Soviet Strategy in the Middle East

Soviet Strategy in the Middle East
National Review – October 26, 1957
By Whittaker Chambers

Westminster, Md.

Talk, here in the farmlands, is chiefly of the heaviest frost of this date in a decade, and what it may have done to stands of late corn. Yet it cannot be said that we are wholly out of touch with the capitals of the mysterious East — Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, New York. Thus, a friend, a state legislator, dropped by, a month or so ago, to discuss a matter that was plainly burning a hole in one of the multiple pockets of his mind. Another legislator (from a Western state) had dreamed up a see-it-yourself plan. Paying their own way, a group of lawmakers from all over the country would, one day soon, step into a plane at Idlewild, and, hours later, put down in turn at Cairo, Tel Aviv, Damascus, Baghdad; then, veering north, and again east, at Belgrade and Moscow. Back to the West, if I remember rightly, by way of Warsaw. Everywhere, they hoped to see what eyes can see. In the capitals, they would talk with the makers and shakers. Should he go along? my friend asked.

Looking for the question behind the question, I took it to be: Was there any exceptional danger involved; did I think he could get in and out of the enemy compounds, Cairo, Damascus, Moscow, with a whole skin? Of course, I thought my friend should go along. I thought, too, in passing, that he was his own version of the American dream. Fifty years ago, he had been a farm boy in these same cornlands, hauling his father’s crops to market in a horsedrawn wagon. Now, by hard work, and the exercise of a shrewd functional intelligence, he was a man of affairs, entitled to race the speed of sound through space to bespeak other men of affairs in lands far away, though not, unhappily, far enough away. “And what advice will you give Nikita (Khrushchev)?” I asked. The pre-autumn stillness blotted up his laugh.

Age of the Eye-Witness

If I urged my friend to go along, it is not because I set any great store by such excursions, but because others do. Henceforth, this trip would be among my friend’s credentials. This is the age of the eyewitness and the first-personer: “I Watched the End of the World.” The editor of the Saturday Evening Post once told me that it made a difference of thousands of readers if an article carried a title, beginning with the magic words: “I was” or “I did.” I did not doubt it. But I doubted something else. That skepticism had set firm in wartime days, when, as a foreign editor, I read with hair-curling depression the reports of old China hands, observing on the spot, and singing in close harmony, that the Chinese Communists were “agrarian liberals.” I knew that the Chinese Communists were not agrarian liberals, that, after Hitler‘s mop-up of the German Communist Party, they were the No.2 section of the Communist International. But what right did I have to know it? I was not on the spot. How could I presume to pit my view against the close-up of the man on the scene? So I urged my friend: go.

Yet I remain of the opinion that the peering mind, peering even from a cow pasture, even in the jet age, still commands resources of a kind such as carried Dante once as far as Hell and Heaven. So I have sought to pace my friend in his flight, supposing, even, that though earthbound I had some advantages. For the mind has a way of getting into places to which the scheduled flights have been cancelled without advance notice.

I doubt, for example, that my friend made it into Damascus. Since he left, something fairly tremendous has happened in the Middle East, turning around Damascus as a hurricane turns on its eye. Last night, there appeared on the TV screen the face of the Arab King, Ibn Saud, the Ali Baba of the oil pools, and Washington’s late, greatly salaamed guest. A most thought-provoking mask it was at this turn of events, tempting us to say of the man behind it — as Bismarck said of Napoleon III: “A sphinx without a secret.” Yet the big Hollywood dark-glasses, vacuous under the Arab headgear, were belied by the royal smile, playing finely on the lips of the long lower face.

The Syrian Upset

King Saud’s face was there because he had just left the conference at Damascus, where it had been decided that Syria’s Leftist government, Communist inspired, moneyed, munitioned (though largely, it would seem, Socialist-manned) poses no threat to Syria’s Arab neighbors. In short, all the Washington blandishments had failed, as yet, to detach this king-pin completely, or really to dent the Arab front. I waited for the commentator to say: Something pretty tremendous has happened. But the press does not editorialize all the news at once, and where it feels least sure of itself is most likely to “report objectively.” Last night, we were editorializing the woes of James Hoffa and Little Rock — cleverly, too; that is, not openly, but by selective emphasis. About Syria and Ibn Saud we got the news unchewed.

