It has been said that Britain is an island, France is a nation, Germany is a language and Egypt is a river. Recently, Egypt has been a man whose most crucial characteristic was his contrast with his predecessor. Anwar Sadat was not Nasser.

Nasser was the embodiment of "pan-Arabism," and like the Cairo mobs at the time of his death, he was drunk on the delusion. Sadat, one of the great facts of our time, may have been killed by one of the great frauds, the myth of a "natural" Arab unity. The myth is professed everywhere in the sovereign and fractious states that are the reality behind that destructive fiction, "the Arab world." But it is a myth everywhere belied by behavior.

Sadatism was anti-Nasserism, it was the politics of the concrete interests of an actual nation as opposed to the politics of airy cultural affirmations. Sadat became a great man because he decided to be a great Egyptian, not a great "Arab."

Egypt's geography--so much land with so little use--is like its social condition: a disproportion between a grand history and a confining present. But Sadat gave his country the finest gift a leader can confer, a more open future, and he did so by understanding the uses of personal bravery and political brutality. Bravery took him to Camp David, via Jerusalem. But he thought war, too, was necessary for the achievement of his purposes, and he launched war.

Today the United States and Israel must insist that the Camp David process retains its vitality. So for the foreseeable future-- which today is an exceptionally shallow vista --the United States and Israel must hope, or perhaps pretend, that the Camp David agreement was with a nation, not a man. They must hope that Sadat bequeathed a durable regime to a country capable of at least the minimum continuity that diplomatic parchment presupposes.

But pretending--the politics of creative fiction--was important to Sadat. Sadat, the second winner of the Nobel Peace Prize assassinated in 13 years, died in a military uniform. He was slain at a parade commemorating "victory" in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the act of aggression that was, he thought, a prerequisite for his role as a man of peace. And only American diplomacy, and the coerced cooperation of Israel, prevented that war from being an Israeli victory so decisive that it would have meant Sadat's downfall.

History is not an arena of justice; it is a test of the capacity to act. Sadat was one of history's diamond cutters. He had a jeweler's eye for moments that are rough diamonds, which, if struck precisely right, become extraordinarily valuable but which, if struck in any of a number of wrong ways, shatter to dust.

Today the United States is being blamed for Sadat's death by people who believe the United States is not skillful enough to do anything right, but who also believe that nothing can go wrong anywhere without the help of the United States. The charge is that Sadat died because the peace process is too slow, and that the United States and Israel are to blame. But Sadat probably died because the peace process exists. Certainly in a region where the word "assassin" was coined, it was beyond the capacity of the United States (or Israel) to make safe the paths Sadat embarked upon, the paths of domestic modernization and international moderation. Menachem Begin, Sadat's partner in peace, is notably unlike Sadat in that his personality caused him to receive less credit than he deserved for Sadat's trip to Jerusalem and for what that trip led to, the Camp David agreements. In the end, Egypt gave up only unattainable demands and unjustifiable threats; Israel gave up land it occupied when defending itself against threats translated into aggression.

But it was, for Sadat, serendipitous that Begin is as deficient as a projector of charm as Sadat was accomplished. As a result, many Americans, with their proclivity for personalizing political judgments, began to