Primakov’s primer

The insights ‘Russia and the Arabs’ provides are both prosaic and mostly well known – and aligned with the government’s own views.

‘So long as I’ve opened minds and inspired reflection – regardless of whether everyone agrees with my analysis or not – I will be able to feel that my task has been accomplished.’ Thus Yevgeny Primakov, one-time Pravda correspondent, foreign minister and prime minister of Russia (1998-1999), ends his “part memoir, part history” of Russia’s recent involvement in the Middle East. It is not without sadness that it must be said such a brilliant and erudite individual has neither opened minds nor inspired reflection.
Anyone opening a book by Primakov would have expected the man whose experience in the Middle East spanned half a century and included not only meetings with its most influential former and current leaders but also involvement in its central events to provide something new. Unfortunately it seems Primakov’s training at Pravda and long-time involvement with the Soviet bureaucracy of obfuscation has stayed with him even though his career outlasted the Soviet regime.
The insights Russia and the Arabs provides are both prosaic and mostly well known. In his last chapter on the future of the Middle East, he lays out his views, which dovetail with Russia’s own views, of the current situation. Iraq must be freed from US occupation and remain a single state that accounts for the interests of its three rival groups (Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurd); Iran may not be pursuing nuclear weapons because it “is a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty,” but its “current intransigence” is not helpful; Hamas should be brought into a framework of negotiations, led by the Quartet, but it must recognize Israel; Lebanon is a mess; and while Islamic extremism has replaced the ideological contest that marked the Cold War and terrorists “tend to be émigrés from well-to-do-families,” nevertheless the rise of Islamism is due to the “current breakdown in dialogue” between civilizations.
When it comes to any insights into the Russian role in the region, Primakov either skips over any in-depth discussion of this topic, such as the role of Soviet advisers in Egypt, or claims “[such and such] does not remotely stand up to scrutiny.” The author’s chapters are not based on a chronological history, but rather a series of thematic discussions of various places, people and ideologies. In doing so he is able to selectively avoid numerous important events such as the Czech arms deal of 1955 when Gamal Abdel Nasser purchased Soviet arms and thus helped bring on the 1956 war. US marines simply “began landing in Lebanon” in 1958, without any discussion of why.
He presents the Soviets as innocent bystanders, always waiting for the Arab regimes to come to them. “I believe it was only after the West slammed the doors in its face that Egypt turned for help to the Soviet Union.”
The analysis of the region remains completely constrained by the old paradigms of believing that there were “left-wing” and “right-wing” portions of the Ba’ath movement in Syria and that the Lebanese Civil War was fought between “right-wing Christians” and “left-wing” Muslims and Druse. These labels obscure reality; the Maronites were no more “right wing” than Hizbullah or the Druse.
Primakov dislikes the idea that Islam has anything to do with terrorism; “only ignoramuses or spiteful Islamophobes could equate one of the oldest and most widely practiced religions in the world with terrorism.” Instead “it could be said that the ancestor of Middle East terrorism was Lehi (the Jewish underground group).” In examining the history of al-Qaida he claims it was a “religious-extremist catalyst used by the United States during the Cold War.” This is odd considering the organization was only formed in 1988, at the end of the US-backed mujahadin’s war against the USSR in Afghanistan.
The former apparatchik admits that Nasser did lead his country blindly to the brink of the Six Day War. He provides very interesting stories about his own experiences during the Lebanese Civil War and meetings with Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir and reveals a fascinating document concerning Stalin’s “Doctors’ Plot.”
His chapter on Yasser Arafat, however, is a strange lapse into romanticism of the lowest order. The author waxes poetic about the “life of an ascetic” who “did not permit himself the luxury of a family home” and a man “on the brink of great things.” In his being taken in by the Palestinian terrorist he, like so many others, accepts at face value everything Arafat told him about “publicly and unequivocally condemning terrorist attacks on civilians.”
Primakov should know better. How many times did the Soviet Union claimone thing and do another, seeking “peace” while arming for war? Thetruth is that he does know better. As a former deputy chairman of theSoviet Peace Committee, which was described as a front for the KGB,Primakov was a master of obfuscation. It is no wonder then that hedescribes Russia as a model of Muslim-Christian coexistence, despitethe Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia conflicts, that he claims theLehi was the mother of terror when it was the communists sponsoringterrorism against Israel (like the Red Army Faction), and that hebemoans Israel’s disproportionate force against Lebanon in 2006, whenRussia itself did more than the same to Georgia in 2008.
Some things haven’t changed since the Cold War.