The Cold War’s Arab Spring: How the Soviets Created Today’s Middle East
Stolen Kremlin records show how the Soviets, including Gorbachev, created many of today’s Middle East conflicts
The Red Arabs, as Stroilov calls them—Egypt, Libya, Syria—were socialist regimes and Soviet clients; even deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he argues, never fully repudiated his connections to the Soviet Union and should more properly be understood as Nasser’s successor than a Westernizing reformer. For example, in pridefully describing the fruits of one of his five-year plans to Gorbachev, Mubarak described both his real attitude toward the United States and his surprisingly modern outlook on debt-repayment:
GORBACHEV. But where did you get money from? Is it flowing in the Nile?
MUBARAK. We had to borrow a lot. […] Everyone has debts in today’s world. […] Americans owe money to the Japanese, but Bush does not pay. So what, will Japan declare war to the US? […] I told Reagan that the Soviet Union had never charged any interest for its loans to us. We no longer borrow money from the US. We only accept non-repayable aid, when they are prepared to give it. […]
GORBACHEV. How much is your total debt?
MUBARAK. 50 billion dollars. […] But we can always negotiate on the debts and get postponement of payments again and again. Nowadays, almost nobody repays debts. I’m talking to you absolutely frankly.
Subsequently, Mubarak said:
I would like to tell you that we continue military cooperation with the USA. They give us $1,3 bn. aid. We still cannot do without it: we need spare parts for military equipment, and so on. But time will come when things turn in different direction. I am telling this to you absolutely frankly.
Pleased by this, Gorbachev thereafter kept it in mind that turning Egypt away from the United States might be feasible. Meanwhile, he worked strenuously to unite the Red Arabs with the aim of expelling the United States completely from the region. In page upon page of these transcripts, we see him striving toward this goal, particularly in his meetings with Hafez Assad:
GORBACHEV. […] The Soviet Union, given the capabilities it has, is also prepared to contribute to the unification of the Arab ranks. Of course, our enemies won’t miss the opportunity to present our honest efforts as “Moscow’s conspiracy,” so we should act accurately and carefully. In any case, you can count on our support. [...] A success of this cause would be a great historic victory with tremendous consequences.
In 1986, as the series of Politburo memos shows, the Syrians proudly reported that they had destroyed the prospect of peace between Israel and Jordan, “wrecked” cooperation between Jordan and the Palestinians, and “effectively blocked” President Ronald Reagan’s peace plan. Gorbachev encouraged them to continue their efforts, lauding Syria’s defense of the “progressive” forces of the Middle East. Gorbachev could rightly claim credit for undermining any prospects for regional peace in the 1980s.
The Soviets’ proudest accomplishment of the epoch, however, was the First Intifada. In April 1988, Yasser Arafat went to Moscow to explain his plan and seek approval. “Gorbachev acknowledged that he fully understood the PLO’s ‘tactics of using different forms of struggle.’ ” Arafat was quite clear what he meant by this:
ARAFAT. We also continue the struggle in other forms, on other fronts. The armed struggle does not stop in the South of Lebanon. Artillery fire, air raids, other actions take place on daily basis.
But the ultimate, golden goal remained the same: the Gulf—the West’s lifeline. In the “official narrative,” as Stroilov terms it, Soviet-American cooperation in ousting Saddam from Kuwait marked the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the New World Order. In reality, Stroilov argues, Gorbachev’s plan “was to take the Western side, ensuring it would have a say in solving the crisis. Then it would use this position to minimize the damage Saddam caused, and to advance its own agenda in Middle East.” Among the goals of that agenda: To replace Washington’s power with a “world government” sympathetic to communist aspirations. The leaders of the Italian Communist Party were particularly inspired by this idea:
OKKETTO. The UN shall become an instrument of the world government.
RUBBI. Berlinguer spoke about the world government as early as at the 15th Congress of the ICP.
OKKETTO. At that time, many in the audience smiled at this.
GORBACHEV. We also have many people smiling at this. Maybe, indeed, it is worth thinking about arranging for the communists, social democrats and someone else to work out an agreed constructive proposal. It should be not propaganda, but a real policy.
OKKETTO. [The leader of West German Social Democrats, Willie] Brandt wants to involve representatives of parties, statesmen and other major figures in this work, to discuss the problems during seminars and conferences.
GORBACHEV. Let us arrange all this, and also consult Brandt and others.
Stroilov’s archives closely detail the Soviet mediation of secret negotiations between Washington and Baghdad during the fall of 1990. The superpowers apparently came near to agreement on rather extraordinary terms: Saddam would withdraw from Kuwait in exchange for a scheme, proposed by the Soviets, to hold a U.N.-sponsored international conference designed to result in the disarmament and dismemberment of Israel.
The documents show that George H.W. Bush agreed to that deal in principle—so long as the linkage was kept secret.
G. BUSH. I agree with everything you’ve said. We do not seek laurels of individual or collective victors in the fight against Saddam Hussein. But both you and I want the new order to prevail in the future world. For this, we need to find such a response which provides guarantees against an aggression in the future. As far as I see, that is exactly what many provisions of your plan are designed for.
He wanted Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait as if unconditionally; the United States would then pressure Israel to join an ostensibly unrelated “peace process.” Bush asked Gorbachev to see what Saddam thought about this. Saddam demurred: He would only agree if the deal was made openly. It is fascinating to compare Stroilov’s transcripts with the memoirs written by Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker. The latter memoirs suggest that Gorbachev wanted to mention Israel and the Palestinians in a joint public statement but then conceded the point. In fact, the argument was about a secret deal, not a public statement.
Sooner or later, as Stroilov correctly notes, all socialist regimes collapse. He argues that what we are witnessing today is the collapse of the Soviet empire in the Middle East—a process similar to that seen in Europe in 1989-1991. But unlike the despots of Eastern Europe, the Red Arabs were allowed to survive. Rather than ousting Saddam and pressuring the Soviet Union—which now had only a few months left to live—to withdraw its influence from the Middle East, Bush prioritized placating Gorbachev over aggressively pressing the United States’ advantage. In Stroilov’s view, these regimes could and should have been overthrown 20 years ago. That they were not, he argues, was because the Middle East was the domain Gorbachev was determined to retain and because Americans, naively enchanted by his charisma, allowed themselves to be hoodwinked.
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