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Once again the Middle East seems fated to become the main danger zone of world politics. During the last decade the East-West détente has prevented a head-on collision between the superpowers there, but many signs point to impending changes. As the Soviet Union reaches strategic parity with the United States, there is growing temptation for it to assert its strength in an area so much nearer Moscow than Washington. The Western withdrawal from the area will be complete with the British departure from the Persian Gulf. From the Soviet point of view the Middle East is a vacuum and seems the least risky area in the world in which to expand the Soviet sphere of influence. The Russian drive to the south which began in the eighteenth century seems at last likely to achieve fulfillment.
The Russians' strengthened position in the Middle East has come about not by coercion or infiltration but by invitation. The Soviet Union was officially asked to become a Middle Eastern power and was willingly offered the facilities it wanted by the governments of Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Yemen. No country has been taken over and communist ideology has not spread widely. Success has been due not to the activities of the local communist parties nor to loans and credits, nor to a very cunning diplomacy, but fundamentally to the internal ferment in the Arab world. In many respects the Soviet Union was an ideal ally for the radical Arab leaders, but ultimately it became a leading Middle Eastern power because it was geographically near, militarily strong and relatively rich. For these reasons it is idle to speculate whether the Soviet advance could have been prevented. Arab enmity toward Israel played an important role, but it was an aggravating circumstance, not the decisive factor. Soviet inroads made in Southern Arabia and Algeria, in Sudan and Somalia, have shown that the Arab-Israeli conflict was not a precondition for Soviet successes.
The communist parties played a relatively minor role in these developments. During the last decade, communists (or fellow travelers) have been members of governments in Iraq and Syria, Egypt and the Sudan, But the communist parties there have not derived lasting benefit; as yet they are nowhere legal-with the sole exception of Israel. Nowhere in the area has communism been able to capture the leadership of the national movement. In Turkey and Iran the internal situation favored the growth of radical left-wing movements, but for obvious historical reasons close identification with the Soviet Union was a liability.
Communist ideas have become popular in the Middle East, but the Soviet brand of communism has lost much of its earlier appeal. The Soviet monopoly in anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism disappeared; every self-respecting radical leader in the Arab world subscribes to these doctrines. But this does not necessarily induce him to join the communist party; he can with equal justification be a member of the Neo-Ba'th (in Syria) or a left-wing Nasserist, or look to China, Jugoslavia or Cuba for inspiration. The orthodox communists have remained somewhat suspect despite their demonstrative patriotism. They are bound by the rules of the game (such as Soviet unwillingness to risk a nuclear war on behalf of the Arab world) and cannot compete with the ultra-radical slogans of Maoists and Castro- Debrayists who outflank them on the Left. The position of the communist parties is further weakened by the inevitable ambiguities of Soviet policy toward the Arab world. It was not easy for a communist in an Egyptian concentration camp to defend the "objectively progressive character" of Soviet help given to President Nasser. It was even more difficult for an Iranian Communist to explain to the militants that it was perfectly proper for the Soviet leaders to fete the Shah while the Tudeh Party was denouncing him as a criminal and traitor and demanding his overthrow.
Such contradictory situations exist in almost all Middle Eastern countries, greatly contributing to the internal splits which have plagued the communist parties there throughout their recent history. The Tudeh Party in Iran split in 1965, when the advocates of a Stalinist-Maoist line seceded. Those who remain are gravely handicapped in their activities by the economic boom and the growing friendship between Tehran and Moscow. The leaders of the Turkish Labor Party have denounced Soviet economic assistance to the Demirel government, arguing that in return for aid the Russians can impose conditions which are "more to their own advantage than to that of the Turkish working class." They have also sharply condemned the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Iraqi Communist Party, once very powerful, has for years been in a state of disarray. Factional struggles have not been limited to ideological exchanges. There have been kidnappings, and rival factions have attempted to seize each other's printing presses. In Israel the communist movement is split into the pro- Nasserist RAKAH and the pro-Israeli MAKI. In Syria, Lebanon, the Sudan and Yemen pro-Chinese factions which insist on "positive neutralism" between Moscow and Peking compete with the orthodox communists. It is a dismal picture from the communist point of view, but it would be premature to conclude that orthodox communism is finished in the Middle East. For while the communists have failed to make headway, the parties in power have not been much more successful. A revolutionary situation continues to exist in several countries.