For once, this seemed a pity. In the sum of things, Hoffa and even Little Rock are comparatively pipsqueak. It is Syria that touches home. It is a great upset — not necessarily irreversible, or in the grand style, but sufficient unto Communism’s strategy of the hour. It means that, at its second important test of containing Communism, the Eisenhower Doctrine has contained chiefly a mirage. It means that the Comrade has taken his longest stride across the Western encirclement, and squats outside it, smiling effacively, from a Mediterranean lodgement, with the condoning Arab lands spread out beyond, inviting mischief.

Picture the lewd delight,
Under the bridge tonight.
Any bridge, that is, across the Moskva River.

A Revolutionary Icebreaker

Whose is the fault? Not the Administration’s, I think. Certainly not Mr. Dulles‘, though he is always the handy whipping-boy, never more so than for those who shout loudly that something has gone wrong while sighing with covert relief when such mischance also means that another crisis will abate. Possibly, with the Arab sanction, this particular Syrian crisis will abate, however bumpingly, because we are flummoxed, because Communism has gained its position, and, for the moment, does not need to push so hard; needs, in fact, a breathing-spell for consolidation and the next advance, which will mount the next crisis. How can it be otherwise, given the Middle East? Before the British-French-Israeli descent on Egypt, I wrote to the editor of this magazine —differing sharply, as I sometimes do, with its reading of events — somewhat like this: “The great hook, which Communism has contrived for us in the Middle East, is that no matter what we do will be wrong. If we back Britain against Egypt [Nasser had seized the Suez Canal], we rally Arab Asia and Africa against us. If we let Nasser get away with it, Communism gets away with it. Yet, on the whole, it seems to me that, of two bad alternatives, Dulles has chosen the slightly better one.”

It is necessary to try to grasp 1) what Communist Middle East strategy implies over-all, and 2) how heavily the basic situation there is weighted against us. After the Egyptian dustup, that strategy was interrupted for a time, not only, or perhaps even chiefly, by the stiffness of the American challenge to it, or the commotion in the Soviet satellites. Hesitation in the Middle East more probably reflected resistance in Moscow, on the part of a faction that we call (loosely) Stalinist. What ensued was a new crest of what we call (even more loosely) “the power struggle in the Kremlin.” That power struggle must have taken the form, in part, of a ferocious debate over Middle East strategy. And matters must have been immensely confused when Dmitri Shepilov, until then a front runner of that strategy, supposing that he saw the hunt going against him, began to tiptoe to the Stalinist side. As we know, he supposed wrong. The Stalinists lost out, though how completely, or for how long, even Khrushchev may not know much better than we do. But, with that, the Communist Middle East strategy was back with us. We are told that, in the great Kremlin debate, it was described as an “icebreaker” strategy. Of course, the strategy is new only in its specific application in the changed circumstances of 1957 — namely, to overleap the military-political encirclement with which the West has ringed Communist aggression as with an icebarrier: to overleap that, and set fire to inflammable nations and continents beyond. In this sense, it is a revolutionary icebreaker.

It is a strategy of great imaginative boldness. It is two-pronged. It strikes (inter alia) at 1) the Arab oil pools; it promotes 2) Communism’s advance along the North African land-bridge. (How long that takes, using how many false faces, about-faces, how much sinuous indirection — those are tactical problems.) The North African thrust is itself at least two-pronged. One prong aims to soften up Europe in several ways, by pinching the arteries of its oil-fed industry (we saw the threat hang poised during the Egyptian crisis; and in this case it is not true, as Nietzsche said, that “Damocles never danced better than under a sword”). Eventually, the same prong hopes to face Europe with a second front, no farther off than the width of a Mediterranean, no longer “Our Sea,” but a sea where we coexist with them.

