The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

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The Dinner Guest

Yevgeny Primakov has been a disaster for U.S.-Russian relations.

Published on March 1, 2010


Russia and the Arabs:
Behind the Scenes in the Middle East
from the Cold War to the Present
by Yevgeny Primakov
Basic Books, 2009, 432 pp., $29.95

For many people Yevgeny Primakov is a kind of guilty pleasure. They like him, all the while knowing they probably shouldn’t. In a long and distinguished career, he has been Russia’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and before that the head of its foreign intelligence service. In Soviet times he directed two prestigious Moscow think-tanks, was a “journalist” (wink-wink) for Pravda, and served as a special, sometimes covert, Politburo emissary to countless Middle Eastern leaders. To this unique set of experiences, add his genuine wit, his mischievous smile, his confident air of knowing how, beneath all its silly pretenses, the amoral world really works, and you’ve got someone who is, to say the very least, excellent company at dinner.

It’s not for nothing, then, that Russians who know him like to compare Primakov to Henry Kissinger. He often left my old boss Madeleine Albright feeling as though she had been talking, in her words, to “Saddam Hussein’s lawyer.” But it was hard to stay mad at a guy who would then get up on stage before hundreds of diplomats in a grand old Manila hotel and join in a West Side Story take-off, singing “Madeleine Albright, Madeleine Albright, I just met a girl named Madeleine Albright!” I once even heard a senior Georgian official admit that, yes, Primakov might well have had something to do with assassination attempts against then-President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze—but, no, this didn’t stop the two of them from exchanging warm birthday greetings. And why should it? In the lonely world of high politics, good dinner companions are hard to find.

Primakov’s new book, Russia and the Arabs, captures some of his appeal as undercover diplomat and high-table raconteur. There he is, in one chapter, riding along in a mule train through rain and snow in Iraqi Kurdistan, his destination a campfire meal with Mustafa Barzani, leader of the Kurdish independence movement. In another, he’s merrily excusing himself for arriving late to an appointment with King Hussein of Jordan. Primakov turns his complaint about Amman’s bad traffic into a deft compliment: How was he to know that Jordan was the only country in the Middle East in which red lights are actually respected? In another chapter, he breaks the ice in his first meeting with Yasir Arafat by observing that his host looks surprisingly, well, Jewish. All of these personalities, whom our hero buddied up to for many decades, are thoughtfully portrayed here—often admiringly, but never uncritically.

Primakov turns out to be a strong admirer of Israeli leaders, too. Back in the early 1970s, he had been an advocate of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel, broken during the Six-Day War, and he unearths memos he wrote for the Kremlin leadership to prove it. Why, he argued, should Moscow let a U.S. administration have the advantage of maneuvering among all the important governments of the region, while Soviet officials talked only to the Arabs? Leonid Brezhnev and his colleagues ignored Primakov’s proposal, but for years they continued to use him as their go-to guy for regular off-line meetings with top Israelis.

As a result, Russia and the Arabs has even more anecdotes with which to entertain us, from across the front lines of geopolitics. Primakov records special enthusiasm for Menachem Begin, who turns out to have been a strong Russophile and praised the Russians as “the greatest, the most noble, most kind-hearted of people.” He really likes Bibi Netanyahu too: “a man we can do business with”, someone whose openness “impressed me greatly”, and “a man I could be straight with.” And if he was a little put off by the occasional dressing-down that he got from Golda Meir, still he describes her with grudging professional respect. She was, he writes, “an experienced politician, one able to conceal what she really thought behind a kindly, innocent smile.”

Anyone who has spent any time in Primakov’s presence knows, of course, that all the good stories and conviviality are, like Golda’s smile, just one part of the man’s modus operandi. He’s got a job to do, a message to impart, and he always does it in style. He’s never angry or confrontational. He knows better than to sound like anyone’s propaganda mouthpiece. Instead, he wants his audience to feel he is taking them into his confidence. Primakov may toss the most outrageous claim into the conversation, but he does so casually, as though it were just one more colorful anecdote, a secret nugget from the intelligence underworld, something his dinner guests will accept in the same spirit of worldly amusement in which it is offered.


