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Sadat: A Man with a Passion for Peace

9 minute read
Henry A. Kissinger


Few if any world figures were as close to Anwar Sadat as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. During 21 months of shuttling between Egypt and Israel in 1974 and 1975 in his effort to bring peace to the Middle East, Kissinger met Sadat literally dozens of times, and the two men achieved a rapport that went far beyond the often forced friendliness of most diplomatic relationships. In the following piece, Kissinger movingly describes the characteristics that propelled Sadat to the center of the world’s stage, and kept him there. Kissinger is currently working on the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval, which TIME will excerpt, and which will be published by Little, Brown in March 1982.

Isaiah Berlin once wrote that greatness is the ability to transform paradox into platitude.

When Anwar Sadat appeared on the scene, the Arab countries had too little confidence in their arms and too much faith in their rhetoric. The majority of them relied on the Soviet Union, which could supply them with weapons for futile wars but no programs for progress in diplomacy. Negotiations consisted of exalted slogans incapable of achievement; the Arab countries wanted the fruits of peace without daring to pronounce the word. The nations of the West stood on the sidelines, observers at a drama that affected their destiny but seemingly without the capacity to influence it.

Within a few years, Sadat managed to overcome these riddles. He went to war when no one thought it possible and, having restored Arab self-respect, he made a peace that no one had dared to imagine. He moved his people toward a partnership with the West, recognizing that a sense of shared values is a more certain spur to support than a defiance based on striking poses. He eschewed romantic posturing in favor of attainable steps. And he shaped the attainable with a fine sense for the dramatic. He understood that a heroic gesture can create a new reality.

When he died, the peace process was a commonplace; Egypt’s friendship with America was a cornerstone of Mideast stability. By his journey to Jerusalem he had demonstrated to our country, obsessed with the tangible, the transcendence of nobility. In the process he had accomplished more for the Arab cause than those of his brethren whose specialty was belligerent rhetoric. He had recovered more territory, obtained more help from the West, and done more to make the Arab case reputable internationally than any of the leaders who regularly abused him at meetings of the so-called rejectionist front.

Sadat bore with fortitude the loneliness that is inseparable from moving the world from familiar categories toward where it has never been. He raised our gaze toward heretofore unimaginable horizons. And when he had transformed the paradox and solved the riddle, he was killed by the apostles of the ordinary, the fearful, the merchants of the ritualistic whom he shamed by being at once out of scale and impervious to their meanness of spirit.

Sadat was a very great man who made the difficult seem effortless. The difference between great and ordinary leaders is rarely formal intellect but insight. The great man understands the essence of a problem; the ordinary leader grasps only the symptoms. The great man focuses on the relationship of events to each other; the ordinary leader sees only a series of seemingly disconnected events. The great man has a vision of the future that enables him to place obstacles into perspective; the ordinary leader turns pebbles in the road into boulders.

Sadat was a noble man with a passion for peace. One day I sat with him in the study of the modest sandstone house that he used in Aswan. As occasionally happened, Sadat was brooding about something or other, puffing on his pipe. One could see the dhows on the Nile, the mighty river bisecting a very narrow strip of green and flanked on both sides by the vast dunes of a seemingly endless desert. The silence was interrupted by an aide, who whispered something into Sadat’s ear. Sadat rose with tears in his eyes, and I got up as well. He embraced me for the first time and said: “They have just signed the disengagement agreement. Today I will take off my uniform. I hope never to have to wear it again.” On another occasion, in a military hospital that he was inspecting, he spoke movingly to me of how much Egypt had suffered, how an end had to be put to pointless conflict, how he did not want to send any more young men to die. Egypt needed no more heroes.

But a statesman must never be viewed as starry-eyed. He must have vision and depth; he must also translate his intuition into reality against sometimes resistant material. Sadat was neither starry-eyed nor soft. He was not a pacifist. He did not believe in peace at any price. I never doubted that in the end he would create heroes if no other course he considered honorable was left to him.