Latin America

The second prong is headed much farther West, toward the Atlantic gap, where the bulge of Africa approaches the bulge of South America. (Communism loves contiguity and easy overland routes, with the narrowest possible water-jumps.) Most of us do not think much or often about Latin America, except, perhaps, as the cut-rate vacation — land of the colored airline ads. We may be absolutely sure that Moscow thinks a great deal about it, and quite differently. From time to time, we have seen spastic specimens of that thinking, attempting to become deed, in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and (acutely at the moment) in British Guiana. We may also be sure that what Moscow sees looks something like this: a continental human mass, where the solvent community is stretched, taut and thin as a polyethylene film, over impoverished millions who barely manage to subsist at a level of backward misery all but unimaginable to us, in the land of: “Just add hot water and serve.” In the western hemisphere, Latin America reproduces, with its own variants, most of the social inflammabilities of Asia. Latin America is Asia in our own back yard. It is this lode of social cordite that Communism’s trans-African prong has in view. No doubt we are tired of hearing that the road to Paris runs through Peking. The road to Washington runs through Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. But first it runs through Damascus, Cairo and Algiers. It is the prospective path along which travels a little fuse, a mere sputter yet, toward the high explosives of the Western world. In this sense, Communist Middle East strategy implies the beginning of a direct assault on the United States.

But a strategic concept is still far from a strategic reality? And Russians are not ten feet tall? Forty years ago, most of Communism was a handful of seedy outlaws, piling their plates with cigarette stubs during endless wrangles in the Swiss equivalent of beaneries. But they were wrangling in terms of the world. They now control a third of it, and even (since I began writing this) overlook the rest from space, from that mechanical moon whose circlings must be seen as the latest outcome of those circling Swiss wrangles. I beg you, do not underrate the energy of the Communist will or the sweep of its strategic vision, simply because it seems improbable to you.

The Sin Against Reality

If for no other reason, the need to pinch that Communist fuse close to the quick, and at a stroke, justified the Eisenhower Doctrine, all its risks and inadequacies at once conceded. The same need justified the repudiation of our old friends, Britain and France, during their Egyptian descent. And that, quite apart from the high moral phrases — no doubt devoutly believed in by the phrasers — which helped to transfigure (and to blur) what was, when cut to the bone, a necessity of raw power; the necessity to block the Communist thrust before it got galloping. Moral turpitude — how bizarre the words sound by Communist contrast, by contrast with the overarching provocation (and its implications) that triggered the Anglo-French act. Against Egypt, moral turpitude was the least of the sins of Britain and France, whose chief sin was the one for which history gives no absolution — the sin against reality. Reality was defined here by a debility of will, enacted in a debility of performance, of those two quondam powers, bled white and exhausted in two world wars and their consequences, so that they could no longer strike, even in concert, with a force which would redeem its risks in the world’s one universal coin: success, for they could not act at all without inciting that rally of Asia and Africa against the West, which, in the context of the Communist conflict, was a dated luxury that the West could no longer afford.

We might do worse than glance at the reminder that Mommsen set at the threshold of this age: “History has a Nemesis for every sin: for the will to freedom that fails in force, as well as for the pride of mind that fails in understanding.” So the Egyptian crisis disclosed, as its core meaning, chiefly this: that leadership of the West had at last to become one with where real power in the West alone lay — in the United States. This, regardless of what anybody might want or of the quality of leadership.

Historical Imperative

The same need justified our philanderings with Ibn Saud, unseemly to some, preposterous to others. Who else was there to philander with? Mr. Dulles could have had few illusions. It is scarcely three years since King Saud had his finance minister’s right hand chopped off (it had made away with some $3 million of the royal oil receipts), and nailed up in a public square of the capital. If this seems an exotic trifle in an age when great European governments, claiming to be civilized, have organized the planned massacre of millions, it is a trifle which stands for much that must be intensely repugnant to Mr. Dulles, who would not willingly see even Mr. Harold Stassen‘s right hand nailed to a desk in Foggy Bottom. But history gives you certain pieces to work with, and gives no others. It gave Mr. Dulles Ibn Saud.

In the Middle East, we are in the presence of two energies, which, for convenience, we may separate, but which, in fact, interlock. The first of those energies is political revolution, express in Egypt and Syria, smouldering everywhere. It takes the diverse forms of Arab Nationalism. For historical reasons that we all know, it is prevailingly, often fiercely, anti-Western. Yet for a variety of reasons, Arab Nationalism is constrained to work with the West. For a variety of reasons, of which two — our need to pump out Arab oil, and our need to contain Communism — are foremost, the West is constrained to work with Arab Nationalism.

