Thursday, August 18, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry

Some Forgotten History

This is a little out of step with the news cycle, but bear with me. I wanted to talk a little bit about the Soviet legacy in the Arab world.

Soviet foreign policy in the 1945-1985 period will not be remembered for its contributions to humanity. Actually it poisoned nearly everything it touched. Its triumphs led to devastating wars and grim, durable dictatorships; its failures drained Soviet resources and exposed Soviet limitations. Committed to upsetting the status quo without the will or power to determine what would replace it, determined to initiate confrontations without the desire to end them, the Soviet Union left a residue of tyranny, misery and a really astonishing quantity of personal weaponry around the world.

I was prompted to think of the Soviet legacy in the Arab countries by President Bush's oft-made and widely praised repudiation of 60 years of American policy that allegedly had pursued order at the expense of freedom in the Middle East. You don't need a Ph. D. in Arab history to understand that freedom was not the alternative on offer during most of that time -- secular, sometimes viciously anti-religious Soviet-backed regimes were.

Egypt's Nasser eagerly sought Soviet arms and economic assistance beginning in the 1950s; later Syria's Assad, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi did the same. Part of Yemen actually had a Communist government for a time, and some of the Palestinian factions within the PLO were openly Marxist as well. The internal security practices of all these regimes bore marked similarities to those of the Soviet Union at various points in its history, and of course the great majority of the weaponry the Israelis confronted in 1973 and later, Iran faced when Iraq attacked in 1980 and we saw during the Gulf War was of Soviet provenance.

The history behind this, beginning with Khruschev's effort to "leapfrog containment" during the 1950s and '60s is familiar to students of the Cold War. Conversely the specifics of, for example, KGB influence on the Syrian government's means of controlling information or the former Iraqi regime's efforts to assassinate dissidents abroad must await archival and other research that I'm not sure anyone has done yet.

Here's the point, though: The Soviets were not subtle about the way they exercised influence. They carried with them an ideology proven to be highly useful as a means of asserting state control; offered unqualified diplomatic backing for whatever the most radical Arab governments wanted; and distributed some economic aid as well as vast quantities of weapons. Experts in crushing freedom and inciting conflict, they passed their expertise along to willing clients for decades. They left footprints, big ones; yet to listen to the President, administration neoconservatives and frankly every media commentator I've heard talk about the Middle East one would think the Soviets had never been there.

Why does this matter? One reason might be the fact that Arab nationalism is so often being defined right now as requiring hostility to the United States. Partly this is due, of course, to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; another part has to do with Islamist ideology. But an important part -- the one the Bush administration has bought into -- involves the idea that the lack of freedom in the Arab world is America's fault.

This is no more than just barely arguable with respect to America's closest Arab allies, countries like Jordan and Morocco. Even in Saudi Arabia the United States was not so much complicit in suppressing democracy as unwilling to invent a democratic movement where one did not exist. And with respect to the Arab countries that have been most disruptive in recent years -- Syria, Libya, Iraq perhaps most of all -- the Bush administration's premise is not only wrong but absurd.

People who question whether attempting to democratize the Arab world is the answer to terrorism -- I am one of them -- often base their skepticism on the negligible Arab democratic tradition. But Arab political tradition did not evolve in a vacuum, and the Soviet influence on it was as powerful as any since World War II. Liberalization or even democratic reforms might have been a little easier in Iraq and many other Arab countries if it had been presented less as America's gift to Arabs and more as an opportunity for Arabs to repudiate the toxic Soviet legacy.

At a minimum it is tactically unfortunate for the United States to
have forgotten and allowed everyone else to forget that legacy. It cannot be wise to force every Arab seeking liberalization, democracy and greater respect for human rights to defend these as American-inspired departures from Arab tradition (though to some extent they are exactly that) and a dramatic, therefore suspicious reversal of American policy, rather than as corrections to the unfortunate influence exercised by Soviet Communists in earlier times and reflective of values America has always championed even where we could not impose them.

America should have but did not reap much credit in the Muslim world for its essential contribution to defeating the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and this is but another aspect of that
problem. Major change, even when it is beneficial, is often disruptive and painful. No agent of change is well-advised to take the whole blame for it on himself if it can be avoided. If blame can be shared with a party no longer around to defend itself or make trouble, so much the better.

posted by Joseph Britt on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM


America should have but did not reap much credit in the Muslim world for its essential contribution to defeating the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and this is but another aspect of that

It what sense did the US contribute to Muslim values there? The Taliban? They were really loved in the rest of the Muslim world.

So why would the average Indonesian or Turkish Muslim give credit to the US for bringing the Taliban to power?