From the Soviet point of view the Middle Eastern communist parties are of only limited use. Moscow can rely on them slightly more than on Nasser and the Neo-Ba'th, but this is a question of degree, not of principle. The conflict with China and, more recently, the Czech crisis have shown the Soviet leaders that they can no longer take the loyalty of many communist parties for granted, whereas client states, such as Syria and Egypt, have given them full support. Fear, "material interest" and political dependence make for more loyal allies than ideological conviction; this is the obvious lesson of the last decade.
The Arab communists can have no illusions about their prospects in the years to come. It is not impossible that they might come to share power in one Arab country or another within the framework of a "national front," but past experience has shown that these are not likely to be lasting successes. The communist parties have no chance to become mass parties unless they adjust much more to specific local conditions. This means (to give but a few examples) that the communists would have to pay more than lip service to Islam and Arab nationalism, that they disavow dialectical materialism, and that they give up any idea of nationalizing agriculture. It means, in other words, that the communists cease to be communists and transform themselves into nationalist-socialists. This is by no means impossible; in some countries, such as Morocco, they have already gone a long way toward it. On this road they might eventually succeed, provided they could overtake the many competitors who have already staked their claims to a similar course.
In an interview in 1959 President Nasser said: "I am certain that no communist will, whatever happens, influence Arab nationalism. On the contrary, the ideas of Arab nationalism will finally and forever prevail." Since then Nasser has gone a long way. A decade later he seems to have decided that he has no choice but to tie his fate to the Soviet alliance and to become absolutely dependent on it. The decision cannot have been easy; it had been his great aim to restore real independence to Egypt, and for a while, during the late fifties and early sixties, he appeared to have succeeded. But he had always wanted to accomplish too much in too little time: industrialization and a social revolution in Egypt, supremacy among the Arabs, a leading role in Africa, a campaign in Yemen and the liberation of Palestine.
After the Six Day War, Egypt urgently needed economic aid. Above all it needed arms for which it could not pay. Nasser admitted as much after Egypt had been rearmed: ". . . we have so far paid not one penny for the arms we obtained from the Soviet Union to equip our armed forces. Actually, were it a question of payment, we have no money to buy arms." There was no chance of receiving the aircraft and the missiles free of charge from anyone but Russia. He was of course aware that by cutting his ties to America he had weakened his bargaining position vis-à-vis Moscow. But he was no longer concerned about the price that would eventually have to be paid. He still maintained in a speech last July that there were no strings attached: "Why does the Soviet Union give us all these things? . . . I wish to tell you frankly and clearly that the Soviet Union has never tried, not even in the times of our greatest trials, to dictate conditions to us or to ask anything of us. . . . For hours we went on asking, but they did not make one request of us. Even when I told them I felt ashamed that we were making many demands while they had asked nothing from us . . . they told us: We adopt this stand on the basis of our ideology. . . . We have nothing to ask."
The Soviet leaders had nothing to ask because there was hardly anything Nasser did not volunteer. After his state visit to the U.S.S.R. in July 1968 he welcomed the presence of Soviet naval forces in the Mediterranean, the "new shield of the progressive Arab states." His old friend, Tito, whom he had seen on his way back from Moscow, disapproved of Moscow's Mediterranean ambitions and warned him of the dangers of total dependence, but Nasser, plagued by illness and overwhelmed by the enormous difficulties facing him, talked in apocalyptic terms about a new war. He has made concession after concession to the Russians, purging the army and the state apparatus of all people considered by Moscow to be undesirable. Many of those around him have found it difficult to square these concessions with what used to be Nasser's fiery attachment to Egyptian sovereignty and independence. But Nasser is now under greater pressure than ever. His pride has been deeply wounded; everything is now to be subordinated to the coming war against Israel.
Although the Russians decided to reëquip the Egyptian army, they cannot have held many illusions about Egypt's immediate military prospects. Yet if Soviet power is to be asserted in the Middle East, sustained support for Egypt seems in retrospect to be almost inevitable. The Russian endeavor to make Egypt a showcase for Soviet-style socialism was clearly based on a miscalculation; the country was too poor and was ill-suited for such a régime. But Egypt's weakness was in some ways an asset, for it made the country permanently dependent on the Soviet Union. A defeated country is more likely to remain a loyal client than a victorious and prosperous one. With loyalty at a premium in the communist world, this is not a consideration to be ignored.
