Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Pavel Stroilov, the exiled Russian historian and the author of Behind the Desert Storm. A secret archive stolen from the Kremlin that sheds new light on the Arab revolutions in the Middle East.
FP: Pavel Stroilov, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
The subtitle of your new book states that it “sheds a new light on the Arab revolutions in the Middle East.” Yet, most of it is based on the Soviet secret archives about the 1990-1991 Gulf War, or even older events. It may be interesting to a historian, but what is its relevance to the current events in the Arab world?
Stroilov: Thanks Jamie.
These revolutions may have come as a bolt from the blue to many politicians and experts, but in fact, they had been inevitable for decades. Sooner or later, any socialist regime exhausts its economy and the patience of its people. All these regimes – Egypt, Libya, Syria – are socialist regimes and former Soviet clients. What we witness today is simply the collapse of the Soviet empire in the Middle East, part of the same process which we had seen in Europe in 1989-1991. Unfortunately, at that time the Red Arabs were allowed to survive. They could be – and should have been – overthrown at least twenty years earlier, and with much better results. Why that did not happen is a long story; and I hope I have told much of that story in my book.
Amusingly, I thought I finished the manuscript just before the revolt in Tunisia erupted; and I concluded it by predicting that the Red Arab regimes would be overthrown. I did not expect that to happen so soon that I would have to update the book several times as the events unfolded. Yet, that was where the evidence had led me. The value of this book lies not in my own expertise (fairly modest), but in the unique documents it reveals.
FP: Tell us about the documents and how you obtained them.
Stroilov: Most of the documents are verbatim transcripts of closed-door negotiations between the political leaders of those times. They are still top secret in Russia; and analogous documents in Western countries have not been declassified either.
They came into my hands through a chain of lucky coincidences. When the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, and Gorbachev was being thrown out of the Kremlin, members of his private office staff made copies of top secret documents they had access to. Those copies were then stored in the Gorbachev Foundation, unknown to the Kremlin at that stage. A decade later, Gorbachev allowed some limited access to the documents to researchers he thought to be friendly, myself included. In fact, I was not that friendly: when I realized what a valuable archive was there, I played some tricks with passwords on their computers, turned my limited access into an unlimited one, and copied the whole archive. That was just in time. In 2003, the Kremlin learned about the existence of that archive, and put pressure on Gorbachev to stop sharing it with researchers. But it was too late – I had already stolen it. I am now working to make it public, and hopefully, this book about the Middle East is only the beginning.
FP: So, what do we still not know about the Gulf War?
Stroilov: Many things.
For example, there were secret negotiations between Washington and Baghdad during the fall of 1990, with the Soviets mediating, in an attempt to resolve the conflict peacefully. Indeed, they were close to an agreement on that – and on fairly scandalous terms, too. Saddam would withdraw from Kuwait voluntarily in exchange for big concessions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it would have to be resolved under the Soviet scheme of a UN-sponsored international conference. That would certainly mean, to put it simply, a disarmament and a dismemberment of Israel.
The documents show that George W. H. Bush Administration agreed to that deal in principle. However, they were very keen to keep the ‘linkage’ between Kuwait and Israel completely secret. They wanted Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait as if unconditionally, and then the United States would help to put pressure on Israel as a part of a supposedly unrelated ‘peace process’. On September 9, 1990, George W. H. Bush asked Gorbachev to ‘sound’ Saddam out about such a deal, Gorby sent an envoy on a long round of shuttle diplomacy, but eventually, Saddam refused. He would agree to such a deal if it was made openly, but he did not trust the Americans to adhere to their side of a secret bargain.
Worse still, although the deal with Saddam was not reached, the Bush-senior Administration made many promises on Israel to their anti-Israeli allies in the Gulf War – to Gorbachev, to Mitterrand, to Mubarak, to Assad, etc. It seems that much in the subsequent ‘Middle East peace process,’ disastrous as it has been for Israel, is rooted here.
FP: These are serious allegations; you have the evidence to support this?
Stroilov: It is all in the book. There is a verbatim transcript of the summit-meeting between Bush and Gorbachev in Helsinki on September 9, 1990, where Gorbachev explains his ‘peace plan’ and eventually persuades reluctant Bush to accept it. Gorbachev then proposes to ‘send someone’ to Saddam and to ‘sound him out’; Bush gratefully agrees to that, but asks to keep those negotiations completely secret. It is interesting to compare that transcript with the accounts of that summit-meeting given in the memoirs of Bush-senior, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker. All of them give a fictitious story: they mislead us to believe that Gorbachev wanted to mention Israel and Palestinians in a joint public statement, but then conceded the point. In fact, as the document shows, the argument was about a secret deal, not a public statement, it was Bush who conceded the point, and Gorbachev who won it.
