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Los Angeles Times Interview

Lucius Battle

A Foreign-Policy Warrior Recalls NATO's Birth and Middle East Wars

October 29, 2000|Norman Kempster | Norman Kempster is a foreign-policy correspondent for The Times

WASHINGTON — Lucius Durham Battle is the last man standing, a survivor of the heady days after World War II when the victorious powers put the world back together, creating institutions that continue to shape international politics.

Now 82 years old and just retired as president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Battle joined the State Department in 1946 after wartime stints first as a civilian War Department analyst and later as a Navy officer. He was a special assistant to one of the legends of U.S. diplomacy, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, from 1949 until Acheson left office at the end of the Harry S. Truman administration in early 1953.

Later, he held a variety of State Department posts, including special assistant to John F. Kennedy's secretary of State, Dean Rusk. He was ambassador to Egypt during the days that preceded the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and he was assistant secretary of State for Near East policy during that conflict.

Interviewed in the living room of his home near Washington's embassy district, Battle reminisced about his half-century career, talking by turns about his days with Acheson, encounters with Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser and about the prospects for Middle East peace in the weeks and months ahead.

Unlike Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and most of today's top government officials, Acheson did not keep a workaholic schedule. But with a keen intellect and a style that neither wasted time nor suffered fools, Acheson was able to play such a strong role in the establishment of the postwar institutions that he could immodestly title his memoirs "Present at the Creation."

Born in Georgia, Battle graduated from the University of Florida in 1939 and earned a law degree in 1946 between his discharge from the Navy and his arrival at the State Department. His speech retains the remnants of a Southern accent even after decades of diplomacy.

Among the souvenirs of a lifetime in his home are photographs of Battle with 50 years worth of international leaders--Queen Elizabeth of Britain as a young woman, U.S. presidents from Truman to George Bush, Nasser talking to Sen. Edward Kennedy. That's pretty common for Washington's famous and powerful, but Battle keeps things in perspective by displaying the framed pictures on a wall of his bathroom.

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Question: How would you compare today's Middle East with the one you saw before and during the war in 1967?

Answer: The balance of military power is rather different than it was in 1967. In '67, there were Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The initial strike was by Israel against Egypt, with substantial provocation I might say, and it knocked out the Egyptian air force. Today, the bigger powers have not been drawn into [the renewed fighting between Palestinians and Israelis] and I hope will not be.

The current situation has a longer root, and it is growing. This has gone on for several years and has increasingly become a holy war. At Camp David [last July], there was a very deep look at the issue of Jerusalem, which has been always put off. I really don't see any ready answer to the problem. There has to be a new element put into this. It will have to be the United Nations or the religious sector or something to assume sovereignty over Jerusalem. There has to be a new element of acceptance of a higher authority than they have had in the past.

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Q: How likely is it that Arab governments will become involved in the current crisis?

A: [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat is lining up Arab [government] support for his position. But I don't think the Arab states are likely to want to get into this conflict. There is no telling what Saddam Hussein will do, but Egypt, Jordan, Syria and other states want to avoid conflict.

. . . But there is a danger the fighting will spread to Lebanon and possibly to Syria. The government of Lebanon is unable to control its situation any more than Arafat can control his. There are too many elements in Lebanon that don't report to anybody. Syria is different, but its role in Lebanon could pull it into this.

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Q: How did the Johnson administration react to the war in 1967?

A: We worked very hard to find a way to avoid it. One of the nightmares I have is whether there was something more we could have done.

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Q: How different was the Nixon administration's response to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war?

A: Before the war in 1967, we had not been a military supplier to Israel. The French provided the Mirage planes [to Israel]. After the war in 1967, we began to supply Israel's military needs. We waited to see what the Russians would do to resupply the Egyptians who lost all their air force. When the Russians began to supply the Egyptians, we supplied the Israelis. By 1973, we were the primary military supplier to Israel.

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Q: Is there any chance that the deal announced at Sharm el Sheik will restore calm to Israel and the Palestinian territories?

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