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Russia and the Arabs by Yevgeny Primakov – Some Initial Thoughts

February 6, 2014

PrimakovJust finished Primakov’s `Russia and the Arabs’ – recommend it highly. Of course, it should be entitled `The Soviet Union and the Arabs’ as the book is mostly about the Soviet Union’s post World War II relations with the Arab countries and Israel. The last section does include post Soviet relations, most especially with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before `the fall’.

It is written by the man – had he been more subservient to that drunken idiot Boris Yelstin – more than likely would have succeeded Yelstin as Russian president. But Primakov would not promise to pardon Yelstin for having very nearly destroyed the Russian social fabric during the decade of the 1990s when, in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism, the country nearly imploded. Vladimir Putin on the other hand, was more than willing to make such a compromise with ethics and decency, and so was given the nod. Putin followed in Yelstin’s steps; Primakov was cast aside forever. Difficult to tell how much or even if a Primakov presidency would have made much of a difference and anyway, the issue is today academic.

Over the years, Primakov’s analyses always stood out to my mind to be a number of notches better that the usual low-grade factional Soviet rhetoric. To my thinking – and I have followed Soviet Middle East policy rather closely for the past half century – Primakov’s analysis was always crisp, and intelligent; he explained Middle East politics on a more profound level than most. I am not surprised to read that on occasion he was in trouble with his more dogmatic superiors in Moscow for painting honest pictures that conflicted with their ideologically narrow view of the region.

For example, Primakov notes early on that the Arab Communist parties never really had the social base to come to power anywhere in the Arab countries and that the one time they did – in South Yemen, that they were dogmatic and out of touch with their countrymen (thus their collapse). He understands that the Arab nationalism of Nasser (and others) was in some ways progressive but filled with contradictions that would eventually move them rightward, into the arms of Washington. He notes and explains the hows and whys of Egypt and Iraq’s shift from political radicalism to more conservative dogmatic regimes. His detailed explanation of the Soviet relations with the Palestinians – his distinction between the `revolutionary romanticism’ of George Habash and Arafat’s `revolutionary pragmatism’ was especially well done. He explains the dynamics of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars as well as anyone; the same goes for his analysis of the evolution of Saddam Hussein who mistakenly believed that the United States would never overthrow him because Washington hoped to use Iraq against Iran.

By far the most salient point in the book was the U.S.-Soviet attempts to avoid the Middle East from turning into a super-power confrontation. It is a fact, that despite all the tensions, war, pain of the post World War II Middle East, that a superpower military confrontation, that could have escalated into a nuclear war, did not occur. Nor did either the United States nor the Soviet Union desire such a confrontation, one of the few `positives’ of the Cold War. Close as it came on a number of occasions (The Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1967, 1973 Middle East Wars, Berlin), other than in the minds of the directors and producers of the movie `Red Dawn’, neither country wanted it and did what they could to avoid it, including in the Middle East.

Throughout, Primakov’s analysis is sober, incisive. Of course, it is self-serving – aren’t all memoirs? – but I believe that it will hold up well historically as being surprisingly frank, honest and to a certain degree self-critical. Compare that the Kissinger’s egotistical bombast (although his memoirs too are certainly worth reading).

Dima Adamsky’s review of the Primakov book is useful and fair. It gives a good summary, although its focus is a bit different from mine. It emphasizes the secret Soviet-Israeli contacts that took place over twenty years in which Primakov was involved. Worth reading for sure. I long suspected they were going on, based on the principle that when two countries deny they are negotiating…then they are usually doing just that: negotiating behind the scenes.

But more interesting to my mind are Primakov’s relations with the Palestinians through the last four decades of the 20th century – his respect for Yasir Arafat (which I share) whose name and contribution has been dragged in the mud by Arab and Israeli alike since his death, and his (Primakov’s) relationship and attempts to influence Saddam Hussein..the portrait he paints of that latter helps explain Hussein’s blindness to American intentions to overthrow his regime and kill him. His section on the evolution of Israel’s nuclear weapons’ program is also of interest.

I will write my own extended review over the next days…

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    February 10, 2014 10:01 am

    Yes, there are so many quasi nations
    formerly linked to the old Soviet block
    with the linkage like Uzbekistian.
    and other istians.
    They all– so many- have a composition
    90 % Moslems in those places.
    Isn’t it great Russia spent over
    $ 50 billion in the Down- Hill in
    Sochi, with 70,000 security guard
    officials.( AKA after the Olympics)
    and removing Tanks from Kabul,
    and the KG pass.

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