A report Thursday erroneously quoted William Quandt as saying that President Jimmy Carter had not approved the text of a U.S.-Soviet joint statement on the Middle East before its issuance on Oct. 1, 1977. Carter had approved the text in advance. (Published 2/2/91)
The joint U.S.-Soviet statement issued Tuesday night on the Persian Gulf War and the Middle East sparked controversy around the globe yesterday, with the White House insisting it signaled no departure from previous policy, Israel complaining that it was not consulted, and the Soviet Union hailing the document as an example of broadened superpower cooperation.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the statement had been "widely and wildly" misinterpreted as a change in policy. State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler, reciting a litany of previous U.S. statements on the Middle East, said, "In our opinion, there is absolutely nothing new here."
The statement told Iraq that hostilities would end "if Iraq would make an unequivocal commitment" to pull out of Kuwait and take "immediate, concrete steps to do so." To some, this formulation appeared to reflect what House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) called "some change of emphasis" from earlier U.S. insistence on unconditional and total Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
The joint statement also called for a redoubled effort after the war to resolve broader Middle East issues, including the regional arms race and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir yesterday said its "defect" was that "a political act that involved us, our fate, our future, was taken without consulting with us."
While insisting that the statement was merely a reiteration of existing policy, Bush administration officials acknowledged that it had been handled clumsily, coming less than two hours before the president was to deliver a major address and without the usual consultations with U.S. allies. Even President Bush had not seen the statement in advance. The White House and State Department made hasty efforts to forestall any criticism from Israel.
Aside from the confusion, officials said the document was an example of the unusual efforts the United States has made to ensure the Soviet Union remains an active and supportive member of the international coalition confronting Iraq. A crucial difference between this and previous Middle East crises has been the unprecedented joint approach of both the United States and the Soviet Union to Iraq's aggression.
The U.S. officials said the document reflected strong contributions from Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, who asked that it be made public before he left Washington late Tuesday night. At the same time, they said, from the U.S. standpoint "there was value in having Bessmertnykh sign up" to a joint statement to demonstrate that the two nations were still in accord on the gulf. Statements by Bessmertnykh and others in Moscow had raised doubt about this, as had the differences over violence in the Baltic states that are seeking independence from the Soviet Union.
Rarely, if ever, has a joint statement by the two leading powers been made public in such haphazard fashion during a war.
Shortly at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Bessmertnykh walked out the front door of the State Department and told waiting reporters that he and Secretary of State James A. Baker III had just agreed on the joint statement in their final meeting before the Soviet minister was to return home.
At the urging of curious journalists, who were unaware such a statement was in preparation, Bessmertnykh read some paragraphs of the document from a Russian text and then, shifting to an English
version, declared it to be "an important statement, because the two
sides haven't made a joint statement on this subject for many years."
After Bessmertnykh got into his limousine and rode away, a State Department press aide handed out copies of the two-page document to reporters, who dashed to their telephones.
The statement took just about everybody by surprise. At the Israeli Embassy, according to a diplomat, there was shock as the minister's remarks were heard on CNN. Neither congressional leaders nor other U.S. allies in the gulf war had been notified about the statement in advance.
State Department spokesman Tutwiler said she had gone home at 6:55 p.m., and "everything was calm and quiet . . . . " Tutwiler said her understanding was that if a statement was to be issued, it would simply be posted on a bulletin board. Tutwiler noted that Baker did not appear with the Soviet minister, as he customarily would if there was to be a significant declaration. She said, "We did not,
in all candor, view this as any big deal."
At the White House, reporters' questions to a senior official who was briefing them about the president's State of the Union address touched off a scramble to find out what was in the statement. National security adviser Brent Scowcroft telephoned Baker to learn its contents, and Fitzwater got a copy to show the president in his limousine as they traveled to the Capitol for the speech.
The sequence of events sparked a fresh round of backbiting within the administration yesterday, as some White House aides wondered aloud whether Baker had been trying to upstage Bush's address. Two officials said White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu complained bitterly Tuesday night that Baker "forgot the first rule" of politics, which is not to upstage the president.
One person who was not surprised by the release of the statement was Bessmertynkh. Earlier in the day, he had discussed the joint statement with Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid and a visiting Soviet parliamentarian, Fyodor Burlatsky. A Soviet diplomat said the text was very close to resolutions that had previously been approved by the Supreme Soviet legislature in Moscow.
According to U.S. officials, Bessmertnykh, who become foreign minister only two weeks ago, succeeding Eduard Shevardnadze, was anxious to demonstrate that the Soviet Union remains a major player that can influence U.S. thinking on Middle East issues. Shevardnadze's resignation created widespread doubt about the directions of Soviet foreign policy.
The controversy over the statement was reminiscent of the uproar that followed a joint U.S.-Soviet statement on Middle East peace issued by Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in October 1977. The statement was rejected by the Israeli government as "unacceptable" and sharply attacked by many supporters of Israel in the United States. The battering that the Carter administration took on the issue helped persuade Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to change the nature of Middle East diplomacy by his dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977.
William Quandt of Brookings Institution, who was Middle East expert on President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council staff and who later wrote a book about the diplomacy of the period, said Carter did not approve the text of the U.S.-Soviet statement before it was issued, and that nearly the entire administration was unprepared for the "firestorm" of criticism that followed. It was the Carter administration's "single biggest misreading" of the domestic sensitivity of Middle East politics, according to Quandt.
The current controversy is likely to be much less severe, Quandt said, because "the change in U.S.-Soviet relations is so dramatic"
and there is much less fear now of
Moscow's hand in the Middle East. Staff writers Ann Devroy and Dan Balz contributed to this report