The word “brinkmanship” is popular on news pages in these days of Donald Trump. Sometimes it's half-figurative, as when Trump threatens a shutdown of the U.S. government over his budget demands. But often it's used in the original sense: willingness to go to the brink of war—as when North Korea's Kim Jong Un shows off his missiles and Trump threatens a “major, major conflict with North Korea” while moving his missiles around. Merriam-Webster reports a rise in searches for “brinkmanship” since about April 8—matching the since-debunked news that a U.S. flotilla was sailing toward Korea.
Seeing Trump and Kim Jong Un go to the brink is like watching two high school guys with large muscles and small brains prepare to race their pickups at each other—except that the whole world is riding in the back of the trucks.
And yet, brinkmanship still enjoys a JFK-esque cachet rooted in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The popularly accepted story is that President Kennedy's unflinching stance, even at the risk of nuclear war, forced Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down. No matter that it's been over 20 years since the real story emerged: Kennedy's courageous move was actually to step back from the brink. He cut an unwritten, secret deal to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey in exchange for Khrushchev taking Soviet missiles out of Cuba. The facts haven't dispelled the mistaken belief that brinkmanship, escalation, and unbending will win the day and actually prevent war.
Now is a good time to re-examine that belief. We're at the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East crisis that set off the Six-Day War. The war was unexpected, and probably wanted by neither side. But the chain of events showed where brinkmanship is likely to lead.
At this time 50 years ago, Syria and Israel were engaged in ongoing border clashes over water rights, disputed demilitarized zones, and terror attacks launched by the nascent Fatah organization from Syria. This was already brink-testing by both sides. Each thought it could impose changes without risking a full war.
On May 13, 1967, the Soviet Union passed a warning to Syria and Egypt that Israel was preparing forces for a major assault on Syria. The report was false. It was apparently designed to push Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser to threaten to come to Syria's help. That, in turn, would pressure Israel to steer clear of Syria.
Nasser was afraid of looking weak, which is a very dangerous fear. As Oxford University historian Avi Shlaim writes, “There is general agreement among commentators that Nasser neither wanted nor planned to go to war with Israel.” But he did want to preserve his reputation as the preeminent Arab nationalist leader.
To do so, he took a much larger leap, or rather several leaps, toward the brink. He mobilized his army, poured forces into the Sinai Peninsula, and demanded that the United Nations remove the peacekeeping force deployed on the border with Israel since a previous war in 1956. It's likely that he was as surprised as the rest of the world when UN Secretary General U Thant quickly pulled out the peacekeepers. Carried by the momentum of his own rhetoric, Nasser shut the Straits of Tiran, the gateway to Israel's southern port of Eilat.
For Israel, that was virtually a declaration of war, and the massing of Egyptian troops on the border did not dispel the notion. Most men in Israel, up to the age of 54, were called up to army reserve units. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol hesitated, hoping that the United States would resolve the crisis. By now, though, the edge of the cliff was crumbling, because more and more Arab troops were standing on it. Jordan and Iraq joined the Syrian-Egyptian alliance and moved their forces to Israel's eastern border.
The Israeli government feared attack, feared releasing its reservists and feared keeping them mobilized indefinitely. On June 5, it launched a preemptive attack on Egypt. In six days, Israel defeated its neighbors and occupied the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The Arab countries were the immediate losers. But 50 years later, sinking ever deeper into the quagmire of the occupation, Israel still hasn't dealt with the cost of its victory.
The lesson is that the momentum of brinkmanship is toward the abyss of war. There's no reason to expect that your opponent will have an easier time stepping back than you will. The iron will of leaders is often dread of looking weak—internationally, and in the eyes of their own public.
And as a footnote to this history shows, leaders have less control over affairs than they'd like to think. When Israel launched its offensive against Egypt, it expected a one-front war. The first morning, the government sent messages via third parties to King Hussein of Jordan, warning him to stay out.
That morning, the BBC and CBS correspondent in Israel, Michael Elkins, drove to the Knesset. Elkins was a personal friend of senior Israeli cabinet members. One of them (Elkins never revealed which one) told him that Israel had destroyed Egypt's air force on the ground, leaving its army unprotected. It was true, and so secret that the legislators meeting in the parliament's bomb shelter to approve emergency war funding did not know about it.
Elkins rushed home to send his scoop to his networks. First, he had to submit it to the Israeli military censor, who held it up several hours. Then his disbelieving news editor held it longer. No other battlefront information was coming from Israel, which had imposed a news blackout. Elkins's report didn't sound credible. It aired only that evening.
In the meantime, Jordan had entered the war—first with artillery barrages, then with a ground attack to seize the strategic UN headquarters in Jerusalem's no-man's land. The second front had been opened.
We can't know if Elkins's scoop, broadcast early in the day on BBC—then regarded as close to the voice of truth—would have persuaded Hussein to stay out. But it's certainly possible, and in that case Israel would not have occupied the West Bank. Neither the officer in the Israeli censor's bureau nor the BBC editors regarded themselves as major decision-makers. On the stage of history, they were as insignificant as, say, the wings of a butterfly.
But when you insist on standing on the edge of a cliff with your feet hanging over, even the rustle of wings may push you over. It's wiser to stay away from the brink.