A Spectrum of Sheiks

In doing so, in replacing Britain as the paramount power in the Middle East, and seeking to contain Communism there in the gambles and gambols of power politics, we deal, perforce, with a spectrum of sheiks of varying shapes and sizes. The Kings, Ibn Saud and Hussein of Jordan, may be taken to stand close to one end of that spectrum. Toward the other end, stand the Christian Arab leaders (a rather different breed) of the Lebanon, the main American beachhead. Somewhere in between, stand the Iraquis. Everywhere, the coin we deal in is Arab Nationalism, supplemented (one hopes, at least) by our skill in dispensing much more tangible coin, as we should because we must. It is a game that requires the utmost in tact, steadiness of nerve, and experience, which, as newcomers, we must gain largely by doing. It is a game, too, in which we may expect only partial or impermanent successes (Jordan looks, at the moment, to be one of these).

We are now up, now down; nothing is final; all is in flux. And we are not the only player on the field. At this level, Communism can play the game, too, and adroitly. It has, besides, the advantage of a master piece, which it can use in ways denied to us. Wherever we seek to regroup Arab Nationalism in the interest of the West, Communism advances that disruptive master piece. We all know what it is, though no one likes to mention it. It is the State of Israel. At once, it becomes necessary to define our intentions clearly. A filthy anti-Semitism afflicts many minds in the West. Nothing is gained by denying it. So let us say flatly: in Christendom, no mind can claim to be civilized and, at the same time, be anti-Semitic, any more than an American mind can claim to be civilized and be anti-Negro. For all Christians, regardless of creed, the Vatican has defined the position once for all: “Spiritually, we are Semites.” Moreover, an immense compassion — mere good will is too genderless a term — before the spectacle of the Jewish tragedy in our century, must move our hourly understanding of what the State of Israel means in terms of a hope fired by such suffering.

Let us be quite sure that we know this. For it is also necessary to look at Israel in terms of Middle East reality. Communism may lose friendly Egypt or Syria; it will look for purchasable pawns elsewhere. It is Israel, as an enemy, that Communism cannot afford to lose. Israel is Communism’s indispensable piece in the Middle East, so that a firm Israeli Arab settlement would be the greatest disaster that could befall Communism in that region. The crux of the problem is not chiefly, as we so often hear, the question of resettling the Arabs displaced from Palestine. The crux is the Arab fear of Israeli expansion. Communism has only to tweak that nerve of Arab fear, and, at the touch, Arab Nationalism closes ranks, despite our utmost effort, despite the ferocious animosities sometimes dividing the Arab leaders themselves. Thus, at the power-political level, the Middle East situation is weighted against us by this all but unsolvable problem.

Yet Israel is chiefly useful to Communism at that level, and, perhaps, chiefly at this stage. Over the long haul, the Middle East is weighted against us by something much deeper-going. That something is an incipient social revolution whose makings are everywhere. It is the fermenting energies of that revolution that Communism counts on. If we think little about Latin America in such terms, most of us think scarcely at all about the Middle East.

Why Arabs Choose Communism

Imagine a vast region, most of it empty desert, where cities are few, where thousands live in caves, or, at a higher level, in hovels or slums, though these words of ours scarcely convey the Arab reality. Here, an illimitable poverty is the norm, a poverty made sodden by endemic disease, dark by endemic illiteracy and by an absence of hope that may best be called hereditary. Where, among millions, the daily struggle to eat at all is the term in which the possibility of hope first presents itself, hope turns, easily to social revolution. Anything serves to turn it. Arab Nationalism turns it, and cannot anywhere mount its political revolution without at the same time stirring the energies of the social revolt, and blending with them, until political and social revolution tend to become one. At that fusion point is bred the Arab Communist, a comparatively new development. It is on such native shock troops that Communism counts; and, as usual with Communism, it is not numbers, but a certain kind of knowing fanaticism, resolute and resourceful, that matters.

How easy it is for Communism to work with those social revolutionary energies, which it needs only to set in motion in order to win half its battle. How much easier than for the West, which does not want them set in motion, which, in so far as it works with such energies at all, must work to moderate, restrain and channel them toward peaceable development, while helping these destitute populations to reach a level of minimum well-being, which may act as a brake on revolution. That takes time: It also takes capital. It is surprising, is it not? to see revolution turning on a question of capital. Yet so it is in the Middle East. This is, of course, one of the aspects of foreign aid; and those who set themselves most implacably against it, might brood upon this context. For what is needed here are the irrigation ditch, the factory, and the dam that supplies the ditch and powers the factory, and all the enterprise the factory feeds and stands for.

