Primakov, Yevgeny. Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 2009.
Yevgeny Primakov, formerly head of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, and former Prime Minister of Russia, has written his own memoirs. The book reflects 30 years of diplomatic service from one of the world’s most respected statesman. Always serene and mature in his analysis, Primakov has correctly diagnosed the problems in Middle Eastern and American diplomatic policies..
Many neo-conservatives and American patriots think that the Soviet Union simply desired to export (and force down) its own version of socialist revolution upon unwilling countries. While this was true in Eastern and Central Europe, nothing of the sort happened in the Middle East, at least not for the long term. The United States and the Soviet Union found the post-World War II Middle East rife with young nationalist movements. At first the Middle Eastern governments were committed to a form of Arab socialism. However, this form of Arab socialism had little in common with the socialism of the USSR, and while some Communist parties in the Middle East held tenaciously to power, the Arab mindset was not given to international socialism. Therefore, and this is a key point Primakov makes, the USSR did not force Communism onto the Middle East. Primakov writes, “The Soviet Union understood that it was impossible to bring about sociopolitical change in another country via an imported revolution. It had to happen from within, when the time was ripe” (92).
The United States’ original objective was to draw the Arab nations into an anti-Moscow alliance. This meant allying itself with radical Arab groups (the fateful foreshadowing should not be missed). In any case, neither the Soviet Union nor Soviet America was able to accomplish its primary goal.
It would be simplistic to say that the USSR threw all of its support behind Arab states and America supported Israel. True, the USSR had good relations with most Arab states and Tel Aviv called the shots on American foreign policy. But Moscow let Arab states know they could not act with impunity and keep expecting Russian military expertise and arms shipments (Sadaam Hussein never learned this lesson).
Nevertheless, both the USA and the USSR did act accordingly to one objective: prevent the Middle East from flaring up, with the larger geographic instability ensuing. Moscow (and less often America) would take a hard line with her allies if they threatened Middle Eastern peace. This is political realism.
Many will fault Primakov’s narrative at this point. Primakov tells the story that the USSR did all that it could to foster Middle Eastern peace while Israel did all it could to hinder it. Perhaps he is myopic on this point, but Israel’s actions have been coming under more scrutiny. Primakov has a very revealing chapter documenting Israel’s illegal nuclear arms ambitions.
There are also moving chapters giving insight into the lives of Yasser Arafat and others.
Criticisms of the Book
Many will probably fault Primakov of stacking the deck. The Soviet Union’s Middle Eastern policy can do no wrong while the US keeps bungling it. While the latter is certainly true, many in the West will blanche at this rosy picture of the USSR. While perhaps flawed on some points, Primakov does highlight an important issue: for twenty years Americans have been cheering themselves as the sacred guardians of the free world and anyone who questions that narrative is a liberal, communist, hates the troops, or an Islamomeanie. The dialectical irony is Americans have done the same thing with ideology that the Soviets did. In fact, it’s worse. Trotsky was rejected on this point. The D.C. Establishment has surpassed even Stalin on this point! There is a reason that neo-conservatives are said to be the heirs of Trotksy: Trotksy wanted to import revolution to all countries, whether they were ready for it or not (with the subsequent goal of destroying national boundaries and traditional cultures); neo-conservatives want to spread neocon ideology to all countries (e.g., globalism, the dominance of Western corporations and markets, “democracy,” relativising traditional society). The dialectic has come full-circle. The D.C. Regime is the new Soviet Union.
Primakov has a provocative, if at times flawed chapter on Islam. Careful thinking is required here, and I think Primakov rushed his thinking. Primakov identifies Samuel Huntingdon’s thesis (to which the current reviewer subscribes) positing an ultimate clash between Western civilization and Islamic civilization. At this point, instead of engaging Huntingdon’s thesis, Primakov ridicules those provincial people who think all Arabs are Muslims are terrorists. Presumably, these people think that the coming clash should be an armed clash and the sooner the better. But is this what Huntingdon really believes? Even more, is Primakov’s own views of Islam that different?
Perhaps Huntingdon can be faulted with an ambiguous use of the term “clash.” More importantly, why did Huntingdon posit there would be a clash? He said this because Islam’s values are inherently at odds with the post-Christian West’s secular values. Ironically, Primakov, too, identifies democracy as incompatible with Islam (or consistent Judaism or Christianity). Indeed, this is the key to Primakov’s critique of the US importing Western democracy on Iraq!
The book is an interesting glimpse inside the life of a key player for peace in a troubled area. The book is written in a memoir-like style and occasionally suffers from those defects. But that also makes it the readable and interesting book that it is. Primakov tells a story that is different from the Official Narrative of the Ministry of Truth.