Nevertheless, after the June war the question whether Nasser was expendable must have occurred more than once to those responsible for Soviet Middle Eastern policy. Moody, unable to fulfill his promises, he surely appeared at times a major liability to his Soviet protectors. But no other Egyptian leader, certainly no member of the "Russian party" in Cairo, enjoyed the same prestige in his country, let alone in the Arab world. Nasser was the only charismatic leader, and miraculously his prestige was not irremediably damaged by his defeat-or so it seemed.
Ideologically, Nasser was truly uncommitted; he belonged to the generation which in the case of an Axis victory would have turned with equal ease to fascism. He was a radical nationalist, not a socialist, let alone a Marxist. He could argue in his defense that Egypt's desperate poverty left him little freedom of choice, that America made all kinds of conditions that were offensive to Arab patriots, that Egypt's interests clashed everywhere with those of the West-in Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula, in Israel. The Russians regarded him as a chosen instrument; for the Americans he was at best an unfriendly neutral. The United States wanted him to concentrate on economic construction at home, not to intervene in Africa, not to make war against Israel, not to manufacture rockets and nuclear weapons. It tried to restrain him in all the things that were dear to his heart, whereas the Russians have been in every respect more sympathetic.
But what if, owing to Nasser's impetuosity, yet another situation developed over which the Russians had no control? There have been Soviet warnings against "rank demagogy and adventurist exhortations," usually attributed to Chinese influence in the Middle East. The Soviet generals have asked for and received a far greater say in Cairo than before the war; perhaps they hope that the presence of 3,000 Soviet military experts and instructors will be a stabilizing factor.
If arms supplies are added to economic credits, Egypt ranks first in the world among the recipients of Soviet aid. Yet in coming years its role in Soviet Middle Eastern strategy is almost certain to decrease. Soviet attention is turning increasingly to other countries of the Middle East. Since 1965 a determined Soviet effort has been made to neutralize Turkey and Iran. Mr. Demirel and the Shah have been honored guests in Moscow. With the détente, the conviction grew in Ankara and Tehran that the military danger from the north had passed and that the Soviet Union had given up its old annexationist aims. Turkey has used the opportunity to devote more attention to Cyprus, while Iran is now preoccupied with the future of the Persian Gulf. Both countries have been disappointed with the lack of Western support for their national aspirations, but they have not been very successful in enlisting Soviet support either. If it should come to an open conflict in the Persian Gulf the Soviet Union intends no doubt to play the role of honest broker, invoking the spirit of Tashkent; it certainly would not support Iran against the Arab countries.
Above all, it has been Soviet policy to impress on Turkey and Iran the great benefits that would accrue to the two countries from closer economic relations with the Soviet Union. Soviet credits totalling $500 million have been extended to Iran, and aid to Turkey has also been far in excess of previous years. During the next few years trade between Iran and the Soviet Union is scheduled to quadruple, but even so the Soviet Union will provide only 12 percent of Persia's imports by 1974. At present, the Soviet Union as a trading partner ranks only seventh on the list; the West and Japan will remain the chief customers for Iran's oil for a long time to come. These facts ought to be mentioned from time to time, for there is a tendency to overrate the political importance of the Soviet trade offensive in the Middle East. The Soviet Union is not a great power in terms of world trade, and its share has not been increasing in recent years. Trade with the Soviet bloc plays a growing part in the economies of many Middle Eastern countries, but nowhere, with the sole exception of Egypt, is it of decisive importance.
Traditional Turkish and Persian suspicions of their powerful northern neighbor have not altogether faded away. They reappeared with the build-up of the Soviet fleet in the Mediterranean and with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Both governments are eager to have as much Western aid and protection as possible, but they also realize that Russia has finally succeeded in outflanking the Northern Tier as a result of her advance in the Arab world, and that they have to adjust themselves as well as they can to this new situation. The change in the foreign policies of Turkey and Iran thus stems not from resentment against the West so much as from the shift in the balance of power in the area. There remains a great deal of uneasiness, even of fear. Present Soviet behavior is unexceptionable and Moscow has solemnly declared that it will strictly adhere to the principle of noninterference. But Turkish and Iranian leaders have suspicious minds- not without reason-and they fear that if the Middle East should become an exclusive Soviet sphere of interest, their freedom of action would be reduced, at the very best, to that of Finland or Afghanistan.