There are only two sources of such capital — the West and the Communist Empire. Presumably, the West has a good deal more capital to invest, or even to expend, than Communism has. But, again, how much easier it is for Communism. Western capital must, in the nature of things, expect a proper return on its loans, both in the form of interest and tangible advantages, chiefly political, which are a justified collateral. But to the Arab of all classes, therefore, the West appears, or can easily be made to appear, as the niggard banker, whose prudent doles serve to replace a political imperialism, of which the memory is green, by an economic imperialism which the Arabs fear is the other side of the political coin.

How different Communism looks. If its imperialism is of an enslaving frightfulness unknown since Rome’s, the Arabs have no direct experience of it. If Communism has less than the West to give, it needs to give less; and it can dole out its credits at rates of interest that radically undercut the West. For, with Communism, capital is the exclusive property of the State, which can assign it where it best promotes Communism’s political purposes. Nor does Communism need to disperse its bounty to gain its ends. It can spot it for best effect. Easy credits to Egypt or to Syria, and these places become show-windows in the great Middle East bazaar, to which all eyes are drawn. Moreover, these are down-payment on a promise that need not be kept. If the situation develops favorably to Communism, it will not be kept. But if the West interferes with those who accept the Communist bounty, the West appears to be interfering with the promise. No doubt King Saud’s action at Damascus was motivated, at least in part, by this realization, and his fear of the effect which our interference might have, in such terms, on Arab minds. For the Communist promise, though largely unfulfilled, is lure enough. And it is cheaper than foreign aid.

Not all, or even a great many, of the Arabs who take Communist cash, can be Communists. But “O, take the cash and let the credit go” is an Eastern admonishment. It is also the impulse of the needy anywhere. The literate Arab, who is not yet a Communist, can have few illusions about what he is doing. He knows that to play with Communism is a dangerous game. He has weighed the risks and discounted them. Meanwhile, he has the credits to buy the guns (yonder lies Israel!), and to finance at least some small beginnings of the irrigation ditch, the dam and the factory.

And the illiterate Arab, in his miserable millions, what does he think? How can anyone know? But there is evidence that a whisper has run through the caves and hovels, as far south as the Sultanate of Oman and Muscat, and the Saudi wastes, that help has come from that great Power in the steppes, where — praise be to Allah! — the workers have seized the factories and the peasants divided the land — or so the prophets have said. Let us remember that it was a Nobel Prize winner of the West, who, after the Communist-planned massacre by famine of some four million peasants, still hailed the Soviet Union as: “That great light in the East.” Should we be surprised if a ragged fellah knows no more?

The Moscow Mirage

But have not these wretched Arabs heard, too, that in Soviet Siberia several million of their co-religionists exist in a misery not much different from their own? Possibly they have heard. Radio has put everybody in the next room from everybody else. The air is crisscrossed “invisibly at all hours by warning and hectoring voices. Moreover, and particularly in illiterate lands, news of this kind travels with surprising speed, nobody quite knows how. So perhaps they have heard. But “Russia is wide and the Tsar is far away” was a peasant saying even in our boyhoods. It is extremely difficult to imagine a reality other than our own; and, if our own is desperate, the feat becomes almost impossible, and, in addition, pointless. We need not be too surprised, perhaps, if there is vaguely taking form at the back of the eyes that watch from the slums and the deserts, a vision that has little to do with reality, which distance itself has stripped of the monstrous reality — a vision of Moscow as a mythical Tsarigrad, the symbol of present power, credits, but, above all, of hope.

And where are Washington, New York and London? No screening distance has mercy on them. The wretched Arab sees their tokens all about him in shapes financed by oil profits (and others) of the West’s necessary allies. He sees them in the dusty flash of a royal Cadillac, steaming past the mud huts, in the $90 million palace which King Saud has conjured up from the unirrigated sands. This is the picture I see, peering from my cow-pasture. It is stroked in, of necessity, in gross shorthand, with gross omissions and simplifications. All I have meant to do is to suggest certain considerations which, it seems to me, are somewhat overlooked, but which would seem to bear heavily on the outcome of history in the Middle East. I am curious to learn what first-hand impressions my legislative friend brings back from his Eastern travels, to correct my own.

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One Response to Soviet Strategy in the Middle East

  1. Here in 2013, it seems to me that Mr. Chambers was the prophet to whom we ignored at our peril.

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