A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 6, 2009

Robert S. McNamara and the Middle East

The death of Robert S. McNamara at the age of 93 has naturally brought on the expected reflections on his role in Vietnam — the role which haunted him throughout his career — and in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those were the critical moments for which he will be remembered, for good or ill, from his long period as Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

The historian in me feels compelled to add a few footnotes, however: though it never became his central focus as first Cuba and then Vietnam did, the Middle East did intrude on McNamara's attention from time to time. It is easy to forget, because in the world we are familiar with US military support for Israel seems to have always been a feature of the landscape, but it was the Kennedy-Johnson years that marked the real beginning of the US supplying military equipment to Israel.

In the early years of the state, Israel depended heavily on French armaments, in a relationship largely built up by the then-young Shimon Peres. It was only in the Kennedy Administration that the US moved to sell Hawk surface-to-air missiles to Israel. That was the turning point, along with Charles de Gaulle's disillusionment with Israel and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, that evolved into the close US-Israeli defense supply relationship we know today. It does not seem to have been primarly McNamara's doing — Deputy Secretary William Bundy is sometimes given credit — but the change in the defense relationship did begin under McNamara's watch at the Pentagon.

That, and the 1967 war, were the main defense concerns involving the Middle East, and they were still largely framed in Cold War terms. (The Kennedy Administration also interested itself in the Yemen Civil War for a while, but not to the extent of providing military aid.)

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