So it is, alas, with Russia and the Arabs. In chapter after chapter, as he recounts a half century of Middle Eastern wars and assorted other calamities, Primakov repeatedly slips his explanatory tidbits into the storytelling mix. But what we learn about all these historic events almost always turns out to be the same thing. We learn about the misguided, conniving, hidden role of American leaders and policymakers.

Thus it seems that, in 1967, the Six-Day War started when the CIA and the Pentagon became convinced that war would serve American interests and so gave Israel the “green light” to attack. Similarly, we learn that Henry Kissinger knew that Egypt was preparing a surprise attack on Israel in 1973 and tried to dissuade the Israelis from preempting—for fear that “an Israeli strike would spoil the scheme that he and Sadat had secretly hatched together.” (Primakov suggests that Kissinger held off coming to Israel’s aid in that war for the same reason.) Another eyebrow-raiser is the claim that the United States supported Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran in 1980 because it viewed a new war as a “God-given chance to settle scores” with the regime of the Islamic Revolution. And when Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981, the Reagan Administration wanted the world to think it didn’t know about the operation in advance so that no one would ask why the United States didn’t stop it. That, Primakov writes, is only how it looked “to the uninitiated.”

Such allegations are sprinkled throughout the book, but they reach a kind of crescendo when Primakov discusses the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath. The CIA, he suggests, clearly sent “encouraging signals” to Saddam in the run-up to the war to discourage him from fighting too hard. In this view, only the fiendishly clever mind-games that the Americans played with Saddam—hints of interest in some sort of deal—can explain why the Iraqi dictator didn’t order the bridges to Baghdad blown up to block American entry into the city, or why the Republican Guard put up such feeble resistance to the invaders. “A classic way of operating”, Primakov calls it. Discussing Saddam’s capture, he asserts that what actually happened “bore absolutely no resemblance” to the story that the Bush Administration and the American press concocted about trapping him in his underground lair. There’s even the snarky insinuation that the Administration pushed to speed up Saddam’s execution, the better to keep him from saying too much—too much that might expose American shenanigans, you understand—before the end of his trial.

Now, it is not exactly a shock to hear that American policy in the Middle East has often been foolish, poorly thought-out, underinformed, counterproductive—and, yes, sometimes even duplicitous. Many scholars, journalists, diplomats and politicians, Americans among them, have said much the same. But were it not for his long career behind the scenes in the region and all the tantalizing hints that he knows even more than he’s telling, Primakov would not get a serious hearing for most of the specific new claims he makes in this book.

The truth is that most of the incidents retold in Russia and the Arabs show not how careless or aggressive American policymakers have been in choosing war, but how difficult it has been for them to reconcile their conflicting objectives. In 1967, Lyndon Johnson and his advisers were painfully aware that, if they made an all-out effort to keep Israel from going to war, they would be taking on more responsibility for its security than they wanted. At the same time, they were fearful of where war might lead, and so kept hoping that all the parties would allow more time for diplomacy to produce results. When the Israelis themselves decided that time was up, Dean Rusk was “angry as hell.”1 In Tel Aviv, people in responsible positions had concluded that war was necessary, just as Primakov claims. In Washington, people in responsible positions were still wringing their hands.

Nor did the Carter Administration “decide” to back Iraq when it invaded Iran in 1980. According to Primakov, Saddam knew, even as he prepared for war, that he could count on American support. But he knew no such thing, and one of the reasons, among others, that his invasion quickly stalled is that neither Washington nor Moscow supported him. In fact, apart from financial loans from some of his neighbors, Saddam remained relatively isolated until 1982, at which point his forces had been retreating for a full year in the face of successive Iranian offensives. Seeing where things were heading, many regional governments began to panic at the prospect of Iraq’s dismemberment by Iran. The Reagan Administration initiated a gradual about-face, which over the next three years brought Saddam economic aid, a diplomatic rapprochement, seventy helicopters, and high-quality intelligence photography. As this process unfolded, some American policymakers indulged in far too much wishful thinking about their new “friend”, but helping him in retreat was at bottom a prudent choice. Supporting him from the outset—in an anything-goes spirit of revenge against the Iranian Revolution—would not have been prudent. That’s probably why it didn’t happen.

