer ties with the larger power. “For Ben-Gurion,” Bass writes, “America was an aspiration, France a consolation.” Forging those closer ties while not alienating the Arab powers, foremost among them Nasser’s Egypt, and their Soviet benefactor proved to be a vexing exercise for Kennedy, especially when Israel ignored his demands that it open a secret nuclear reactor to international inspection. Still, as Bass demonstrates, JFK helped bring about a delicate balance of military strength in the region by providing Israel with defensive antiaircraft missiles as protection against Egypt’s mighty air force, though he refused to part with offensive weapons—a policy that Lyndon Johnson undid almost as soon as he took office, so that “the U.S.-Israel arms relationship was, by the late 1960s, almost unrecognizable from the trickle it had been at the start of the Kennedy administration.”
Plus ça change. . . . A fine, well-constructed study.