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Embargo Russian Arms?

This piece originally ran on September 2nd, 1957.

C. L Sulzberger, the scholarly editorial columnist of The New York Times, had the courage in a recent dispatch from Paris to put forward a daring brink-of-war proposal for the Middle East -- a Western blockade of Russian arms shipments. The Soviet arms buildup in Egypt during 1956, he assumes, precipitated the Israeli attack. Likewise, Russian arms shipments to Yemen led to the more recent Yemini attack on British Aden. And the present Russian deliveries to Syria can be directed only against four neighbors—-Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Israel.

"This cannot go on indefinitely," writes Sulzberger. "The Arab lands are excitable. They do not possess "the cynical coolness of experienced governments... The more weapons accumulated in that area, the more probable the chances of a conflict."

He concludes it is time to call a halt, and asks how that can be done. If we propose an arms embargo to the Russians—which, incidentally, would block delivery of American arms to Middle East Treaty Organization nations as well as Russian arms to Syria—he is certain the Russians would reject it. And if they did agree, their price would be full Russian participation in all Big Power decisions affecting the Middle East.

So, Sulzberger writes, we must consider the practicality of imposing an embargo on our own. Heavy Russian equiptment, he points out, can enter the area only through sea lanes controlled by the West -- the Dardanelles, the Gibraltar Strait, and the Red Sea gateway between British Aden and French Somaliland, Of course, Mr. Siilzberger admits, it would seem high-handed were we to announce our intention of banning munition ships from these waters, but “legalistic excuses could perhaps be adduced," such as those Colonel Nasser employs in barring Israeli ships from Suez.

How radical such a policy would be can be grasped by posing a further question: What would Congress do if, after passing a $3 billion foreign aid bill, a foreign power announced it would not allow the movement of American arms to our allies? Or if the USSR began to search American ships for arms? We would regard such interferences as acts of war, which they would be.

All of us would like to find a clear and convincing answer to, Sulzberger’s closing plea: "What else is there to do if Russia will not agree to cease supplying instruments of death to lands which make no secret of their intention ultimately to use them?" The only American policy we can envisage which offers any hope of counteracting the immediate danger in the Middle East -- the Syrian arms build-up -- is one which quietly but consistently encourages surrounding Arab lands -- all of them anti-Communist and all of them menaced in turn by the Syrian army -- to isolate the present Syrian Government, and thus discredit it in the eyes of the Syrian people themselves. Granted, this is a slender reed on which to lean. But if we rule out direct agreement with the Russians (as politically too costly), or a unilateral embargo (as an act of war), or direct military intervention in Syria (as war), what other course is open to us? We can formally announce to the UN that peace is threatened, but that body has never been able to adjudicate power struggles between the Soviet Union and the West – where one or both sides refuse to call it quits.