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George Ball: Behind the Scenes in U.S. Foreign Policy.

By James A. Bill. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997. 232 pages, with Notes, Select Bibliography and Index. $30.00, hardcover.

James Bill has written a superb political biography of the diplomat George Ball. Professor Bill of the College of William and Mary is well known for his Middle East scholarship, most notably The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (Yale University Press, 1988). In the work under review, Bill adds to our understanding of U.S. foreign-policy making by focusing upon the seldom examined "second tier" of officials, those just below cabinet rank. As he notes in the introduction, "Second-tier figures such as Ball are not subject to the same public scrutiny as cabinet secretaries and many White House officials. This lack of accountability broadens their freedom of political movement and enables them to take risks and promote policies with less inhibition than those who inhabit the highest official ranks of government" (pp. xiv-xv). George Ball was certainly one of those political figures who took risks.

The importance of Ball's contributions to shaping American views between 1961 and 1968 -- as undersecretary of state and U.N. ambassador -- are clearly evident in the myriad policy decisions with which he was involved. Most particularly, Ball was the only high-level U.S. official to consistently oppose the Vietnam War. He was the iconoclast in President Lyndon Johnson's inner circle who argued against continued U.S. escalation in Southeast Asia. In summing up Ball's importance during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the author writes:

Although he lost the Vietnam battle in Washington, George Ball compiled an

impressive list of accomplishments. He helped draft the blueprints of the

plans that have guided the long and continuing drive for European unity. His

efforts helped break down many of the barriers to international trade, and

fashioned peace agreements in places such as the Congo. Ball played a key

role in defusing the Cuban missile crisis, smothering the coals of war in

Cyprus, and promoting dialogue concerning U.S. policy in the Middle East (p.


Despite the fact that he was only peripherally involved with Middle Eastern affairs during his government service, Ball devoted the last two decades of his life to examining the region's problems. His first major foray into the Middle East debate was the 1976 book Diplomacy for a Crowded World: An American Foreign Policy (Atlantic Monthly Press), in which he criticized Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's step-by-step approach to Middle East peace. In its place, Ball argued for a comprehensive focus that would include all Arab parties and the Soviet Union. This book was followed by a 1977 Foreign Affairs piece, "How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself." In this article, he called for the full implementation of U.N. Resolution 242 and Israel's withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Ball believed Israel was compromising its moral assets and endangering its long-term survival. He wrote, "It is not whether we should try to force an unpalatable peace on the Israeli people, but rather how much longer we should continue to pour assistance into Israel to support policies that impede progress toward peace" (p. 191).

Advocating such views in 1976-77 probably harmed Ball's chances of a high-level diplomatic post in the administration of Jimmy Carter. He was short-listed for secretary of state; however, Ball's perceived "anti-Israeli" bent forced him out of the running as Israel's American supporters mounted a campaign against his nomination (p. 90). Still, throughout the early part of his administration, Carter informally did call upon Ball for advice, including during the Iranian revolution in late 1978.

In the 1980s, Ball continued to address the Arab-israeli issue with his "customary candor" (p. 95). Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the tremendous cost in Lebanese and Palestinian lives, an outraged Ball unrelentingly condemned U.S. Middle East policy. In his blunt and often polemical Error and Betrayal in Lebanon: An Analysis of Israel's Invasion of Lebanon and the Implications for U.S.-Israeli Relations (Foundation for Middle East Peace, 1984), he maintained that

Washington flaccidly let the Begin government, in effect, dictate America's

policies and disregard America's interests....Although Israel is, in

practical terms, a ward of the United States -- dependent on America for

economic, financial and military support to a degree without parallel between

sovereign nations -- the United States is more often the suppliant than the

dominant partner (p. 196).

The Israeli-U.S. relationship was further examined in a book he coauthored with his son Douglas. It was entitled The Passionate Attachment: America's Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present (W.W. Norton, 1992), after George Washington's warning regarding foreign entanglements. The Balls write:

No country can possibly reconcile its concern for liberty and human rights

with the continued abusive mistreatment of the Palestinian people, whose only

crime is their desire for self-determination -- the same sentiment that

prompted the Founding Fathers of the United States and the founders of

Israel a half century ago (p. 196).

The book, which also advocated an independent Palestinian state, was met with negative reviews and charges of anti-Semitism. As Bill notes, "Although the Passionate Attachment represented an important attempt to analyze the U.S.-israeli relation through time, its packaging and presentation weakened its appeal" (p. 196).

In the end, Ball's willingness to take unpopular positions, which characterized his governmental career, also followed him into private life as he critically examined Middle East problems. He courageously championed ideas which made the debate more nuanced and richer. As Bill concludes:

The measure of Ball's success is found in the causes he struggled for, his

uncanny capacity to see ahead and to sense correctly the contours of the

future, his willingness to subordinate personal advancement to the public

good, his uncommon courage and conviction, his excellent reputation among

those with whom he worked and, above all, the

conduct of statecraft -- the balance he maintained between passion,

proportion and responsibility (p. 232).

These were the qualities that made George Ball one of this century's genuine statesmen. James Bill's excellent biography does much to make Ball's contributions to American foreign-policy making and the foreign-policy debate comprehensible to the reader.
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Author:Bookmiller, Robert J.
Publication:Middle East Policy
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1997
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