Commentary Magazine


The Soviet Union and the Middle East, by Walter Z. Laqueur

Russia Woos the Arabs
The Soviet Union and the Middle East.
by Walter Z. Laqueur.
Praeger. 366 pp. $6.00.

 

Of the many lessons Walter Laqueur’s remarkable new book contains, perhaps the most significant is the demonstration that only through the most careful, almost pedantic assembling of details can we perceive the broad lines of political development. Soviet infiltration of the Middle East has been accompanied by innumerable, bewildering, and contradictory statements, all invariably phrased with the arrogance of ideological omniscience. Only by following very closely the declarations by Soviet spokesmen, official and unofficial, over the last forty years, does one begin to grasp the stubborn consistency of their policy.

Mr. Laqueur’s knowledge of both the Soviet and the Arab press and pamphlet literature is hardly equalled by any other contemporary writer in the West, and his ability to construct a lucid picture from countless confusing pieces of information is equally unusual. Thus his skills permit the reader to confront directly the whole complex process of Soviet policy making and policy implementation.

The paucity of Soviet source materials and the comparative directness of Arab policies make the actions of the Middle Eastern statesmen easier to understand than those of the Russians, even though Soviet aims have remained constant: Communization of the area and a certain measure of—preferably indirect—control. Unlike the Arabs, however, with their overriding aspiration to “liberation” and unity (undefined terms which may cover anything from a fairly moderate anti-colonialism to an imperialistic vision of an Arab-Moslem empire in Africa), the Russians have frequently been trapped by the rigidity of their own ideological position. For example, the so-called Third Period in Soviet history (1928-34) was sterile from the point of view of Middle Eastern policy, largely because of the hardness of the dogma of those days. The Soviets then denied that the “national bourgeoisies” in the dependent countries of Asia had either the power or the honest wish to gain independence; concomitantly, they insisted that social progress in the East could be secured solely by the action of the industrial proletariat—which in many of the countries concerned was either nonexistent or else primarily responsive to national and religious aspirations, rather than to those of the class struggle.

The growth of Soviet power in World War II, the ideological regeaning of international Communism to allow cooperation with Asian and African nationalisms, and the (at least temporary) recognition of the “progressive” role of the national bourgeoisies, were indispensable preconditions to what Laqueur calls “the Great Breakthrough” of the Soviets in the Middle East. In his view, the breakthrough was consummated by the arms deal between Egypt and Russia (acting through Czechoslovakia) in 1955. It was immediately followed, by the way, by a sudden resurgence of Oriental and especially of contemporary Islamic studies at Soviet institutions of higher learning.

The ideological position which proved so successful in the late 1950’s had been represented in the Communist party as early as the 1920’s. Moslem Communists of Central Asian origin, of whom Sultan Galiev (liquidated in the 30’s) is perhaps the best known, showed an amazing awareness of the “revolutionary potential” of Asia and of the class structure of its major countries, and also had considerable insight into the modifications which Asian realities seemed to impose on the doctrines Marx and Lenin had conceived in Europe. But to Moscow the implications of such doctrinal changes appeared dangerous from a domestic point of view, and it rejected the proposed “Eastern International.” The Soviets feared the pan-Islamic, pan-Turanian and other local nationalist associations of many proponents of a specifically Asian Communist doctrine, and felt reluctant to encourage potential separatist tendencies among the Turkish-speaking Moslem peoples in their midst.

In the last two decades, however, Islamic orthodoxy has weakened in the USSR and the non-Russian nationalities have been more satisfactorily integrated into the Soviet state; and this has doubtless helped make possible a more flexible Soviet policy toward the Moslem nations. Because the Central Asian Moslems are now convinced of their own advanced economic and political status, as compared with their Middle Eastern co-religionists, they are no longer suspected by Moscow of giving their first loyalty to a Turkish or Iranian universalism, or to Islam conceived as a political community. The almost total absence in the USSR of people of Arab descent, and conversely the striking indifference of the Middle Eastern Arabs to the status of the Islamic religion in the Soviet Union, have further allayed whatever uneasiness the Soviet government may have felt about entering into closer relations with the Arab world.

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As Laqueur correctly observes: “It is one of the basic facts of international life that the Soviet political, social, and economic system has attracted more sympathizers and imitators in the backward countries than in the more developed ones. It presented a blueprint for the rapid modernization of backward societies, while to those that had already reached a higher stage of development it did not have much to offer. Similarly, Soviet culture has found admirers in the backward, rather than the developed, areas of the world.”