It' be a strange world, where support for some random Christian dictator would get you much credit from the "Christian world".

But then ofcourse Muslims are different.

posted by: Frank on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

I don't know anybody who thinks Soviet-style communism was ever a serious possibility in the Muslim world. And what about the antics of Kermit Roosevelt in the early 1950's? I think what you had in the Middle East was the same Cold War chessboard you did everywhere else - we support the Shah, so the Soviets support some state next to the Shah, we support Saudi Arabia, etc. Also, don't ignore the importance of the fact some of these regimes - Egypt, for example - legitimize themselves as direct heirs of the wars against the colonial powers.

posted by: Brian Ulrich on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs just had an op-ed today in the NYT about this. He says the Bush strategy of democratic transformation is dead, and was wrong to begin with. I disagree.

As for the post here. Are we sure that there was no idea of democracy then? Iraqis and Afghanis are struggling to understand it now - but they like what they've heard so far. Do you really think they understood it then? Or if they did, that they weren't interested? Yes, Nasser, Assad, et al were patently undemocratic, but to what extent did that reflect the mood of the people. Did they express Arab nationalism/marxism b/c they truly believed it or b/c they knew of nothing else and that was what their leaders told them to believe. The middle east has gone through so many different ideologies in such a short time, it's hard to believe they were actually committed to any of them. If they finally understand a way of government, and they like it, who's to say they wouldn't have liked it in the 1950s?

posted by: Alenda Lux on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

mr. britt,
you are an idiot, and it is pretty obvious you don't have that phd in arab history you mentioned...

one thing you might consider is that, for example, a major reason that egypt and syria joined together in the UAR was so that they could stay free of soviet influence. or, that nasser was one of the founders of the non-aligned movement.

further, you might consider that the #1 issue for the vast majority of the publics in the arab countries consider the suffering of the Palestinians as the most important issue. so, to the extent that their countries are not hostile to israel, that is because of the usa.

not to mention, (and it was alluded to by the first person how wrote) that it is ironic that you call nasser anti-religious when he was fighting the same people/ideoligy who you probably consider arch-terrorists.

or, let's not forget what role the usa had in iran or the gulf states, for that matter. all being almost full colonies of the usa, which you seem to totally forget.

further, the whole general argument you make is dumb, that the usa just sends money and weapons to all these arab dictators, so that does not mean that the usa is responsible for their actions. but if the soviets do exactly that, they amazingly become responsible for all the actions of those people...

i could go on, but i am lazy. unfortunately, it seems like you are too uber-american to know actual history. or, maybe just a racist against muslims and arabs... it is rather annoying that your view is typical of poeple here. and, unless you come to realize that the usa is a big source of the problems in the arab world (and it is not islam) the usa is going to suffer many more attacks. especially if we keep liberating people as we have done in iraq. then, god help us.

posted by: bob on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

oh, let me add, from

na·tion·al·ism (nsh-n-lzm, nshn-)
-Devotion to the interests or culture of one's nation.
-The belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals.
-Aspirations for national independence in a country under foreign domination.

when you say that arab nationalism is being defined as anti-americanism, or as islamism, or as a result of the israeli colonialization of palestine, well, obviously. that is what natioalism is. when any great power or empire starts getting itself involved in other countries and fucking things up and putting in governments that are not of, for or by the people, the response to reject it in a form that respresents the will of the people is nationalism. and, by definition, it is more nationalist to reject a foreign power causing a problem then it is to reject a home-grown problem.

posted by: bob on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

bob, -- you are a bigger idiot in your second post that your first. Daniel is not arguing that the USA had not influence in the Arab world, only that the Soviet legacy is being ignored. That is the major point, and on that point you haven't said anything.

When you say "when any great power or empire starts getting itself involved in other countries and fucking things up and putting in governments that are not of, for or by the people..." it sure sounds like a bad thing. The only problem with that premise is that there aren't many examples in the Arab world of government of, for or by the people. How many examples can you cite? Maybe Iran? C'mon. You are merely arguing one viewpoint with a blatant but opposing falsehood.

I think Daniel's point was rather modest. You seem to be projecting on it the things that you want to repudiate. I'm not saying you are right or wrong, just that yoru comments seem to go far beyond the topic here.

posted by: Mike on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Frank, The U.S. had nothing to do with the Taleban.

posted by: Lee on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Frank, The U.S. had nothing to do with the Taleban.