Any simple assessment of Sadat is therefore likely to be mistaken. Dozens of visiting Americans were charmed by him. But he was also aloof and reflective and withdrawn. Like many men of power, he had an almost carnal relationship with authority. He could hold his own with small talk, but on deeper acquaintance it became clear that it bored him. He much preferred to spend his idle time in solitary reflection in his restless peregrinations around his beloved country.

His urbanity made it easy to forget his antecedents as a revolutionary struggling for his country’s independence and suffering for it in a succession of prisons. Such men are never “regular fellows,” however charmingly they present themselves.

Revolutionary leadership is a career that can attract only the deeply dedicated. Aloof, pensive, calculating, he took a long view, but he would also insist on achieving it.

Sadat had an uncanny discernment. He handled four American Presidents with consummate psychological skill. He treated Nixon as a great statesman, Ford as a living manifestation of good will, Carter as a missionary almost too decent for this world and Reagan as the benevolent leader of a popular revolution, subtly appealing to each man’s conception of himself and gaining the confidence of each. He worked at identifying America’s interest with his own.

Sadat analyzed correctly that Arab radicalism tended to reinforce America’s special relationship with Israel. This offered America no alternative: it added the argument of strategic necessity to the existing emotional ties. So Sadat set out on a course that would have been considered mad until he proved it possible: to woo the U.S. into a more “evenhanded” posture, to create an emotional bond that would produce an incentive for American assistance in recovering lands the Arabs considered theirs. In this sense the 1977 journey to Jerusalem was at one and the same time an act of nobility and a method of disarming Israel psychologically: a unique gesture of reconciliation and a device to isolate the Jewish state.

This explains Israel’s ambivalence toward Sadat. The Israelis, who for decades had been the objects of their neighbors’ unremitting hostility, greeted Sadat’s overtures at first with incredulity, later with hope, even exaltation. But there was also the gnawing fear that his seduction of the U.S. would ultimately leave Israel alone and friendless in a hostile world.

Therefore Israel was torn between embracing Sadat’s overture and haggling over its terms, between its own hopes and nightmares. And the last page has not yet been written in a history in which both Israel’s hopes and its nightmares could indeed come true.

Sadat was more than the sum of his parts. By one of the miracles of creation, the peasant’s son, the originally underestimated politician, had the wisdom and courage of the statesman and occasionally the insight of the prophet. He defied his enemies: when abused by them he moved further in the direction he had chosen, to drive home the point that they were powerless to stop him. He transformed our world by an act of will, shaping history according to his own vision, daring to do what all thought impossible.

And there was always the pervasive humanity. When I visited Egypt recently, he invited my wife, my son and me to dinner at his villa by the sea in Alexandria. The table had been set at the exact spot on the lawn where he had negotiated and signed the second disengagement agreement. During the course of the evening, I said that all Americans who had worked with Sadat owed him a great debt; he had made all of us look good.

The remark disturbed Sadat; he kept coming back to it. He did not want his labors to be considered personal; it was his duty, not his preference, to restore dignity to his people and give hope to his country and perhaps the world.

I do not want to pursue the argument with my fallen friend. But for once he was wrong. He did make us look good.

Only he made it seem too easy, too natural, so that we took him too much for granted. And now that he is no longer with us and we have to journey toward peace alone, it is clear how much we needed him. Whether we will get there falteringly or with a steady stride depends on us. But none who know history will ever forget that we would not be on the journey at all had it not been for Anwar Sadat.

No other people have been so obsessed with immortality as the Egyptians: none have sought to capture time so persistently —at times with defiant boldness, at times passively; now relying on endurance rather than the grand assault, now raising tremendous edifices to faith in the future. In his own way Sadat has moved toward the age-old Egyptian dream of immortality; peace will be his pyramid.

It has been an honor to be one of his contemporaries.

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