In October, Gorbachev sent his envoy Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad, then to Washington, and then to Baghdad again. Those trips were known at the time, but the substance of the negotiations was not. Again, Bush, Scowcroft and Baker pretend in their memoirs that the ‘Primakov’s mission’ took them completely by surprise. They mention briefly that Primakov brought some compromise proposals from Saddam, which Bush and Co. firmly rejected, and then reprimanded Gorbachev for his initiative. However, the Soviet archives suggest that both Bush and Baker actually thanked Gorbachev for it.
It was only in November 1990, just after Saddam’s firm rejection of the ‘peace plan,’ that the US began military preparations for an offensive into Kuwait.
FP: What about evidence of other agreements leading to the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’?
Stroilov: At the same summit-meeting in Helsinki, according to the transcript, Bush promised to Gorbachev that the United States would no longer oppose the Soviet presence in the Middle East and would cooperate with Moscow to start an Arab-Israeli ‘peace process.’ In further negotiations, they discuss the role of the UN and of Western Europe. In effect, one can see in these documents that the present ‘Middle East Quartet’ was established secretly long before it started operating publicly; and its roots are in the secret diplomacy of the Gulf War.
At the meeting with Gorbachev near Moscow on July 31, 1991, Bush and Baker discuss arrangements for deceiving Israel and making it negotiate on unacceptable terms. Thus, they would bring some ‘moderate’ Palestinians to a negotiating table, but promised to Gorbachev that the PLO would be allowed to ‘command its people behind the stages’ from Tunisia. They openly promised to Israel that the status of East Jerusalem would not be negotiated, and secretly promised to Gorbachev and to the Palestinians that the issue would be eventually smuggled into the talks.
Some of the discussions of that period include much bolder proposals. Thus, French President Mitterrand talks about a two-state solution on the basis of not even 1967 borders, but of the 1947 partition plan. Italian Prime Minister Andreotti also supported that idea.
FP: Why would the US Administration make all these concessions? What for?
Stroilov: They developed a very peculiar theory at that time – which, unfortunately, became universally accepted by now. The theory is that a military intervention is ‘legal’ only if it is authorised by the UN; and therefore, you need a very wide global coalition in order to attack some petty dictator like Saddam in 1991 or Gaddafi now. Time and again, this approach leads to disastrous results. In 1991, it prolonged the life of Saddam’s regime for another 12 years. In the documents, we can see why that happened: the Soviets and the French put the pressure on Bush not to go beyond liberation of Kuwait, i.e. strictly follow the UN resolution.
Today we know this approach led to all sorts of disasters, including several further wars, and millions of people lost their lives because Saddam had been allowed to stay in power. And yet, when the West had to intervene in Libya this year, we took the same absurd approach: asked for UN authorization, for an Arab League authorization, and obtained all sorts of resolutions to tie our hands. It was ‘legal’ to bomb Gaddafi’s forces while they advance but ‘illegal’ to bomb them while they retreat. It was ‘legal’ to kill Gaddafi by accident but ‘illegal’ to kill him deliberately. As a result, it took many months for the whole might of the Western world to defeat a petty backward dictatorship.
In the documents of the Gulf War, we can see the detailed mechanism of a cumbersome and unfriendly coalition practically sabotaging the war; and even more importantly, we find the explanation why America agrees to that. Bush and Baker had a peculiar idea which they called ‘the new world order,’ introduced and supported by UN as a ‘prototype of the world government,’ to use Gorbachev’s expression. It was agreed between the world leaders at the time that America must no longer be a ‘global policeman,’ and the role should be gradually taken over by a UN-based world government.
Of course, you cannot fight a real war on the basis of such utopian ideas. On the one hand, Saddam fully exploited its weakness by making a very logical argument: well, if UN resolutions are now taken seriously and implemented by force, why do you start from me and not, for example, from Israel? After all, there is plenty of UN resolutions against Israel. On the other hand, the wide coalition opposing him inevitably included a powerful anti-American and anti-Israeli wing, led by Gorbachev, Mitterrand and Mubarak. They joined the coalition for real politik reasons, but between themselves, they openly said they did it only to ‘restrain the Americans.’ That is why the US had to agree to all those secret talks with Saddam, promise all these concessions at the expense of Israel, and eventually had to turn back from the gates of Baghdad and not overthrow Saddam. Even after Bush himself appealed to the Iraqis to revolt against Saddam and they did so, he abandoned them and left them at Saddam’s mercy just because a further military intervention would upset the Soviets and the French. The massacre that followed was the first bloody fruit of the ‘new world order’ utopia.
