National Security

Thatcher's Foreign Policy 'Failure'

She wanted Gorbachev to stop the reunification of Germany.

If there was one instance in which a foreign policy I pursued met with unambiguous failure, it was my policy on German reunification.

-- Margaret Thatcher

The late prime minister of Great Britain published her memoirs in 1993, under the title Downing Street Years, full of scores settled (almost as much with her own Conservatives, who spurned her at the end, as with the Laborites she fought her whole career) and few admissions of doubt or defeat.

Except for her effort to prevent German reunification -- her "unambiguous failure."

The most remarkable documents on the Thatcher campaign against unification come from former top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyaev, who was the designated notetaker at the British prime minister's meeting with the Soviet general secretary on September 23, 1989 in the Kremlin. A translation of his handwritten notes is presented here in extended form for the first time. Chernyaev also wrote several diary entries analyzing Thatcher's motivations. 

In retrospect, reunification seems almost over-determined, but that is not at all how it looked at the time. Thatcher's opposition echoed in Washington, with the Bush administration's emphasis on stability and prudence. But the rapid collapse of the East German regime in the fall of 1989, the incompetence and ultimate resignation of the communist leaders in Berlin, the mobilization of East German public opinion, the lure of the West German deutschmark, and the adroit maneuvering of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl all culminated in the victory of pro-unification forces in East Germany's March 1990 elections -- and the October 1990 deal dissolving the country.

In her memoirs, Thatcher described the September 1989 meeting relatively accurately, but not at all vividly or forcefully, certainly not in comparison to the practically verbatim Chernyaev notes. She wrote:

I explained to him [Gorbachev] that although NATO had traditionally made statements supporting Germany's aspiration to be reunited, in practice we were rather apprehensive. Mr Gorbachev confirmed that the Soviet Union did not want German reunification either. This reinforced me in my resolve to slow up the already heady pace of developments. Of course I did not want East Germans to live under Communism, but it seemed to me that a truly democratic East Germany would soon emerge and the question of reunification was a separate one, on which the wishes and interests of Germany's neighbours and other powers must be fully taken into account.

In Chernyaev's far richer account, the two leaders talked as peers and with a great deal of mutual sympathy -- after all, it had been Thatcher who pronounced Gorbachev a "man we can do business with" upon their first meeting back in 1984. Gorbachev told Thatcher about internal Soviet discussions, and why he did not believe in the Chinese model: "How can you reform both the economy and politics without democratizing society, without glasnost, which incorporates individuals into an active socio-political life?"

Thatcher responded, "I noted that you calmly accepted the results of the elections in Poland [June 1989, when Solidarity won 99 of 100 contested seats] and, in general, the processes in that country and in other East European counties. I understand your position in the following way: you are in favor of each country choosing its own road of development so long as the Warsaw Treaty is intact. I understand this position perfectly."

At this point, according to Chernyaev's notes, Thatcher asked that note-taking be discontinued, "I would like to say something in a very confidential manner." Of course, Chernyaev complied, but immediately following the meeting, wrote down from memory what Thatcher had said:

Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the reunification of Germany. The words written in the NATO communiqué may sound different, but disregard them. We do not want the unification of Germany. It would lead to changes in the post-war borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the entire international situation and could lead to threats to our security. We are not interested in the destabilization of Eastern Europe or the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact either.... I can tell you that this is also the position of the U.S. president.

Amazing. Disregard NATO's words. Keep the Warsaw Pact. Prevent a unified Germany. All very comforting to the Soviet leader. Later, at the Malta summit with Gorbachev, President George H.W. Bush would use a double negative to describe the U.S. position on unification, "We cannot be asked to disapprove of German reunification."

Soon after the Thatcher meeting, however, Chernyaev wrote in his diary about what was really going on. On October 9, after hearing from French President Francois Mitterrand and others in Europe that "nobody wants a unified Germany," Chernyaev remembered, "Thatcher, when she asked to go off the record during the conversation with M.S. [Gorbachev], expressed her views decisively against Germany's reunification. But, she said this is not something she can openly say at home or in NATO. In short, they want to prevent this with our hands."

In short, Thatcher failed to prevent German unification at least in part because she did not want to get her own hands dirty -- leave that to the Soviets. Perhaps she was as surprised as anyone when Gorbachev stuck to his principles and let the empire go.

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National Security

A Clear View from Foggy Bottom

How State Department analysts  -- and no one else -- foresaw the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

A fabled but previously secret State Department intelligence memorandum that predicted, five months in advance, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, has now emerged from classified vaults so obscure that even State Department historians and CIA officers responsible for Freedom of Information Act requests could not penetrate them.

When the war broke out on October 6, it surprised high-level officials in the Nixon administration. Yet, in a paper written the previous May, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) had estimated that there was a "better than even bet" that war would occur "by autumn." Not one other office in the U.S. government had made such an estimate, and the Israelis themselves had dismissed the possibility of war. Although this example of INR's acuity has been known about for years, the document itself was surprisingly elusive and is being published for the first time here and on the National Security Archive website.

