Book Review

Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present

Yevgeny Primakov (translated by Paul Gould)

Winter 2009, Volume XVI, Number 4

Yevgeny Primakov is well known in the West for having been head of Russian intelligence, then foreign minister, and later prime minister under Boris Yeltsin. Before all this, however, he was known since the 1950s as one of the leading Soviet specialists on the Middle East. This book, a translated and updated version of one he first published in Russian in 2006, discusses a wide variety of issues, events and personalities, including Arab nationalism, the various Arab-Israeli conflicts, Arab communism, Soviet and American Middle East policies, conflict in Lebanon, Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish question and the Iranian nuclear issue. Proceeding more or less chronologically from the 1950s to the present, Primakov recounts from his notes conversations he had with some of the leading actors in these events as well as provides his own commentary on them.

A long-time critic of American foreign policy in general and U.S. Middle East policy, in particular, Primakov continues in this same vein here. He strongly argues that America must bear much of the responsibility for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. “Paradoxical as it sounds,” after 9/11, he notes, “the United States has a long history of using Islamic extremist organizations to further its own interests” (p. 90). He cites American support for the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s as only one such example. “At the time, many Americans believed that using Islam as a weapon against the Soviet Union was trading a lesser evil for a greater good, but they were clearly in the throes of self-delusion. This reckless — I repeat, reckless — policy paved the way to the tragedy of September 11, 2001” (pp. 90-91). By contrast, he asserts, “the Soviet Union could not be accused of similarly relying on or exploiting Islamic extremist groups during its cold-war confrontation with the United States” (p. 91).

In addition to criticizing American hostility toward Nasser and U.S. foreign policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, Primakov claims, “In fact, the United States, not the USSR, was behind Syria’s decision to send its troops into Lebanon” (p. 182). He also intimates that Saddam Hussein, before coming to power, was supported by the CIA in his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Qassem of Iraq, and that when he fled Baghdad afterward and arrived in Beirut, “the local CIA station took him under its wing, paying for his apartment and other everyday expenses” (p. 69).

America and its allies, though, are not the only actors whom Primakov criticizes. He also blames Arab communists for damaging the interests of the Soviet Union as well as of their own countries. In Sudan, Moscow had established good relations with Jaafar Nimeiri, who rose to power in 1969. In 1971, however, the Sudanese Communist Party, without consulting Moscow, attempted to overthrow him. The coup attempt failed, Nimeiri became authoritarian, and was eventually ousted in 1985 and replaced by an Islamist government in 1989. Similarly, Primakov describes Qahtan al-Shaabi, Marxist South Yemen’s first leader after independence in 1967, as “realistic and pragmatic. But he would be overthrown by extremists” (p. 69). Primakov ruefully relates how one of the latter, Abd al-Fattah Ismail, told him, “Since we have chosen the path of scientific socialism, the Soviet Union owes us a helping hand,” and that “it is our duty to put the republican regime in the north on the right path too” (p. 83). The South Yemeni extremists, of course, came to grief when they turned on each other in a short, but deadly, civil war in January 1986. While Primakov portrays Moscow as being a passive actor in these events, it actually was not.

Primakov is also critical of various actors in Moscow. “Although the Soviet leadership of the 1950s and 1960s was inclined to support the Arab countries’ local communist parties,” he notes, “nothing could mask the reality that communism was a lost cause in the Middle East” (p. 75). His discussion of this topic reminded me of how many Western Middle East specialists saw President George W. Bush’s call for democratizing the Middle East as similarly based more on ideological enthusiasm than an accurate understanding of the current potential of these countries. Especially in discussing the period before he himself became a politician during the Gorbachev era, it is evident that Primakov was exasperated that Soviet policymakers often did not listen to Middle East specialists such as himself and that this subsequently caused problems for Soviet foreign policy. This complaint, of course, is essentially the same as that of American Middle East specialists who are exasperated that policy makers in Washington do not listen to them.

Primakov is especially critical of Marshal Grechko, who, while visiting Cairo when he was Warsaw Pact armed-forces commander several months before the June 1967 war, told Nasser, “Your army is capable of carrying out any mission in the present theatre of war” (p. 105). According to Primakov, Grechko’s reassurance on this matter was one of the factors that encouraged Nasser “to believe that his armed forces were more formidable than they were and removed some of his hesitations about making use of them” (p. 105). I cannot help but note that Primakov would not have dared to publicly criticize Grechko (who would go on to be Soviet defense minister from 1967 until 1976) during the Brezhnev era.

The book, of course, does not just contain criticism. Primakov also expresses admiration for many whom he encountered, especially Nasser of Egypt. Indeed, Primakov’s description of Nasser, whom he met several times, is reverential and even wistful. He saw Nasser as pragmatic and moderate. Primakov even seems to praise him for not attempting to implement Soviet-style socialism, but accommodating both the market and Islam. Primakov saw Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism as a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Had Nasser succeeded in developing his Arab nationalist vision, Primakov implies, Islamic extremism in the Arab world might well not have become the problem that it is now. Those who worked to weaken Nasser — the West, Israel and other Arabs — were extremely short-sighted for doing so.

Primakov has often been labeled as anti-Israeli. While he is certainly critical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians over the years, he has also been critical of how Fatah and Hamas have dealt with Israel as well as with each other. In his chapter on the Soviet Union and Israel (one of the most interesting in the book), he describes his own role in the Soviet-Israeli dialogue (usually intended to be kept secret but sometimes publicized anyway, much to Moscow’s embarrassment) during the period between 1971 and 1991, when the two countries did not have diplomatic relations, and later during his official visits to Israel in 1996 and 1997, when he was Russian foreign minister. Somewhat surprisingly, the two Israeli leaders whom Primakov expresses the most admiration for —Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu — are hard-liners. Other Middle Eastern politicians whom Primakov met and admired greatly were Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Kurdish chieftain Mustafa Barzani.

One common trait that all the Middle Eastern leaders Primakov admires share is that they expressed to him strong appreciation for Russia and the role that it plays in the region. I have no doubt that Primakov has reported these statements accurately. I could not help but wonder, though, whether the otherwise tough-minded Primakov took these statements at face value, or whether he ever suspected that he was being flattered. Primakov gives no hint that he ever thought the latter about those leaders whom he admires. Nor does he acknowledge the possibility that they may have made similar statements to visiting Americans — or anyone else from whom they wanted something.

Paul Gould did an excellent job of capturing Primakov’s voice in this highly readable translation. Nevertheless, there were a few glitches. At one point, Zbigniew Brzezinski and William Quandt were said to work for the “Council for National Security” instead of the National Security Council in the Carter Administration (p. 165). While the long-time leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was at first said to be George Habash (p. 16), he is elsewhere listed as George Khabash (pp. 225, 229, 232, 235). Edward Djerejian is described as “one of the finest Middle East experts in the United States” on p. 364, but his last name was rendered as Jaredjan on p. 127 — a somewhat embarrassing error since Djerejian provided an endorsement of the book on its back cover.

Like Primakov’s earlier writings going back to the Soviet era, this book reflects Russia’s current foreign-policy priorities. Primakov certainly does not say anything critical about the reigning Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin. The book, though, not only displays Primakov’s deep knowledge and understanding of the Middle East, but also his anguish about how it has evolved over the past half century, his fears about what might happen there, and his hopes for the prospect that peace and prosperity will finally arrive. Both for Primakov’s insights into the thinking of the leaders he encountered and for his own level-headed analysis, Russia and the Arabs is a book that is well worth reading.