The impatience which the Arabs felt toward the Western powers which had dominated them in various ways for the last century reinforced the psychological appeal of the Soviet experience. This psychological appeal should not be confused with ideological identification. The West has lost valuable time persuading itself that Communism and Islam (or Arab nationalism) are incompatible. The fundamental attitudes of an otherworldly religion and of “materialistic” Communism, of the internationalist class consciousness of Marxism-Leninism and the “parochial” nationalism of the Arabs may not blend on the ideological level; but on the level of political action, the conflict becomes somewhat irrelevant, as compared with the considerable short-range advantages to the Arabs of enlisting the support of one of the two principal powers of our day. The vagueness of the theory of Arab nationalism helps blur the latent conflict in the alliance, and Soviet support is hailed as presumably the only available lever for the removal of the remnants of Western political dominance. Even where the policy of a particular government, such as that of Nasser in Egypt, is inspired by a mild version of state capitalism and socialism rather than Communism, the policy seems easier to justify in terms borrowed from the East than by an avowal of those Western theories that may actually be pursued, but whose origin it seems inopportune to admit.

Also, the almost consistent anti-Zionism of the USSR could not but promote pro-Russian sympathies among many Arab nationalists. As early as 1920, the Second Congress of the Comintern adopted a resolution condemning Zionist activities in Palestine. Zionism, it was held, meant “terrible exploitation,” and the Jewish proletarians were urged to put an end to it—which of course they did not. The line stiffened in the 30’s. The Jewish Section of the Soviet Communist party was entrusted with the fight against Zionism, and Zionism, characterized as a sham attempt “to solve the Jewish question within the confines of capitalist society,” was declared on its way out in 1931. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not taken seriously in Moscow; his first anti-Jewish measures had the peculiar effect of making the Soviets intensify their attacks on Zionism.

The short-lived Soviet support for Israel in 1948, coupled with an attack on the United States which “merely pretended” to favor the new state, did not mean any lessening of Soviet hostility to Zionism. Very soon:, the USSR was accusing Israel of being “a tool of Wall Street, a reactionary, capitalist country, in which the national minority [i.e. the Arabs] and the ‘popular masses’ were oppressed and exploited.” Occasional turnabouts notwithstanding, the Soviet attitude has been consistently to take the Arabs’ side whenever the Arab-Israeli conflict has come before the United Nations.

The reasons are plain. With no vital interests at stake in the area and realizing the natural pro-Western orientation of Israel, the Soviet Union could without risk endorse the Arab position as a convenient means of achieving popularity. On the theoretical level, the most recent Russian book on Israel (Ivanov and Sheinis, Gosudarstvo Israil, Moscow, 1958) furnishes justification of the Soviet position by arguing that the Jewish national movement is “objectively reactionary,” that “the Jewish problem can be solved only by assimilation in a Socialist state free of anti-Semitism,” and that the Jews simply are not a single nation. (The authority of Mr. Alfred Lilienthal of the American Council for Judaism is invoked to demonstrate this last proposition.)

Mr. Laqueur rightly insists that no single factor can account for the recent Soviet successes in the Arab world—successes which, he stresses, have not been matched in the Turkish and Iranian parts of the Middle East. The combination of a strong nationalism with an extremely hazy domestic program and an (almost inevitable) anti-Western political bias, plus great and at some points almost incurable socio-economic ills, make it appear rather natural that the disillusioned yet activist young Arab intelligentsia should torn to Communism. In the absence of any comperting system of interpretation and political reform, the concreteness of Communist-inspired programs becomes very attractive. The skill with which the Russians salvaged Arab national sensibilities by meting out fulsome praise to all and sundry and playing down their own technical superiority should also be mentioned.

Mr. Laqueur is not given to speculations about the future. He confines himself to indicating when a future fissure between the Arab nationalists and their Communist allies may appear. Moscow will support “bourgeois” nationalism as long as it serves as a weapon in the present battle with the West. Should the Arab elites find their way back to the West, or should the Soviet Union lose interest in the success of Arab nationalism, Moscow could permit the local Communist groups in the Middle East free rein in their fight for internal power. The same would presumably hold if the Arabs ever achieved their goal of political unification, and thereupon shifted their attention from foreign to domestic politics. But, of course, who can say within what borders the Arab nationalists would consider their political aspirations realized?

As matters now stand, the Arab world is threatened by the possibility of a reconciliation between Russia and the United States. For any lasting accord between the two powers, which would imply a division of the world into spheres of primary interests, would deprive the Arab statesman of his strongest bargaining point. Meanwhile, with the demographic problem worsening in Egypt and the traditional conflicts between Iraq and Egypt, between the Arabs of the East and those of the West, far from overcome, the emotionalism of an area that has been unnerved by the pressures of time and the unpredictability of great power policies, becomes as understandable as the readiness of the leaders and the intelligentsia to take political chances whose possible consequences they are careful not to avow even to themselves.

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