The most disappointing part of this book is the way it treats the Iraq problem between the two wars of 1991 and 2003. It’s here that Primakov, given the high positions he held, had by far his greatest direct influence on events. It’s also here that he does the most to obscure his own responsibility for the way things turned out.

Reading Russia and the Arabs, you might think that the author told Saddam that no matter how much he disliked the UN weapons inspections that he had been saddled with as part of the 1991 peace settlement, he would simply have to live with them—indefinitely. “Russia”, Primakov insists, “did everything in its power to get Saddam to pull back from the brink.” Sadly, he laments, the Iraqi leader was so confident that the United States would never take serious military action against him that he continued to do as he pleased, defying the warnings of a unanimous UN Security Council.

If only it had happened this way. From the very beginning of Saddam’s campaign in 1996 to get out from under the sanctions-and-inspections regime, he was clearly encouraged by disunity among the great powers. When the Clinton Administration first sought a UN Security Council resolution demanding that Iraq abide by its obligations, Russia (along with France and China) abstained. And Primakov was willing to support subsequent resolutions only if the Administration dropped the stiff (and legally significant) warning that Saddam’s harassment of the inspectors constituted a “material breach” of his commitments.

In all the meetings I sat in on between Primakov and Albright in 1997 and 1998, when he was Russian Foreign Minister and she was Secretary of State, I never once heard him say anything remotely like, “Look, Madeleine, this is really important—let’s think about how we get Saddam to take our demands seriously. Given that he apparently doesn’t believe you’re going to invade Iraq, he needs to see that we’re completely united—and completely firm.” Instead, he complained about how the inspectors were too aggressive, about how many of Saddam’s complaints were actually very reasonable, about how the Council’s goal should be to “close the dossier” on its concerns about WMD, and so on. Publicly, Russian officials decried any thought that it might be necessary to increase pressure on Iraq, much less resort to force. Small wonder, then, that Saddam expected to pay no price for driving the inspectors out of Iraq. When he finally did so at the end of 1998, the United States and Britain responded with a four-day bombing campaign against Iraqi military targets. In this standoff, whom did the Russian government denounce? Not Saddam.

The consequences of this disagreement were immense, and they are still with us. Had there been a smoothly functioning, unchallenged system of weapons inspections in Iraq between 1998 and 2002, the President of the United States would never have been able to convince Congress, the public, the media and other governments that Saddam had used the intervening years to keep working away on illicit programs that threatened international peace. If the Security Council had not shown itself to be incapable of keeping firm checks in place on the power of a recent aggressor, many fewer Americans would have concluded that “unilateralism” was the only viable national security strategy in desperate times. It was, let us remember, the wrangling over the inspectors in 1998 that led the Clinton Administration to embrace “regime change” as its Iraq policy.

Given this chain of events, is it too much to argue that Primakov bears some responsibility for the war of 2003? Admittedly, saying so may seem a little Primakovian—too rhetorical, too unfair, too partisan, too mischievous a zinger. There is one important difference, though: The facts support it.

Since the end of Soviet rule, Yevgeny Primakov has commanded enormous respect in Russia for advocating a foreign policy based on the “national interest.” Few of his countrymen, moreover, have both the practical experience and the intellectual heft to contribute as much as he could to a discussion of what that elusive concept should mean for Russia today. Unfortunately, as the Iraq story demonstrates all too vividly, for Primakov “national interest” has often seemed to mean little more than whatever would vex the United States at a given moment.

It would be one thing if this approach had brought significant benefits to Russia, but it hasn’t. To the contrary, nothing did more to estrange Moscow and Washington, to block meaningful partnership and to make a “reset” of relations necessary. Through all this, Primakov has continued to insist that this wasn’t his intention, that he has favored cooperation all along, that tough-minded, self-interested states can and should work together. Perhaps, but his book tells a different story.

1Rusk, As I Saw It, Daniel S. Papp, ed. (W.W. Norton, 1990), p. 386.

Stephen Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. From 1997 to 2001 he was U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for the former Soviet Union.