In different roles - as journalist, intelligence agent, and on diplomatic missions for the Soviet Union, as foreign minister and prime minister for the Russian Federation -, Evgenij Primakov has observed and participated in shaping Middle East politics over forty years. In the reviewed book, the title of which in translation means "Confidential: The Middle East on stage and behind the scenes", the author shares some of this experience with the reader.
It is not a history of the Middle East or of individual problems. The book is a collection of sketches on factors, problems, players, and events, like Arab Socialist Nationalism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Soviet and American strategies in the region, the Lebanese Civil war, Arafat, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Kurds, nuclear weapons in the region.
None of these sketches aspire to present a full picture. Besides giving a short historical background, they heavily concentrate on the diplomatic background, especially the backdrop of the US-Soviet rivalry, on the Soviet involvement and positions in individual countries and conflicts, and on the activities of the author. Quite often the author skips a decade or two during which he was not involved and finishes the sketch with an assessment of the current situation, which therefore frequently comes a bit out of the blue, as readers must understand what happened in the meantime from a few sentences or supplement it from their own knowledge of the events.
As anybody who has observed Primakov would expect, the author shows all signs of having grown up and lived in the USSR as a loyal citizen. His terminology is still communist - he uses terms like "left deviation" or "petty-bourgeois revolutionary" without irony, "progressive" means "communist" or "socialist", Arab countries are labelled democracies if the local communist party is in power or at least allowed to be active.
But his communism seems more a case of habit than of ideological conviction. Overall, Primakov is a pragmatist who serves his country - first the USSR, now Russia. In this, he has made the transition to post-communist derzhavnik like many other Russians of his generation.
For that reason, one shouldn't expect too many surprises in this book. The author is still sometimes employed in diplomatic missions in the Middle East, and therefore he is not writing anything that could harm Russia's position in the region. A few bureaucratic scores are settled in the book, e.g. with a circle of people around Podgornyj, who didn't want to recognise that Sadat was turning Egypt from a Soviet client into an American client, but that considers cases at least thirty years ago that have no bearing on contemporary positions any more. Primakov also criticises those in the Soviet Union that wanted to work with the local communist parties to set up local client regimes; again, as the Arab communist parties were a failure almost everywhere, as no Communist regime was ever successfully established except in Southern Yemen, and as the communists were rivals to the Socialist Nationalists that became the usual allies of the USSR in the Arab world, this is not a terribly surprising or controversial point.
As I'm not a specialist on Middle East or on Soviet politics, it is hard for me to assess how much in this book is really new. The materials on the secret diplomatic contacts between the USSR and Israel in the seventies, when officially no diplomatic relations existed between these countries, seem certainly interesting, especially as Primakov, being the emissary, speaks from first-hand experience. At least for me the author's assessment of the Yom Kippur war - that Sadat was goaded into it by the Americans who wanted to improve his position in preparation for the later separate peace with Israel (and who were not amused when the Israelis tripped up their scheme by winning again) - was something I hadn't heard of before, which probably only shows how little I've read on that topic. Primakov's assessment of Saddam Hussein - that he believed until the last moments of his life that the Americans only wanted to teach him lessons, but would always leave him in (or, after his fall, put him back into) power because they needed a strong Iraq led by him as a counterweight to Iran - would explain a lot about his constant brinkmanship, and also would show how far from reality his mind had strayed. On the level of personalities, I was surprised about his positive assessment of Binyamin Netanyahu and his negative assessment of Shimon Peres, as this is the opposite one would have expected from a Soviet / Russian diplomat based on their political positions.
The book is interesting on several levels. It allows some insights into the debates going on inside Soviet foreign policy circles in the sixties to eighties. It shows the continuities between the Soviet and the Russian foreign policy approach in the Middle East. And there are many small stories and anecdotes from Primakov's personal experience that make the book more than a dry political treatise.
Евгений Примаков, "Конфиденциально: Ближний Восток на сцене и за кулисами", Москва, "Российская Газета", 2006
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