Book Review: Russia and the Arabs

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Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present
by Yevgeny Primakov
New York, Basic Books, 2009.

For the longest period, Russia and the US were the best of friends, although this was not necessarily a step forward for humanity. Thus, during the War of 1812, the redcoats facilitated the fleeing of thousands of enslaved Africans from the slaveholders' republic, many of whom wound up in Bermuda, Nova Scotia and Trinidad, where their descendants continue to reside. During the negotiations to end this conflict, compensation for this lost "property" was a major stumbling block. Finally, the Czar was asked to mediate and he provided a handsome settlement to the sons of Dixie. During the Crimean War in the 1850s, when Britain crossed swords with Russia, the favor was returned as Dixie backed St. Petersburg.

To be sure, the path was not always smooth, as Russia was competing with the US for control of the Pacific Northwest, including what is now northern California (with both countries intent on overriding the rights and sovereignty of the indigenous peoples there). Strikingly, what united the two powers were their retrograde labor policies (serfdom in Russia, slavery in the United States), and both systems began to crumble in the same decade, the 1860s.

A new era of discord between the two powers began in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution, which signaled a general crisis of the capitalist system, a crisis marked in the US by slavery's abolition. With the Communists now in power in Russia, it is not premature to suggest that Washington's ongoing obsession with the Soviet Union led it to make crucial blunders that would continue to resonate for decades to come. One eventual result of the Cold War with the Soviets was that, beginning in the early 1970s, an entente was brokered with Maoist China by Kissinger and the Nixon Administration. This in turn led to massive direct foreign investment in the Chinese economy, which has today created a powerful economic juggernaut under Communist Party rule, one that bids fair to becoming the 21st century's leading power, with consequences that soar far beyond our present ability to comprehend.

Another blunder was the virtual weaponizing of militant Islam in order to bleed Moscow in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a reckless policy that continues to reverberate and may foretell ongoing disasters now and in the future.

This latter subject occupies considerable attention in this history cum memoir by a man who is in a position to know. Yevgeny Primakov formerly served both as Russia's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, as well as the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. During the Soviet era, he was a prime interlocutor with Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat and Saddam Hussein. Unlike other practitioners of this genre in Russia, Primakov does not seize the opportunity to trash the entire Soviet past (although this reader would have appreciated a more critical eye being turned on the catastrophic reign of Boris Yeltsin, in whose government the author served).

The book's cover carries blurbs by Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and Brent Scowcroft, and a bevy of other shapers of US foreign policy, but this should not scare away the reader who is justifiably skeptical of such endorsements. Instead, their words of praise for the book should be read as a self-indictment. For during their respective tenures at the apex of power in Washington, their stated goal was to destroy the USSR or, at the very minimum, to drastically reduce its influence in the Middle East. These interlinked goals have now been accomplished, but has it made for a more secure world?

As the author writes, "US foreign policy [thus] .... found itself with two, sometimes contradictory foreign policy objectives: bringing stability to the Middle East and unconditionally backing Israel, apparently oblivious to the reality that the latter goal veritably liquidated the former." Understandably many Palestinians are quite upset by the eventual futility of the so-called peace process initiated in Oslo in the 1990s, but that said, it is also true that once the Soviet Union (a major backer of what would become the Oslo accords) disappeared, the Palestinians lost their primary backer on the international scene, thus weakening their overall cause. Today, many Palestinians and even some formerly unabashed supporters of Israel are despairing of the idea of a the two-state solution, i.e. a Palestinian state joining alongside Israel in the family of nations. As they now see it, a single bi-national state is the only way out. Those of this persuasion will find intriguing the author discussion of the idea of a single Jewish-Arab state, which had originally been put forward by the Soviet Union long before the founding of Israel.