According to INR, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would start a war with Israel not to achieve specific military objectives but to spur "big power" diplomatic intervention in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The authors of the INR paper anticipated that as war unfolded, a variety of U.S. "interests" in the region could come under attack, with possible nationalizations of petroleum facilities, "efforts to displace US oil companies with those from Europe and Japan," and "prolonged oil embargoes." Despite the far-sighted INR analysis, senior officials in the Nixon administration saw war as unlikely.

A discussion of the INR report was a highlight of a remarkable conference held at Washington's Cosmos Club in October 1998, the war's 25th anniversary. Organized by the late ambassador Richard Parker, it included senior and mid-level former officials from Egypt, Syria, Israel, the United States, and the former Soviet Union -- including a secretary of defense, ambassadors, generals, and a KGB station chief -- all of whom played important roles at the time. The October 1973 intelligence failure was an important element of the discussion, and a memorable moment was when INR's former desk officer for Egypt, Roger Merrick, spoke about how he developed the estimate with input from INR colleagues David Mark and Phillip Stoddard.

For Merrick, the possibility of conflict was inherent in the dynamics of the situation. Egyptian leaders had tried to use diplomacy to recover territory in the Sinai Peninsula lost to Israeli forces during the Six-Day War in June 1967. But the Israelis were unresponsive, and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had nothing to offer his Egyptian counterparts. By the spring of 1973, according to Merrick, Sadat had "established himself as a strong player, serious;" yet despite his push for a diplomatic resolution of the Sinai problem, he was "neglected, and in an intolerable position with his political alternatives exhausted." On the other hand, his "forces were in place to launch hostilities and had not raised any significant alarm; thus the estimate that there was a better than even chance of major hostilities within six months."

Analysts at the State Department's Office of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) rejected the INR view, and senior officials like Kissinger and Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco felt no alarm because the Israelis, underestimating Arab capabilities, kept assuring them that there was no danger. Kissinger did not tell any of the players that Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had warned of war in the region during his visit to the United States in June 1973. The dispute between INR and NEA over the possibility of war, Merrick recounted, "continued throughout the summer and fall until hostilities erupted," and INR's estimate was vindicated.

INR's analysts have often been on the money. In 1964, Allen Whiting predicted the strong likelihood of a Chinese atomic test, which Secretary of State Dean Rusk announced to the world two weeks before the event. During the Vietnam War, INR analysts starting with Lewis Sarris critically assessed the Pentagon's evaluation of "progress" in South Vietnam. In the run-up to the Iraq War, INR did share in the consensus that Saddam had been trying seriously to establish a biological and chemical warfare capability, but the bureau was spectacularly right in its doubt about the most important claim in the Bush White House's case for war: that Saddam was "reconstituting" a nuclear weapons capability. INR disputed the claims that Iraq's aluminum tubes were for gas centrifuges and that the country had recently sought uranium yellow-cake from Niger.

Some of the key instances of INR's astuteness are well documented, but the estimate on the possibility of war in 1973 proved hard to locate. During the 1998 conference, I asked Merrick whether he had a copy of his INR paper or knew where it could be found. He assumed it would be in the bureau's retired files at the State Department. This conversation set off a 15-year on-again, off-again quest through archival research and FOIA requests to the State Department and then the CIA, all of which proved in vain. Even a skilled State Department historian, Craig Daigle (now at City College of New York), then working to complete the Foreign Relations of the United States compilation on the war, could not find it despite having clearance to review classified government files.

One trace of the document was found, however, in the intelligence community's post-mortem of the October war intelligence failure, which the National Security Archive obtained in 2009. That document's discussion of intelligence sources and methods was heavily redacted, but it included a detailed account of the INR report, quoting it at length and characterizing it as a "remarkable memorandum" and a "case of wisdom lost." Daigle included this account in his compilation.

Then, for a conference on the October war this January at the Nixon Presidential Library, staffers in the CIA's Historical Collections Division compiled a large number of documents, some of which they described in a booklet. I was surprised to see, on page 42, a capsule summary of the INR memorandum. At my request, the CIA provided a copy of the document, which is slated to appear in an online compilation at the CIA's website.

How and where the CIA editors found the INR memo remains a mystery. Its first page shows that the State Department reviewed it for declassification in 2002 and that the CIA refused to authorize declassification, which seems absurd. For some 10 years it sat in an obscure paper or electronic file where State Department historians could not find it and where even the CIA's FOIA researchers could not locate it. A perfect example of one hand not knowing what the other one was doing.

Somewhat shamelessly, the CIA officials who reviewed this "case of wisdom lost" censored the names of its authors (see bottom of page 4). This is standard practice when CIA declassification reviewers scrutinize Agency intelligence reports -- the names of analysts are almost never made public. But this is a State Department document, and the names of the authors of INR reports are invariably disclosed in records at the National Archives and in State Department FOIA releases. They are not like CIA officials whose names are often kept secret. But at least now we can be sure that Roger Merrick and his colleagues get full credit for their insight.

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