And now Carter must try to bring the antagonists together again
"What do we want to do with the Israelis?" cried Republican Jacob Javits of New York. "Sap their vitality? Sap their morale? Cut the legs out from under them?" Replied Democrat Thomas Eagleton of Missouri: "Better that we provide a means for the Saudis to defend [their oil] themselves than face the possibility of some day being forced to commit our own military forces."
So went an emotional and often acrimonious ten-hour debate in the Senate last week, the culmination of a month-long battle over Jimmy Carter's plans to sell 60 F-15 fighters, which are among the world's most advanced interceptors, to Saudi Arabia and 50 less sophisticated F-5Es to Egypt, as well as 35 F-15s and 75 F-16s to Israel. Then, after a subdued roll call that took only 15 minutes, the outcome was official: by 54 to 44, the Senate sided with the President.
The vote was a milestone. It was the worst defeat suffered in Congress by Israel and its U.S. supporters. It was an indication that the Senate now agreed with three successive Presidents that the U.S. should pursue a more evenhanded Middle East policy, one that protects Israel's security and supports its moderate Arab neighbors as well. It was also a hard-won and welcome victory for Jimmy Carter.
But some of the Administration's joy was offset by a growing concern that such battles between the President and Congress had to be fought at all. Carter, like his modern predecessors, resents congressional interference in U.S. foreign policy, particularly the post-Viet Nam laws that limit U.S. intervention abroad or the shipment of military aid to friendly governments resisting Communist insurgency. These restrictions in turn inhibit the U.S. in negotiations; by not being able to threaten the use of force, the U.S. loses its edge at the bargaining table.
Even as the President felt hampered in his authority to conduct foreign policy, he confronted a series of new challenges last week. In Ethiopia, government forces, backed by Cuban troops, opened an offensive against secessionists in Eritrea. In pro-U.S. Zaïre, leftist rebels based in Angola stormed into the copper-rich province of Shaba. At breakfast with congressional leaders, Carter fumed specifically about his "frustration at having his hands tied" by the 1975 law restricting U.S. intervention in Angola.
Carter's frustrations can only increase in the days to come. This week Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko meet in New York City and Washington to try and narrow their differences in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, a prospective agreement that faces formidable opposition in the Senate. Next month Carter will begin an uphill fight in Congress to lift the arms embargo against NATO ally Turkey, which was imposed in 1974 following Turkey's invasion of Cyprus. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 8 to 4 to retain the embargo, but Administration supporters will raise the issue again on the Senate floor.
While savoring their hard-fought plane-sale victory, Administration officials tried to play down its significance to both the winners and the losers. In capitals around the world, the Senate vote raised a significant question: How far had the U.S. modified its Middle East policy?