Washington Post’s David Ignatius and His Ignorance of the Middle East

Photograph Source: Aude – CC BY-SA 3.0

“When Russia threatened to intervene militarily to protect Egypt during negotiations to end the 1973 war, President Richard M. Nixon, on Henry Kissinger’s advice, ordered U.S. forces to Def-Con 3, a heightened state of alert for possible nuclear conflict.  The message was received.”

– David Ignatius, The Washington Post, October 27, 2023.

During the October War of 1973, I served as a senior Soviet intelligence analyst on the CIA’s task force for providing intelligence to the White House.  As a result, I can authoritatively expose the misinformation and flawed thinking in David Ignatius’s account, which typically for the Washington Post supports Israeli interests.

First and most importantly, no intelligence supported the claim that the Soviets were preparing to intervene militarily in the October War, which would require forces for power projection that the Soviets didn’t possess.  One of the reasons for President Sadat’s decision to invade Israel was his conviction that he would never get Soviet support for a military solution to the Israeli occupation of Egyptian territories.  Second, President Nixon did not order the nuclear alert; he did not even attend the NSC meeting that authorized the declaration of Def-Con 3.  His military aide, General Alexander Haig, told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that Nixon was sound asleep and in no condition to attend the meeting even if awake.  Remember that the October War coincided with the worst days of Watergate for Nixon, and he was taking medication for depression and drinking too much alcohol.

Third, Kissinger’s decision to heighten the alert for nuclear forces was not legally his to make; in addition, he was opposed by other participants at the NSC meeting, including CIA director William Colby, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Thomas Moorer.  All three confirmed their opposition in interviews with me, which I’ve written about separately.

Fourth, Ignatius states that the “message was received.”  His implication is that, because of Kissinger’s action, the Soviets backed down.  This is wrong because the Soviets had not been preparing to intervene.  It was Kissinger, who “got the message” that he had behaved recklessly.  He canceled the alert the following morning. He wanted to keep the decision secret from the American public, but it leaked within hours.

Fifth, Ignatius fails to mention that the cease-fire in the Middle East in 1973 was negotiated successfully between Moscow and Washington, who were cooperative in dealing with Israeli violations of the cease-fire.  The current war in the Middle East is particularly dangerous because there is no possibility of Russian-American negotiations, let alone cooperation, to head off the possible escalation that current developments portend.  In addition to the Gaza War, there are increased hostilities in the West Bank and along the Israeli-Lebanese border and the Golan Heights; increased U.S. retaliation against the Iran-backed militants who have been harassing U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq;; and even the possibility of a U.S-Iran confrontation.

Ignatius simplistically believes that “when U.S. power has been strong and clearly communicated, wars in the Middle East have been followed by peace agreements that usually lasted.”  The October War led to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and diplomatic exchange of relations only because Anwar Sadat was willing to take courageous steps to start a peace process that has lasted fifty years.  Ignatius also simplistically believes that the current “war, for all its horror, should revive Israel’s interest in a two-state solution,” when it is obvious that Israel hasn’t been interested in a two-state solution for several decades and hardly seems likely to move in that direction in the near future.

Ignatius believes that the “same dilemma” that has “recurred with numbing frequency over the decades” is Israel being “attacked by Palestinian or Arab foes.”  He fails to mention the “numbing frequency” of Israeli attacks that include conspiring with Britain and France in the 1956 Suez War; their attacks in the Six-Day War in 1967, which were not preemptive; and the strategic nightmare in Lebanon in 1982 when Israel attacked without cause, leading to the formation of Hezbollah and two decades of Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.  Ironically, Israel contributed directly to the formation of Hamas and indirectly to the formation of Hezbollah.

Finally, Ignatius credits President Joe Biden as being “among the most skillful practitioners of the art of the impossible” by showing empathy toward Israel and at the same time urging Israel to “avoid a broader conflict and gradually move toward a two-state solution that can provide security.”  In actual fact, Biden—along with Ignatius—has been and continues to be a supporter of the notion that providing Israel with vast amounts of military weaponry will give Israel the security to make the compromises needed to agree to a two-state solution.  In Dennis Ross’ history of U.S.-Israeli relations, he describes Biden as one of those U.S. policymakers who genuinely believes that by “drawing the Israelis close to us,” we will gain greater influence over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and limit the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.  Well, we certainly know how that has worked out.

If one of the deans of U.S. journalism in the field of national security can be so misinformed, what are the chances that the many readers of the Washington Post will understand the complexities of politics and policies in the Middle East?  Meanwhile, politicians and pundits—even President Biden—are cynically questioning the accuracy of the count of civilian deaths in Gaza while thousands of women, children, and old people are being pulled from the rubble.

We are witnessing Israeli acts of genocide against the Palestinian people, depriving them of food, shelter, fuel and even the ability to communicate with the outside world.  While Israel has the right to respond strongly against Hamas, it does not have the right, either morally or legally, to engage in collective punishment of the Palestinian people.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.