Nuclear Threats - Jordan - 1970
Jordan in 1970 was the Nixon administration’s first foreign policy crisis. It came on the heels of a year-long escalation in Sinai, known as the War of Attrition, which saw the introduction of Soviet combat pilots into Egypt. Nixon saw these developments as an attempt by the Soviet Union to test him, as it had tested Kennedy a decade before. The new president was determined to pass his trial by ordeal and acted accordingly.
In March 1969, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser began a series of operations against Israeli forces on the east bank of the Suez Canal, hoping to raise the cost of occupation beyond Israeli means. In response, Israel conducted commando raids deep into Egyptian territory. By 1970, the war had escalated to such a degree that the Egyptians were forced to call in their Soviet patrons to fend off the attacks, who introduced to Egypt a sophisticated Soviet air defence system. Soviet pilots also flew combat missions against Israel, America’s regional proxy under the emerging Nixon doctrine, causing alarm in Washington.
The Rogers Plan for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East had failed in 1969. The Arab-Israeli situation deteriorated and superpower relations were also becoming fraught, the Soviets stonewalling their way through the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT.) Believing this to be a continuation of Soviet ‘testing,’ Khrushchev’s version of which had led to crises in Berlin and Cuba, Nixon was determined to stand firm. On the eve of the Jordan crisis, he viewed the situation in the Middle East very much in global strategic terms that went far beyond regional politics. Accordingly, it was the White House, rather than the State department that determined policy in the region.
Jordan at the time was reeling under a massive influx of Palestinians, refugees from the newly occupied territory. After the humiliation of the combined Arab armies at the hands of Israel in June 1967, a wholesale change in the Palestinian national movement had taken place. Founded at Nasser’s behest in an attempt to foster pan-Arab solidarity, the PLO had long been a pawn in the game of conflicting parochial interest in the Arab world. The Arab states’ military failure provoked crises in both the Palestinian and Arab Nationalist movements, leaving the door open for Yasser Arafat’s militant faction to take control.
Supported by a quarter of a million refugees, Arafat had by 1970 established a ‘state within a state’ in Jordan. After losing a number of skirmishes to the Palestinians, King Hussein could feel his power slipping and eventually determined to take the offensive. Civil war ensued.
Meanwhile, Egyptian refusal to adhere to the April 1970 cease-fire agreement reinforced Nixon’s suspicion of the influence of the Soviet hard-line in the region. When war erupted in Jordan September, he stated publicly that the United States “was prepared to intervene directly…should Syria or Iraq [clients of the Soviet Union] enter the conflict.” The public front was accompanied by private warnings to the Soviets.
For two days, all seemed to be going well. The most belligerent of the Palestinian factions, the Marxist PFLP, released most of the passengers from hijacked planes and Soviet statements were unusually mild. Washington’s policy appeared to be working and despite warnings from the Pentagon of limited capacity for military action in the region, the White House continued to order military deployments as warnings to the Soviets.
Success did no last long. On September 18th Syrian armoured divisions crossed into Jordan and massive invasion followed the next day. The invasion fuelled further the theory that the Soviets were testing American resolve: Having first engineered an Egyptian move to damage the cease-fire agreement, it now seemed they were trying to destroy it altogether. Whether the Soviets instigated the invasion is open to question. Certainly they had the power and foreknowledge to prevent it.
On September 19th, King Hussein requested American and British support. Syrian troops were within reach of Amman, itself only fifty miles from the border. Defeat would mean the establishment of a Palestinian state friendly to the Soviet Union, a contingency the United States was not prepared to accept.
In fact, there was little the United States could do militarily. NATO allies had refused overflight rights and the use of their bases: The greater part of US forces was engaged in Vietnam. To engage the Syrians, American planes in Germany would have to fly through the North Sea and the English Channel and enter the Mediterranean at Gibraltar, requiring quantities of fuel a limited number tankers could not provide.
American warships deployed to the eastern Mediterranean following the hijackings earlier in September were shadowed conspicuously by the Soviets. This forced the fleet to consider its own defence, limiting further the number of available aircraft. The need to distinguish visually between Soviet and commercial aircraft in the busy Mediterranean flight paths left still fewer combat planes available.
Now Israel reported to America that air power alone would not stop the Syrians. Plans were drawn up for a joint operation involving air strikes and the deployment of an armored division to intercept the Syrian armoured thrust.
But Israeli ground attacks carried substantial risk of Egyptian and Soviet intervention. Complex negotiations followed, as both Israel and Jordan sought American guarantees. Eventually, the semblance of a plan for US-Israeli action emerged; the plan was never given final approval, however. While US diplomacy was aimed at portraying preparedness for intervention, Nixon was convinced that Israeli movement into Syria would unleash Nasser’s forces, complete with Soviet assistance, across the Suez Canal. American and Soviet naval forces were no so intertwined as to make intervention by either on behalf of an ally impossible without confrontation between them.
When in the event intervention proved unnecessary, the western ‘victory’ was occasion more for relief than celebration. Hussein had at first hesitated to deploy his air force, whose British Hunter jets would have been no match for Syrian MIG-21s. When, curiously, the Syrian air force [commanded by Hafez al-Assad, soon to seize the Presidency] remained grounded, Hussein was able to use his aircraft against Syrian armour with success. The tide turned against the Palestinians, who in a year were evicted from Jordan.
US policy had throughout the crisis relied more on bluff than a capacity and readiness for action and claims that Nixon approved a plan for intervention are unfounded. Though the propaganda of the crisis was subsequently manipulated by the American administration with some skill, the regional conflagration stopped just short of becoming the superpower stand-off of popular belief. The Jordanian crisis served as evidence to Nixon of the success of his new doctrine of relying on strong regional allies to defend the American interest. Closer ties to Israel followed: Commitments in Vietnam had forced great constraint on Washington’s actions in the Middle East, underlining the importance of America’s powerful proxy.
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