As you apparently don't believe me, lets quote the Wiki:

... Opposition against, and conflict within, the series of leftist governments that followed was considerable. In August 1978 the American government commenced funding anti-government mujahideen forces; the Soviet Union invaded on December 24, 1979. Faced with mounting international pressure and losses of approximately 15,000 Soviet soldiers as a result of mujahideen opposition trained by the United States, Pakistan, and other foreign governments, the Soviets withdrew ten years later in 1989.

And the click on mujahideen:

After the Soviets withdrew, the mujahideen broke into two loosely-aligned opposing factions, the Northern Alliance and the Taleban, which then engaged in civil war for control of Afghanistan.

So in short: the US supports opposition groups, aka mujahedin, against the SU supported Afghan government. SU invades, the mujahedin win. After a civil war the Taliban faction of the mujahedin form the new defacto (but unrecognized) government in Afghanistan.

And back to the topic:

The US failed to do then, what it did in 2002, namely the essential part of nation building.
The result was pretty devastating, and nothing should oblige, or indeed did oblige, the "Muslim world" to give the US credit for what it did there.

posted by: Frank on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Interesting commentary. It strikes me that one overreaches a tad in regards to the following:

But an important part -- the one the Bush administration has bought into -- involves the idea that the lack of freedom in the Arab world is America's fault. This is no more than just barely arguable with respect to America's closest Arab allies, countries like Jordan and Morocco.

continued as

..... And with respect to the Arab countries that have been most disruptive in recent years -- Syria, Libya, Iraq perhaps most of all -- the Bush administration's premise is not only wrong but absurd.


Of course there is the non-trivial example of Egypt, which is surely a problem the US owns every bit as such as the Soviets, booted out oh so long ago.

In re Iraq, it strikes one that the US played ball and was until 1990 (for rational reasons one must admit) if not quite in bed with, at least enabling the Sadaam regime on several levels, in connexion with its war with Iran.

Surely, of course, the actual input on the model Sadaam followed was Soviet, but the blind eye argument stands.

In sum, a reasonable argument, but taken one step too far.

posted by: collounsbury on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

"Arab countries that have been most disruptive in recent years -- Syria, Libya, Iraq perhaps most of all -- the Bush administration's premise is not only wrong but absurd."

And yet with the most disruptive Middle Eastern country. The one you deviously excluded by using the word "Arab" the premise is dead-on-target. Or was that just a convenient oversight?

posted by: Michael Carroll on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Two issues are raised by the last two posts, one worthy of discussion and the other not.

Egyptians like to think of themselves as the center of the Arab world, and the Arab world would probably be a lot easier to deal with if other Arabs shared that view. The question of foreign influence in a country with a 5000-year history as a state probably needs to be considered a little differently from the same question elsewhere.

Egypt has had three Presidents since 1954: Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. Nasser sought Soviet military and economic aid and invited large numbers of Soviet military personnel into the country late in his tenure. His foreign policy was nominally based on non-alignment; as a practical matter this usually meant a diplomatic tilt toward the Russians, who in turn embraced the maximum Arab program with respect to Israel.

Sadat continued Nasser's policies at the beginning of his own tenure, then told the Russians to leave, wanting no restraint on his plans to regain Egyptian territory lost in the 1967 war. During the 1970s he drew steadily closer to the United States, and while making peace with Israel was able to extract commitments to reequip the Egyptian military and substantial amounts of American aid. Sadat also had a hold on the American imagination greater than any Arab leader before or since, and a closer personal relationship with American leaders than any Arab with the possible exception of Jordan's King Hussein.

His assassination by Muslim fanatics in 1981 was rightly regarded in Washington as a disaster for the region, and Mubarak's accession and stability in power as a great relief. Various American criticisms of Mubarak's foreign policy could be and have been made over the years, but the major American gripe against him has been that even after peace with Israel Mubarak did not move Egypt toward a more liberal political environment at home. It was not much of a gripe until fairly recently; Americans have traditionally not made the domestic political arrangements with friendly governments the main basis for relations with them.

In any event, under none of the Egyptian leaders were large numbers of American troops stationed on Egyptian soil; American input into Egypt's internal security practices, beyond the sharing of intelligence, appears also to have been minimal compared to the Soviet role in the 1960s and early '70s. Having said that it seems clear enough that Soviet influence in several Arab countries was much greater than any the Russians had in Egypt, and much of what they may have had at one time was deliberately removed by Sadat.

As to the other "disruptive state" in the Middle East, I assume that this is a reference to Israel, which is only disruptive by reason of its existence. Too bad.

posted by: Zathras on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Well, aside from finding it more than moderately amusing to have this long and unnecessary lecture regarding the Egyptian Umm ad-Dunya complex, and recent history... what can I say other than I frankly find the reading tediously and tenditiously narrow. All the more tiresome as the lecture was quite unnecessary, fqh.