While the emphasis in Soviet relations with Turkey and Iran is mainly economic, Soviet political and military help has been the great attraction for the Arab world. For historical reasons, anti-Western feeling tends to be more intense in Arab countries, and the inclination toward extreme political solutions far more pronounced. Ideological affinity has also played a certain role; for the last few years Syria's ruling Neo-Ba'th has had regular "ideological exchanges" with the Soviet Communist Party. But the Neo-Ba'th wants at the same time to retain its independence in the battle for leadership in what was once the communist camp. Moscow regards the régime which came to power in Damascus in 1966 as the closest to its heart of any in the Middle East. But though Syria has a special relationship with Moscow, the volatile character of Syrian (as of Iraqi) politics is not disregarded. The "mass basis" of the Syrian régime is exceedingly narrow and, vehement denials to the contrary, ethnic and religious factors as well as personal ambitions continue to play a decisive role in Syrian politics.
Iraq comes third in the list of Russia's partners in the Arab world. Economic ties have been strengthened in recent years and the Soviet Union has shown particular interest in the development of the Iraqi oilfields. Political relations have been checkered. The rise and fall of the Iraqi Communists have affected relations between the two countries, and the failure of successive Iraqi governments to give autonomy to the Kurds has been another bone of contention. Recently the Soviet Union has made efforts to improve relations by closing down the Iraqi Communist radio station which operated from Eastern Europe. The present Baghdad junta has reciprocated by supporting the Soviet Union on Czechoslovakia.
The Soviet investment in Yemen and South Arabia is small by global standards. However, the dispatch of Soviet arms and ground crews after the withdrawal of the Egyptian troops has played a decisive role at a critical moment in the recent history of the Yemen. Some Western experts had argued that South Arabia was too distant and unimportant for Soviet involvement but they were proved wrong. The Soviet Union is definitely interested in South Arabia as a land bridge to East Africa and as a gateway to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, even though the importance of Aden is very much reduced while the Suez Canal remains closed. Soviet interest in gaining a foothold in Aden and Arabia stems from geopolitical reasons not dissimilar to those that first induced Britain to establish bases there. This may explain the Soviet support given in the past to Imam Yahya and his successors against the British, and more recently to the Yemeni Republicans against the Royalists. When the People's Republic of South Yemen was founded in 1967, it was hoped in Moscow that the new state would be able to give decisive help to the hard-pressed Republicans in Sana. But within a few months the new republic found itself in grave difficulties. An economic crisis, incessant revolts and the defection of the left wing of the official party (the NLF) brought the new state to the verge of collapse. In the civil war the Soviet Union supports the South Yemen government against the ultra-left rebels who wish to establish full communism in the caves of Hadramaut. Moscow has probably been correct in suspecting Chinese influences behind these schemes; the endeavor to forestall the Chinese in Arabia has no doubt been one of the motives behind Russian activities in the area.
