Culture » January 17, 2003
All About Saddam
So the nature of the Iraqi regime, its threat to its own people and its neighbors, whether it has weapons of mass destruction, whether it might use them, how many of its people would defend it and how vigorously—all are burning questions. And some humility is in order, because the rest of the world has been repeatedly wrong about Iraq. The Western governments, arms dealers and oil companies that looked the other way in the ’80s when the regime used poison gas against both Iran and its own citizens never expected Saddam to invade Kuwait in 1990 and threaten the global energy supply.
Likewise, those of us who supported the economic sanctions that followed Iraq’s defeat in 1991 never thought that a peaceful but firm strategy that had helped bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa would paradoxically strengthen Saddam and his ruling elite. Nor did we think sanctions would raise infant mortality rates among ordinary, innocent Iraqis to shocking levels.
This book includes many useful reminders that Saddam is far worse than just another Third World authoritarian. Various contributors show how he used Iraq’s tremendous oil earnings in the ’70s and ’80s to construct a disgusting cult of personality, enforced by a police state that relies on hundreds of thousands of informers. Robert Fisk, the great British journalist who is no friend of U.S. foreign policy, recounts terrible Iraqi war crimes during its occupation of Kuwait. He learns about a 19-year-old Kuwaiti woman who was arrested; “then the Iraqis hanged her and dumped her body outside her home. There were burns from electricity on her arms and legs.”
Such state terror makes it impossible to gauge what the Iraqi people really feel, and what will happen if the U.S. invades. In fact, Iraqis themselves may not even know until the last minute how they will react to conflicting pressures: their fear of the Saddam regime and their hatred of it, or their patriotic loyalty—in spite of Saddam—to their tribe, region or country, and their resentment toward America for their poverty and their sick and dying children.
Saddam unquestionably still wants weapons of mass destruction; a couple of contributors point out that he, and other Iraqis, believes that their poison gas and missiles saved them from defeat in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and also deterred the U.S.-led coalition from pushing on to Baghdad in 1991. (In one of Saddam’s own contributions to this book, he makes a jaw-dropping observation to one interviewer: “If you ask any person in the world whether he would like to possess a nuclear bomb, he will tell you that he would.”)
Throughout most of the ’90s, the U.N. inspections did seem to be working, although Saddam successfully hid some of his weapons projects, including the VX nerve agent and a missile program, until his own two sons-in-law defected in 1995. But he skillfully stalled the inspectors, split the United States from other powers on the U.N. Security Council, and succeeded in suspending the inspections in 1998.
Their resumption will certainly have pleased one of the most persuasive contributors to this collection, Michael Isherwood, who is of all things a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Isherwood’s thoughtful article surveys a range of policy options up to full-scale war, but ends up recommending the mildest and most patient. He says the world should renew inspections, end the sweeping economic sanctions that hurt the Iraqi people, and replace them with “smart” sanctions that narrowly target weapons of mass destruction.
Isherwood’s policy of patience is not perfect. But it does seem to address the most pressing need—to protect other countries from nuclear, germ or poison gas attack—while avoiding a war that will kill Iraqi children and civilians and soldiers on both sides, and that will make Saddam even more likely to use whatever weapons he may have hidden.
Critics of the administration do need to recognize that its aggressiveness is the main reason the inspectors are back in Iraq. But the threat of war is called deterrence; it is not the same as war itself. Isherwood’s reasonable approach, which seems typical of the American military and of people with expertise in the region, contrasts with the small but influential band of ideologues, such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, who continue to push for war despite the return of the inspectors. “Few of them,” points out Joshua Micah Marshall in a valuable contribution, “have any serious knowledge of the Arab world, the Middle East, or Islam. Fewer still have served in the armed forces.”
This fanatical group, which is allied with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, argues that the United States can invade Iraq and easily install a democratic government, which will in turn trigger other regime changes across the Arab and Muslim world. They call themselves neoconservatives, but they are in fact dangerous, messianic imperialists, whose crackpot certainties have only been taken seriously in the confusion and fear following the 9/11 attacks.
One proof of their madness is their enthusiastic support for the intransigent Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and his right-wing Likud Party. Nearly anyone who has spent more than a week in the Middle East recognizes that hostility toward the United States in the region will continue to rise unless there is progress toward genuine independence for the Palestinians—which will never happen with Sharon in power.
Anthony Zinni, the retired Marine general turned diplomat, is another intelligent military man (who is unfortunately not represented in this collection). He was part of the first U.S. contingent to go ashore in Somalia in 1992. “We were greeted as heroes on the street,” he told the Middle East Institute last October. “People loved to see us; when the food was handed out, the water was given, the medicines were applied, we were heroes.”
But not for long. “The initial euphoria can wear off,” Zinni continued. “People have the idea that Jeffersonian democracy, entrepreneurial economics and all these great things are going to come. If they are not delivered immediately, do not seem to be on the rise, and worse yet, if the situation begins to deteriorate—if there is tribal revenge, factional splitting, still violent elements in the country … it’s not whether you’re greeted in the streets as a hero; it’s whether you’re still greeted as a hero when you come back a year from now.”
In October 1993, not even a year after Zinni had landed, 18 American soldiers and more than 500 Somalis paid with their lives after the misunderstandings grew, accompanied by American blundering and arrogance, and terrible fighting broke out in the streets of Mogadishu.
Even if the United States does invade Iraq, and even if it wins a swift “victory,” the emerging antiwar movement has a vital contribution to make. We must demand that the world press have access to the conflict, which would be a sharp change from Pentagon censorship during the first Gulf War. Iraq must be flooded with journalists from everywhere, using the Internet, the alternative media, the Arab-language Al-Jazeera television network and more. A recently leaked U.N. report estimated that if war comes as many as 500,000 Iraqis could be injured and require medical treatment. To the true believers in Washington, these figures are only bothersome abstractions. But informed and vigilant mass movements here and elsewhere may be able to at least limit civilian casualties and human rights violations.
As Zinni warns, the fighting may not end right away. But even if a sullen “peace” starts to emerge, the new imperialists have grand designs; they will want to appoint an American proconsul to rule the country, along with unrepresentative local puppets; they will get their hands on Iraq’s oil; they will make belligerent noises toward Iran, Syria and other neighboring countries.
More than just the future of Iraq may hang in the balance. An important precedent could be set here. Will the world community deal with a genuine danger like Saddam Hussein as peaceably as possible, with respect for human rights and the genuine wishes of the people of Iraq? Or will the Bush clique try to turn Iraq into a U.S. colony, provoking violence there and elsewhere to even higher levels?
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James North has reported from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East for more than 25 years. He lives in New York City.