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Behind the Headlines the Awacs Vote–a Lesson in Presidential Power

November 2, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

President Reagan’s come-from-behind victory to prevent a Senate rejection of his planned $8.5 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia will now put pressure on the President to prove he has a Middle East policy that can demonstrate progress in the peace process.

Members of Congress, particularly Senators, who voted for the sale to the Saudis of five AWACS reconnaissance planes and enhancement equipment for previously purchased F-15 jets, expect to see some Saudi movement in favor of the Camp David peace process that Saudi Arabia has worked against for the past two years. There had been unhappiness in the Senate over the Saudi failure to back Camp David following the Carter Administration’s promise of Saudi moderation when the 62 F-15s were approved in 1978.

Congressional pressure is also to be expected for more arms to Israel to keep the Administration’s promise to maintain Israel’s “qualitative and quantitative” military edge.

This was a condition enunciated by Republican Senators, who switched from opposition to support of the arms sale, starting with Larry Pressler (N. D.) on the Foreign Relations Committee, and continuing with the four others — Roger Jepson (Iowa), Slade Gorton (Wash.) Mark Andrews (North Dakota) and William Cohen (Maine)–who gave Reagan his 52 to 48 victory in the Senate Wednesday.


The victory was credited to a demonstration of the use of Presidential power, plus Reagan’s own considerable powers of persuasion. Only Tuesday morning, Senate deputy minority leader, Alan Cranston (D. Cal.) was declaring that the arms package would be rejected by the Senate, as it was earlier by the House, where it was defeated by a 301 to III vote.

But by late Tuesday, on the eve of the Senate vote, Cranston for the first time appeared uncertain. Reagan, who had personally talked to at least half the Senate members in recent weeks, mounted a blitz campaign on his return from the economic summit at Cancun, Mexico last week.

On Tuesday nine previously undecided Senators backed the President. Even more damaging was the announcement of support by Jepson who had opposed the arms package ever since it was first announced last April and who was until the zero hour a leader of the anti-AWACS opposition.

On Wednesday, as the debate took place on the Senate floor, three other long-time foes of the sale announced they had switched — Gorton, Andrews and Cohen.

In addition, Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D. Neb.) who voted against the sale in the Foreign Relations Committee, voted for it in the Senate after meeting with the President at the White House earlier in the day.

Zorinsky and Warren Rudman (R. N. H.) were the only two of the Senate’s six Jews to vote for the sale. Cohen’s father is Jewish, his mother is not and the Senator is a Unitarian.

All but Cohen declared that they were supporting the sale because they felt that to reject it would harm the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy. Andrews noted that he had begun to change his mind after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He said that in the last few days, with the growing crisis in Poland, he had come to believe that the “President’s ability to speak firmly for the country” should not be weakened.

In the end, despite all the arguments raised against the AWACS deal, including the fear for security of advanced weapons technology, the final decision hinged on the need to support the President. This was especially the case for Republicans who had been told that rejection of the sale would not only weaken the President in foreign affairs but would also harm the chances of success for his domestic program. Only 12 Republicans joined 36 Democrats in opposing the sale. Forty-one Republican backed the sale, supported by 10 Democrats and independent Harry Byrd of Virginia.

The debate made clear that a majority of Senators did not favor the arms sale even though they voted for it. The President sent a letter to the Senate Wednesday as the debate was in progress, giving vague assurances sought by the Senators. Gorton maintained that the letter guaranteed that the AWACS would not be delivered in 1985 unless the President certified to the Senate that security arrangements demanded by the Senate were agreed to by the Saudis and that the Saudis had made contributions to the Mideast peace process.


The President’s letter also pledged Reagan’s commitment “to preserving Israel’s ability to defend (itself) against any combination of potentially hostile forces in the region.” This was seized upon by Cohen in announcing his switch for the sale. For Cohen, the choice was an agonizing one. In a speech in which he called the Saudis “as moderate as Yasir Arafat,” Cohen said he was voting for the sale because he did not want Israel to become a “scapegoat” if the peace process broke down. He said if Israel was blamed for such a breakdown, there might be a refusal in this country to come to Israel’s aid if it was endangered.

Cohen told reporters that his fear for Israel’s security was the sole reason for his decision; not fear that anti-Semitism would increase in the United States if the sale was rejected. He said anti-Semitism appears every once in a while in the country “like weeds,” but Americans have always been able to deal with it.

The specter of anti-Semitism was raised publicly Tuesday by Sen. Mark Hatfield (R. Ore.) an opponent of the AWACS sale. He said he feared the debate had caused a “resurgence of anti-Semitism” as evidenced by his mail and conversations during his visit to Oregon. Other Senators have reported similar manifestations.

The Administration has been accused of raising the issue behind the scenes, which it has denied. But the issue was certainly raised by former President Nixon when he warned that the American Jewish community would have to take the consequences if the sale was rejected.

Reagan, at a press conference earlier this month, warned of foreign interference in U. S. policy. This was widely interpreted as aimed at Israel. At the same time, Secretary of State Alexander Haig said repeatedly and publicly that Israel had the right and obligation to speak up on the issues of concern to it.

During the Senate debate, Senators noted that both Israel and Saudi Arabia had the right to express their views, as they did. Many denounced the attempt to make the vote an issue of “Reagan or Begin,” a claim brought up behind the scenes by many lobbyists. Senators noted they had received strong pressure from the American Jewish community. But they also noted heavy pressure from executives of American

corporations that do business with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries. Boeing, the manufacturer of the AWACS, a Boeing 707 plane, reportedly asked its subcontractors to call Senators in their states in support of the sale.

But despite all the conflicting pressures, in the end it came down to whether the Senators could withstand the strongest pressure of all — that from the White House.

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