The Arabian civil war is likely to continue for a long time and the whole area may relapse into well-merited obscurity. The main danger as seen from Moscow is that it may be drawn in more deeply there than it wants to or than the importance of the region warrants. This is the general dilemma facing the Soviet leaders in the Middle East: their hands may be forced if something untoward should happen to their protégés in South Arabia, or Syria or Egypt. Building spheres of influence has a momentum and a logic of its own; unless the Soviet Union is ready in an emergency to exert its full power it will face at the very least a loss of prestige.[i]
The Soviets faced a similar situation during and after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 when the Arab governments expected more Soviet help. The Arab countries will undoubtedly have the continued support of the Soviet Union against Israel, but it is less clear how far exactly the Soviet Union is likely to go. The Soviet enmity against Israel has deep roots and is not likely to diminish. It is not just the fact that Israel has been a major obstacle to Soviet policies in the Middle East or the Soviet belief that the Arabs have the bigger battalions; emotional factors, too, are involved beyond the traditional Bolshevik dislike of Zionism. The communist leaders now regard Jews (not only Zionism) as a troublesome element much as nineteenth-century European anti-Semites did. The anti-Jewish drive during Stalin's last days, the anti-Semitic measures taken more recently in Poland and the whole tenor of the Soviet press campaign create the impression that communism has begun to jettison in theory as well as in
Soviet policy vis-à-vis Israel does not apparently aim at the destruction of the state but through threats and political pressure to make it give up its gains and to isolate it politically. Direct Soviet armed intervention seems unlikely, both in view of the Soviet wish to prevent a head-on clash with the United States and because for a number of years the Soviet Union will not have a long-range non-nuclear task force of sufficient strength. But it is not at all certain that the Soviet Union will be able to restrain its allies, even though its military command has demanded a far greater share of control than before as a precondition for rebuilding the Egyptian army. A decision seems to have been taken not to strengthen the Arab armies to such an extent that they will be tempted to attack Israel prematurely. Instead, the Soviet Union has tried to persuade the Arabs that they should first overcome their internal weaknesses, that Israel as a result of the difficulties of occupation will find itself in increasing political isolation, that, generally speaking, time works for the Arabs and that rash adventures should be eschewed. While not rejecting guerrilla warfare against Israel in principle, the Soviet leaders are not optimistic about its efficacy.
The Soviet arguments, however, are by no means generally accepted by the Arabs: American setbacks in Viet Nam have strengthened Maoist-Castroist tendencies and there is again a growing impatience especially among the younger generation. As a result, Arab leaders find themselves under renewed pressure to act against their better judgment: to go to war before attaining military superiority. The belief that time works for them is not as widely accepted now as before June 1967; Egypt and Syria, Iraq and Jordan are not likely to make striking economic and technological progress in the near future. Arab unity is as distant as ever, the internal situation is unsettled, the hold of the radical governments brittle.
In these circumstances the feeling of frustration in the Arab world is rising, and the Soviet Union is under increasing pressure to help more actively. Arab leaders argue that Chinese influence is bound to increase and that anarchy may prevail unless decisive action against Israel is taken in the near future. There are various possibilities, all involving certain risks. Unless Moscow is able soon to prove to its Arab allies that political pressure against Israel is effective, it will face a crisis in its relations with the Arab world. If on the other hand the Soviet Union should decide in favor of military intervention (for instance in the Suez Canal area) an even more dangerous situation is likely to develop. Israel is unlikely to be overawed by the presence of a Soviet division and a few missile-carrying vessels. The Soviet Union would have to bring into action more substantial forces, but such massive intervention will not be easy for logistic reasons for some years to come. It would also cause the immediate escalation of a local conflict into something far more menacing. In this quandary the Soviet leaders will probably try to enlist American help but a deal with the United States presupposes a general détente and the chances for this are not now, to put it cautiously, as good as they were.
The future of the Middle East largely depends on the direction taken by Soviet policy. The Soviet Union is now essentially a conservative society with a superstructure of revolutionary ideology and phraseology. The appeal of Soviet Communism is almost nonexistent beyond the borders of the Soviet state; but the Soviet leaders still feel that they have to extend their spheres of influence and cordons sanitaires. Once a sphere of influence has been established, the imperial power is tempted to look for yet another one to enhance its security further. Current Soviet foreign policy is more similar in inspiration and character to that of Ivan Kalita and Ivan the Terrible than to Lenin. At the same time, the Soviet leaders cannot dissociate themselves entirely from communist ideology for this would gravely undermine the legitimacy of their rule. In view of their rivalry with China, if for no other reason, they will keep up a revolutionary posture and pursue a militant foreign policy.