Yes, indeed, the Sov model for the security apparats is more or less the dominant one. Wonderfully narrow point that.

That being said, in the wider real world many of us less disposed to tenditiously narrow readings and arguments over angels on heads of pins are inclined to partition responsibility even where the sin of origin is not shared. In short, you bloody fucking spend the dollars to fund the bloody machine, even you didn't bloody build it, you own part of the responsibility.

In the real, ordinary world -outside of ideologues and academics hair splitting- that's a pretty ordinary way of seeing things.

Now, as to the Israeli angle, hah, well although I might not disagree it does strike me as excessivly in the realm of apologetics to entirely excuse one party of its bad behaviour, even if it is badly situated in a region of lots of even worse behaviour. Of course one can reasonably differ there.

posted by: Lounsbury on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

one point i would quickly make is that Nasser asked for american help first, and the usa defended him in the suez war. he even wanted american assistance with the big dam. but didn't want to be controled by the usa. and after a bunch of mess, turned to the soviets as a last resort. but, he always maintained his independence, and has a similar but less brash view to the russians as Qaddafi (who considered Nasser as one of his heros), who almost walked out of a NAM conference after castro spoke in favor of the USSR.

which, a side note that gives some bit of context (though obviously not complete), Qaddafi has an interesting quote in the sept 17, 1973 newsweek, the quote reads: "Ferociously anti-Communist, Kaddafi recently told an astonished ambassador from Czechoslovakia, 'I pity you being the representative of an enslaved nation.'"

posted by: a point on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]



I was not referring to ISRAEL!

I was referring to IRAN!

You know the country where we helped depose the elected leader and supported the Shah for 30 odd years!

I'll admit I was being terse but you should switch coffee brands.

posted by: Michael Carroll on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

MC: You are quite right. You were being terse.

Seriously, I mistook your meaning because the Bush administration big cause is democratizing the Arab world, and because I don't really think of Iran as a Middle Eastern country. Still, my mistake.

I should add that, the institutional status and material wealth of the Iranian clergy aside, Iran was governed rather better under the Shah than it has been since he fell. Iran endured no invasions during his reign; he kept the military so strong that not even Saddam Hussein dared attack Iran. His government threatened none of its neighbors, firmly discouraged Soviet adventurism in the area, did not sponsor terrorism or otherwise meddle in the politics of distant countries, and was otherwise a good international citizen. The economic growth of Iran during his reign was also greater than it has been in most of the years since.

In any event, it has been a full quarter century since the Shah's death, and it seems appropriate to place the responsibility for the disruptiveness of a country that has chosen isolation and hostility to the outside world for decades on its own government. Don't you think?

posted by: Zathras on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Well that is a fine piece of absurdist revisionism if I ever saw it.

Perhaps we can recall that Sadaam came to power July 1979 through what was effectively a coup - the same bloody year as the incompetent autocrat, the Shah - was toppled in a popular revolution (hijacked in some ways by the Shia Islamist revolutionaries).

Indeed Sadaam only rose to the rank of general and began his climb to power within the Baath military aparat c. 1976.

Now, as the Iranian revolution occured the same bloody year (and again let us keep in mind it began rather broadly, it is rich to the point of hysterical to claim the Shah governed well), although one must allow it began earlier in the year, so .... well I guess the Shah "detered" Sadaam from making a coup? Is that the absurd argument you would like to make.

The revolution in Iran certainly fucked its military capacity over right good, but it's loony to claim that the Shah deterred a man who was not yet in control of Iraq (although certainly by 78 was on his way).

If you're going to comment on the Middle East, you need to at least show some sign that you have a vague awareness of the basic facts. Making statements like this about Sadaam and the Shah renders your commentary .... well I have't the words for how silly it makes it.

posted by: lounsbury on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

lounsbury, stole my thunder but I'll just add this: for those living the respective nightmares the only real difference between the Shah and Saddam was that the Shah was strictly our pay roll and Saddam was more-or-less on the Soviet's. I'm sure that distinction means a lot more to us than it does in the Middle East.

posted by: Michael Carroll on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Sorry Michael, timing mate, timing.

That aside I largely agree although perhaps Baath were worse by a simple virtue of being more effective and competent than the Shah in terms of their secret police and the like.

posted by: lounsbury on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

In this discussion of the Soviet's contributions to the current mess in the Middle East I'm reminded of the role they played in the start of the Six Day War. The misinformation Soviet intelliigence passed on to Egypt from Syria about what Israel was (allegedly)doing was an important proximate cause of that war.

posted by: Mark on 08.18.05 at 05:26 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?