The Mideast: 'Secret Files'

It was a covenant: ever since 1948, one U.S. president after another has pledged devotion to Israel. But Washington has long hedged its bets behind the scenes. When George Bush spoke of defending "old friends" in the Persian Gulf War, he was actually fulfilling repeated promises to Saudi Arabia. These agreements-and the military plans to back them up-were mostly undertaken in secret, without public knowledge or congressional consent. A Washington Post-NEWSWEEK examination of documents in presidential archives, many of them originally classified as top secret-reveals a history of covert Mideast diplomacy. Forming the basis of a PBS program entitled "The Secret Files: Washington, Israel and the Gulf," scheduled to air Monday, Feb. 17, the documents show that:

The United States has been committed to defending Saudi Arabia against external aggression since at least 1947.

During four decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers managed billions of dollars' worth of military-construction projects in Saudi Arabia, including a military city large enough to accommodate 50,000 troops.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy secretly sent warplanes to protect Saudi Arabia from an anticipated attack by Egypt.

The archives also reveal a deep official ambivalence toward Israel. American support for the Jewish state created opportunities for the Soviet Union to curry Arab favor and threatened access to Mideast oil. As early as 1943, U.S. intelligence warned that a Jewish state in Palestine could be established and maintained only by force and Washington was unwilling to commit troops. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped to buy Arab support with a plan by Zionist leaders to pay displaced Palestinians $50 million in compensation for lands lost to Jewish settlers. When Arab leaders summarily rejected the plan, FDR decided to try personal diplomacy through the Saudi king, Ibn Saud, who had granted the United States an important oil concession. On his way back from the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud aboard a U.S. cruiser in the Suez Canal. The effort was fruitless: the king said the Arabs would "choose to die rather than yield their land." The American president then pledged privately that he "would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs."

In 1948 a politically beleaguered Harry Truman recognized the new state of Israel, despite reminders from Ibn Saud of Roosevelt's promise. But the king had troubles of his own: potential armed challenges to Saudi control of Islamic shrines. In return for a secret American promise to "take energetic measures to ward off such aggression," Ibn Saud had pledged never to join Arabs in fighting U.S. forces over Israel. The agreement has remained the basis of U.S. policy.

The first concrete steps to back up Truman's security guarantee came in April 1950, when Truman sent Assistant Secretary of State George McGhee to meet with Ibn Saud. According to McGhee's record of the meeting, the two discussed the defense of Saudi Arabia, including the fate of Dhahran Airfield, on which the United States had held a series of short-term leases. McGhee told the king that a long-term agreement on Dhahran "would include or follow a program of military aid [and a] military mission to aid in the training of Saudi Arabian forces." In 1951 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began operating in Saudi Arabia, eventually designing seven major military cities.

Truman's successors continued to honor the commitment, Dwight Eisenhower with arms and Kennedy with troops. When revolution broke out in Yemen in 1962, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser gave military backing to the rebels-and seemed to be inciting rebellion in neighboring Saudi Arabia as well-by airdropping 109 bundles of mortars, machine guns and other weapons to local insurgents. Kennedy responded with Operation Hard Surface, sending a squadron of F-l00s from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to defend the Saudi regime. "Nasser was informed that it was a training mission," recalls Parker Hart, who was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "We assumed he would know that it was more than just a training mission." The planes patrolled the Hejaz coast for months, and Egypt held off.

What did the United States get in return? The Saudi-led oil embargo of 1973 may seem poor reward. But Saudi Arabia largely stayed out of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973. And in the gulf war, the Saudis gave the United States its launching pad. "We probably would not have been able to accommodate that number of forces in the short amount of time that we did anywhere else in the world," says retired Maj. Gen. William Ray of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Saudi attitude toward postwar peace talks between Israel and the Arab world has been far more equivocal. And the process is no easier than it was in 1948, when Truman groused to a friend, "The Jews are so emotional, and the Arabs are so difficult to talk with that it is almost impossible to get anything done." But without the enduring U.S.-Saudi relationship, the Middle East might see something worse than stalemate.

The Mideast: 'Secret Files' | News