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Journal of Cold War Studies 2.1 (2000) 127-128

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Book Review

Irresolute Princes:
Kremlin Decision Making in Middle East Crises, 1967-1973

Fred Wehling, Irresolute Princes: Kremlin Decision Making in Middle East Crises, 1967-1973. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 225 pp.

Of the plethora of works on Soviet foreign policy that have been published since the end of the Cold War, very few have dealt with Moscow's approach to the Arab-Israeli wars. Perhaps this reflects a belief among many Western scholars that the Soviet Union did not matter much in the overall power equation in the Middle East. Possibly it is the result of a (post-Cold War) belief that Arab radicalism should be understood in complete isolation from its links with Moscow (or Marxist theory, for that matter). Even in Russian journals and newspapers, which have been publishing the reminiscences of countless Soviet envoys, including those of low-level diplomats in less important regions of the world, firsthand accounts of affairs in the Middle East have been relatively scarce.

Fred Wehling's book attempts to fill this gap by focusing on Soviet decision making vis-a÷-vis the Middle East in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wehling's key argument--that there was a "value conflict" between Soviet leaders' approaches to different areas of their foreign policy, and that the Politburo headed by Leonid Brezhnev therefore was unable to reconcile its goals in the Middle East with its détente policies--is compatible with new evidence about the formation and execution of late Soviet-era foreign policy in general. Wehling's use of elements of cognitive psychology to outline his argument is quite valuable and provides insights into decision making processes.

Moscow's threats to use force in the Middle East might be a reflection of the difficulty that Soviet leaders had in reconciling different elements of their foreign policy. As Wehling states several times--echoing the work of Hannes Adomeit and others--Soviet risk-taking during this period can be linked with an inability to adjust for competing foreign-policy agendas within the Brezhnev Politburo and its advisory bodies. Wehling's view that in the case of the Middle East these conflicting agendas were shaped less by differing policy analyses than by differences in priority areas and perhaps bureaucratic structures is well worth exploring in further research.

The main problem with Wehling's book is that it does not make full use of the research opportunities that have opened up with the end of the Cold War. Wehling consulted none of the archives in Moscow and conducted no interviews with former Soviet leaders. Although he used recent Russian publications--and has been thorough in collecting them--these materials alone are not enough to explain Soviet decision making. Wehling's use of contemporary Soviet newspapers and radio reports may help him describe foreign policy output, but if the goal is to explain Moscow's decision making under Brezhnev, reading Pravda and Izvestiya is probably less helpful than looking through the New York Times on a good day.

The lack of research here is a pity because of the importance of Wehling's topics. The apparent Soviet intelligence failures prior to both the 1967 and 1973 wars, Moscow's feeble reaction to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's eviction of Soviet advisers [End Page 127] in 1972, and the risks that normally cautious leaders like Leonid Brezhnev were willing to take to prevent a complete defeat of the Arab alliance in 1973 are extremely important issues in Cold War studies. Like all key questions of the post-1945 era, they will need renewed attention from scholars who can combine the methods of social science with meticulous archival research.

Odd Arne Westad
London School of Economics