FP: Do you think similar things are happening with Libya now?
Stroilov: Of course. After reading these documents, you can see these events are simply inevitable in a global coalition of this kind. With all these limitations, it is lucky that NATO has won that war at all; but I bet we still don’t know the full price of that victory. The secret deals of the Gulf War are still haunting us twenty years later. It is because of these secret deals that Israel is now besieged and the whole region is still overwhelmed by wars and tyrannies. No doubt, there were similar secret deals in every ‘new world order’ war, in every global coalition constructed since then; and those deals will have equally serious consequences.
FP: How does Gorbachev look in these documents?
Stroilov: Whatever may be said about Gorbachev’s other policies, domestic and foreign, he was a typical Soviet leader as far as the Middle East was concerned. He did not change anything. The Soviet support to all sorts of terrorists continued as usual, and it is all well documented. Assad remained Moscow’s main ally in the region, and the transcripts of their meetings also suggest that Gorbachev and Assad-senior were personal friends. Gorbachev even backed the idea of a united socialist Arab superstate under Assad’s leadership. Gorby still saw Israel and the US as the main enemies in the Middle East. Thus, the transcript of Gorbachev’s talks with Arafat in 1988 record them as discussing a detailed plan of the first Intifada, which was certainly orchestrated from Moscow.
Take another example: in the run-up to the military operation against Saddam, two of Gorbachev’s advisors wrote a memo suggesting sharing information about Iraqi’s chemical and bacteriological weapons with the Americans. Gorbachev refused to do that. A month later, Margaret Thatcher raised the subject of Saddam’s WMDs in a conversation with Gorbachev. Not only did he decline to tell her anything, he actually told her a lie: he confirmed Saddam had chemical weapons but said he had no knowledge about the existence of Iraqi bacteriological weapons. At that time, this lie could have very serious consequences. Nobody knew whether Saddam would use his WMDs in the upcoming war. Imagine what would happen if the West believed Gorbachev, assumed he had no bacteriological weapons, and then Saddam had suddenly used them.
FP: Tell us about Ted Kennedy and his role in the Gulf War.
Stroilov: Ted Kennedy supplied Moscow with confidential sensitive information at least since the late 1970s, sometimes through KGB channels. This is all very well documented in my book. In the run-up to the US military operation against Iraq, in November 1990, the Bush Administration was still telling the Soviets they were prepared to resolve the conflict peacefully if Saddam withdraws from Kuwait. In that situation, Kennedy secretly sent his chief of staff, Larry Horowitz, to Moscow, to tell the Soviets this was not true: ‘a final decision to solve the crisis in the Gulf by military means has already been taken in the White House. The deadline is spring.’
There are a number of similar episodes with Kennedy and Larry Horowitz, many of them unrelated to Iraq or Middle East.
FP: With hindsight, what was the main mistake of the West in dealing with the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis?
Stroilov: Playing ‘new world order’ is a serious business, involving not only the world’s oil supplies, but millions of human lives.
FP: What should have we done instead?
Stroilov: They should have done what they successfully did 12 years later, in a much more difficult situation: forget about the UN and ‘world community’, fight that war as a normal war, and win it. Be a global policeman. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was not a very difficult problem in itself. In military terms it was fairly easy to drive him out. But it was also an opportunity which the West missed. We should have removed Saddam from power in 1991, and unlike 12 years later, the Western troops would then be greeted with flowers as liberators. There was a nationwide uprising again Saddam, provoked by Bush’s own appeal to the Iraqi people; and then the West allowed to drown it in blood. No wonder the West became not very popular with the Iraqis after such a betrayal. This is not to mention the fact that Saddam’s regime was given another 12 years to prepare for a full-scale guerrilla war.
We should have supported the uprising, removed Saddam, and established democracy in Iraq, which would have been much easier at that point. Furthermore, we should have made efforts to help that democratic revolution spread into other countries of the region. Again, it is happening now anyway, but in a much more difficult situation, where there is a very real danger that the revolution would be hijacked by Islamic Socialists or Socialist Islamists of some kind. In 1991, in the atmosphere of the end of the Cold War, the mood of the people would be much more pro-Western and pro-democratic, while the regimes would not have another twenty years to prepare their defences.
Unfortunately, the West not only missed that opportunity, but created all sorts of complications by pursuing its ‘new world order’ chimera. Worse still, we have not learnt anything even now, and repeat all the same mistakes in the present Middle East crisis. The war in Libya is the brightest example of this.
FP: Pavel Stroilov, thanks for joining Frontpage Interview.