Small World: Passing of the Old Guard


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Three men who helped shape the modern Middle East died this past month. Very different in many ways, they achieved renown and, yet, at the end met failure.

Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, a confident of President Nasser, was for 17 years editor of Cairo’s Al-Ahram, the most influential newspaper in the region. He was an Egyptian patriot, a sometime critic of Nasser, opposed to presidents Sadat and Mubarak (“inept and corrupt”) and an eloquent exponent of Arab nationalism against residual Western imperialism. In 1967, the Israelis smashed Egypt and that movement. After Nasser’s death, Sadat rejected him.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian Copt (Christian), descended from a distinguished family (his grandfather had been prime minister when the British ran the country). Boutros was a law professor until President Sadat made him the No. 2 foreign minister. (A non-Moslem could not be No. 1.) Boutros accompanied Sadat on his peace-seeking trip to Jerusalem after the foreign minister resigned in protest. He remained on the job through Camp David and under Mubarak — always the lawyer — knowing his brief and refusing to move from it when principle had been established in his mind. Somehow, he was selected as secretary-general of the United Nations. There he was faced with the crises of Yugoslavia falling apart, genocide in Rwanda, the need for effective peace-keeping forces and was critical of Israel’s actions in Lebanon. A great pain for Washington, Boutros became the only sec-gen to be denied a second term.

Hal Saunders came to prominence as a CIA agent (with an American Literature Ph.D.) assigned to the White House staff. He was part of the team on Kissinger’s many shuttles through the Middle East after the 1973 Arab-Israel war. Remaining on the job as Assistant Secretary of State under President Carter, Hal did much of the drafting for the American side at the Camp David talks. Then came the Iranian Revolution and Hostage Crisis. Hal was one of the lead actors in those dramas. I traveled with him as we sought (1.) to find someone who could speak authoritatively for the Ayatollah Khomeini and (2.) find a formula that would end the crisis and return our hostages unharmed. When we identified two characters with connections to the Tehran regime, I watched as Hal, with his deep experience at negotiations, led them through a formula for resolving the crisis. He failed — owing to Iranian inexperience and insecurity — only to try again and succeed when Algeria acted as a go-between.

Hal used to say, “If we only have a 10% chance of moving toward peace, our job is to raise that to 20%.” He tried his darnedest to bring off a settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors and to achieve a decent U.S.-Iran relationship. He may have reached 20%, but he couldn’t succeed totally on either front.

These three men had two big qualities in common:  first the technical, the ability to write persuasively and to generate new ideas. Second, the moral, the loyalty and integrity that led their leaders to trust them absolutely.

All three men devoted their lives to seeking their vision of peace. The world is a better place for their work even if their success was not complete.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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