The book's discussion of Israel is notably enlightening, not least since the Jewish state considered Moscow to be an antagonist and a major supporter and arms supplier to the Arab states. Some in Israel also saw the Jewish population of the USSR as a formidable source to bolster the demographic difficulties faced by Israel in the face of more substantial numbers of Arabs in the immediate region. Diplomatic relations between the two nations were disrupted by the 1967 war, and then by the 1973 war, which led to a petroleum boycott of the US and its allies by oil producers, including Saudi Arabia. This boycott had a substantial impact on the US. We well remember cars running out of gas and being pushed to gas stations which often would not be able to fill their tanks. Inevitably the Arab oil embargo fomented an angry reaction in the US and Israel - fueled by a nasty brew of ideological, financial and ethno-religious concerns.

This was not the only difficulty brought about by Washington's maladroit foreign policy. The author also writes cogently that the network known as Al Qaeda came into being with the aid of the Central Intelligence Agency for the purpose of fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was given a green light to seek Al Qaeda recruits, even on American soil, a fact little explored in a nation festooned with mass media outlets, and his bandits were secretly armed with US Stinger missiles for use against Soviet military aircraft. History may record that of all the blunders of US imperialism, our fostering of bin Laden and Al Qaeda was one of the most profound and far-reaching.

To be sure, this failure was not Washington's alone. The author also records that it was London which established the Muslim Brotherhood radio station in Cyprus, designed to destabilize the Nasser regime in Egypt. It was in 1956 that a dying British colonialism, in league with a similarly-situated France and a militarist Israel, joined in attacking Nasser's Egypt in a futile attempt to gain control of the vital choke point of the Suez Canal. It was in this context that Moscow threatened to launch missiles against the countries that had attacked Egypt unless their troops left Egyptian soil, yet another example among many of the Soviet Union coming to the defense of an African country in the face of imperialist and/or white supremacist aggression. Undeterred, however, in 1968 the CIA helped establish the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic Center in Geneva, from which a number of assassination attempts against Nasser were orchestrated.

The author also expends considerable energy in detailing the star-crossed relationship between the CIA and Saddam Hussein, recounting how the agency decades ago began embracing him as a battering ram against the Iraqi Communist Party (just as in Iran the CIA energetically collaborated with Islamic fundamentalists there to crush the Tudeh Party, as that country's Communist Party is known).

Primakov explains in careful detail that although the Soviet Union had gone to great lengths to take Arab Communist parties under its wing, these parties did not always let the Soviets know what their plans were, especially if those plans included overthrowing regimes that had close ties with Moscow. He cites the example of the attempted overthrow of the Khartoum regime in 1971 by Sudanese Communists. Nevertheless, the hoary myth about Moscow Communists controlling the internal situation in scores of nations has been one of the most persistent and misleading (not least in the US) of the many distortions about how revolutionary radicalism actually functions.

Readers will find the author's discussion of Yemen intriguing, since even as I write US imperialism's drones have this nation in their cross-hairs. I well recall what occurred in January 1983 when, at a meeting of the Politburo of the Yemeni Socialist Party, a shootout erupted, leading to the decapitation of the party's leadership and, ultimately, the deaths of thousands. Today, Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin-Laden, is being touted as the site for the next "anti-terrorist" war after one now unfolding in Afghanistan, but little attention has been given to how US imperialism collaborated with the right wing in Yemen to weaken the left, thus creating the present insuperable mess. What happened in Yemen in January 1983 when comrades on the left turned on one another was replicated that same year in tiny Grenada, and in 1979 in Afghanistan (leading to Soviet intervention). Thus the inability of comrades to settle disputes amicably has turned out to be one of imperialism most potent weapons.

Yevgeny Primakov has performed a useful service in recounting these drama-filled episodes. Today it seems that Moscow-Washington relations may be due for an upturn, given the hysteria developing in the US about China's ascendancy. Mutual fear of China is perhaps the main reason behind the unfolding serious discussions about nuclear disarmament between the two giants. Whether this proves to be an accurate forecast,Whatever the reason for the current disarmament talks, and whether they actually succeed, the fact remains that in assessing the centuries-long relationship between two of the world's most powerful nations, the US and Russia, this timely volume will prove to be essential reading.


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