BOOK REVIEW: ‘Behind the Desert Storm’

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BEHIND THE DESERT STORM: A SECRET ARCHIVE STOLEN FROM
THE KREMLIN THAT SHEDS NEW LIGHT ON THE ARAB REVOLUTION IN THE MIDDLE EAST
By Pavel Stroilov
Price World Publishing, $19.95, 352 pages

One cannot read this book without recalling that aphorism of Otto von Bismarck: “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.” Almost on every page is an illustration of blundering American policymakers blabbing their way through conversations in the jungle of Mideast problems with their native interlocutors, seemingly oblivious to realities all around them. In the short term, of course, Washington did luck out with the immediate collapse of the Saddam Hussein tyranny in the First Gulf War.

For those of us who try to follow events in the region, there are not that many surprising moments in this book. Who did not know the perfidy of Washington’s Arab allies? We knew that not only Saudi Arabia but the so-called Baathist Arab Socialist regime in Damascus joined the most extensive alliance in history for their own narrow interests - not for the love of liberty for the relatively tiny “sheikhdowndom” of Kuwait, which had been attacked and bested quickly by Saddam.

Most of us sensed, too, that Mikhail Gorbachev was not a “reformer” but another communist apparatchik trying to save what was left of the system on the eve of the Soviet implosion. Nor did many of us underestimate the scheming, venal, anti-Americanism of Francois Mitterrand - perhaps the only politician in European history to reverse the peregrination of that old French adage, “Heartless if not a socialist at 20, headless if a socialist at 40.”

But what Mr. Stroilov, a young Russian “nerd,” a student/programmer who has stolen one of the most fascinating archives in recent diplomatic history, has given us is documentation for all those old assumptions - and much more. We are told that as a student, he worked on papers Mr. Gorbachev was withdrawing from state, KGB and other Soviet files.

Mr. Gorbachev, who comes through these pages as a pygmy who never got through Machiavelli 101, apparently intended to use them to prove that he was a martyred political genius, defeated by the likes of that ruffian and drunk Boris Yeltsin and the evil intent of the United States. But, Mr. Stroilov says, Gorbie decided after a few leaks that there should be no further releases - perhaps sensing they would prove the opposite.

Mr. Stroilov writes that with the help of the noted dissident and emigre, Vladimir Bukovsky, and the former KGB operator, Alexander Litvinenko (whom Vladimir Putin had murdered in London with radioisotopes) he smuggled his manuscript out of Russia. If his story of what happened in the waning days of the Soviet empire, his bona fides and the integrity of his 50,000 documents are to be believed, readers can look forward to more to come. The experience of the waterfall of information that flowed into Der Spiegel after the German archives were opened suggests this.

Regrettably, the book itself is less than its parts, mainly because Mr. Stroilov - and one feels for him - cannot contain his anger, his contempt and his sarcasm for most of the leading characters, not least the Soviet players. The narrative leaves out too much for those of us who are not Sovietologists, but pounds too many obvious points too many times too heavily.

The epilogue - a cri de coeur for Western democrats not to repeat the follies of Iraq, Act I and II, but to support the intent of “the Arab Spring” - is no less naive than the players he describes. He has no hard solutions for the intractable problems of Arab/Muslim society, not least a rambunctious youth seeking jobs as much as new freedom, and perhaps too ready to accept the totalitarian temptation of Islamic fundamentalism.

Sol W. Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, is the author of “Living Off the West: Gorbachev’s Secret Agenda and Why It Will Fail” (Madison Books, 1990).

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