The paradox of Soviet development is that while militarily the country has become so much stronger during the last twenty years, politically it is far weaker than it was under Stalin. The political weaknesses, the many conflicts inside the Soviet bloc and within the Soviet Union are not, however, conducive to a policy of détente; there is many a historical precedent for an escape into action, even into hyperactivity, in such conditions. Centrifugal and disruptive forces have been at work in both East and West, but here the symmetry between the position of the superpowers ends. For while in America this has strengthened the trend toward neo-isolationism, in the Soviet Union it has had the opposite result. At least one influential group of Soviet leaders, perhaps the majority, believes that the rot which has been afflicting the communist world must be stopped: Soviet power has been reasserted in Eastern Europe and it will be demonstrated, though perhaps in a less dramatic way, elsewhere. There are at present obvious limits to further Soviet action in Central Europe, for any intervention in Germany would result in a head-on collision with NATO. The Middle East is an area of less importance but also of fewer risks. Western Europe has vital economic interests in the area but its influence there is now almost nil. There still is the American presence, and the Kremlin has a great respect for it. But the American commitment in the Middle East is not as clear as in Western Europe and the Soviet Union will probe its extent and limits.
The countries of the Middle East will be able to resist a superpower only if they are united and internally stable. On both these counts the Middle East scores very low. Peace and stability in the area are as far away as ever. Economic progress in Iran and, to a lesser degree in Turkey, has been impressive, but, as their starting point was very low, these countries will need decades to catch up, and their economic progress will not by itself solve their political and social problems. It is doubtful whether the Middle Eastern monarchies will survive for very long for they are too much out of tune with the Zeitgeist. They are not necessarily less efficient or more corrupt than the revolutionary régimes, which have shown that they are stronger on propaganda than on action. A transition from monarchy to military dictatorship will not by itself solve many problems.
No solution is in sight for the crisis of the Arab world. At present the conflict with Israel overshadows its deeper problems. There is growing bitterness and frustration which will turn sooner or later against the governments of the day that have promised so much and have been able to fulfill so little. Even an Arab victory over Israel, a very distant possibility at present, would immediately create new problems; the struggle between "conservatives" and "radicals" (and between the radicals themselves) would enter a new and more intense stage, for there are many candidates for ruling Palestine and Jordan. Both Islam and communism are losing ground, democracy seems unattainable, a planned economy has not worked wonders, and Arab nationalism is no longer a guide for the perplexed in the modern world. This breakdown of long-established beliefs and the absence of new ones to replace them are gradually resulting in a crisis deeper and more intractable than the transient political problems plaguing the area. It seems to lead toward despair coupled with a groping for ultra- radical solutions, incessant changes of government, and stagnation and decline. One day, no doubt, this vicious circle will be broken by a new movement of national and social renaissance. Today no such savior is in sight and the drift toward anarchy continues.
There may be no cure for the Middle Eastern sickness but there are Ways to alleviate it. Middle Eastern conflicts flourish in the limelight and they begin to wither when ignored. However, the area will not be ignored during the years to come and it is an unfortunate by-product of the Soviet advance that it aggravates most of the problems of the region. The real importance of the Middle East is limited. It has been said about Viet Nam that it became important only because America decided to send troops there. The same applies to the Middle East; the Soviet advance into the Middle East gives it a significance it would not normally have. But the domination of the Middle East by the Soviet Union would profoundly affect the global balance of power. The Soviet Union may be deflected from its preoccupation with the Middle East by increasing unrest in Eastern Europe, by the growing threat of China or by internal problems, such as the struggle for power within the Soviet leadership. But all this is more likely to contribute to instability than to peace. The permanent Middle Eastern crisis will in all probability be further aggravated and the whole area will be one of the main zones of conflict in these years of growing turbulence in world politics.
[i] I am not dealing here with the growing Soviet interest in Middle Eastern oil, mainly because the subject is too complex to be treated in brief. It has been axiomatic during the last decade that in view of the rapid development of the Soviet oil industry (and the relatively slow growth of the consumption of oil products in the Soviet bloc) the Soviet Union does not need outside oil. A projection into the future of present trends in Soviet-bloc oil production and consumption shows that these assumptions can no longer be taken for granted. Nor does the Soviet Union wish to restrict its highly profitable exports to the West and Japan; Soviet interest in Middle Eastern oil will be substantially higher in future but there is no reason at present to believe that it will be a decisive factor in determining Soviet policies in the area. practice one of its basic ideological tenets-"proletarian internationalism"-as far as the Jews are concerned. The Israeli victory of 1967 was an enormous aggravation to the Russians, especially to military leaders. The Soviet appraisal of the situation was based on the conviction that Israel was a mere puppet and would not dare to fight. After the Six Day War the Soviet leaders had to revise their image of the Jewish state.