You Call This Victory?

Ian Williams

Dilip Hiro has written many books about the Middle East, but none as timely as this. Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm comes out too late for the edification of White House hawks, but in time for the rest of us to take a cool look at “victory” and why it is likely to be messily Pyrrhic for the seeming winners.

Objective as he is, Hiro is not a member of the Saddam Hussein fan club, and he demonstrates clearly why the Iraqi dictator is every bit as evil and tyrannical now as he had been when he was the favored Arab tyrant of Britain and the United States. No one who had read Hiro’s book would be surprised at the ambivalent reception the allies are getting in Iraq. Hiro points out how the sanctions and the oil-for-food regime had made almost every Iraqi household totally dependent on government-controlled handouts, which helps account for their lack of enthusiasm for the troops—although, of course, the secret police and the prisons helped. Hiro, unlike the reporters embedded in the White House and State Department, also reminds us of the fate of the Iraqis foolish enough to listen to American calls to rise up in the previous Gulf War. The combination of sanctions and complete betrayal helps explain why Iraqis are not quite as jubilant about their new masters as the neocons would have us believe.

Hiro quotes Gen. Anthony Zinni’s prescient warning to Clinton, when the latter was torn between effecting a regime change and bombing Iraqis into defiance, “any attempt to remove the Iraqi leader by force could dangerously fragment Iraq and destabilize the whole region.” The instability is now there, although admittedly, the Bush-Blair team do seem to have stumbled across the magic formula to unite the fissiparous country that they have seized. However, one must doubt whether they really had joint Shi’a-Sunni anti-American demonstrations in mind when they first plotted the invasion.

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If I have a minor quibble with this book, it is that Hiro gives Saddam Hussein too much credit when he calls him “always sensitive to Palestinians and their cause.” As with his expedient Islam, Saddam was indeed sensitive to the political uses of the Palestinian cause. But there were credible reports of the cynical contacts that his regime, as a worthy student of Stalin, had with Israel to take in Palestinian refugees in return for an end to sanctions.

But despite the Iraqi leader’s clumsiness in gauging the international community, as demonstrated with his invasion of Kuwait, Hiro passes what I consider almost a litmus test for objectivity about Iraq. He does not see the famous conversation from U.S. chargé d’affaires April Glaspie with Saddam Hussein as a cunning American plot to lure innocent Saddam into battle. Rather it was stupidity on both sides: The Americans, not for the first time, did not truly, deeply and sincerely appreciate that their best friend in the war with Iran was in fact a psychopath, and the psychopath himself did not realize that Glaspie’s statement that the United States did not take sides on the issues between Kuwait and Iraq was not a green light to invade.

Hiro shows how the Palestine-Israel issue has been central to politics in the region almost from the time the Hashemites set up their standards in Baghdad. Washington has never been able to grasp the importance of this issue, and has assumed that it is an issue fomented by Arab rulers, rather than one that they have used to maintain power. With the strong bond of pan-Arabism, the region’s people identify with the Palestinians even more strongly than Africans did with black South Africans under apartheid.

Tony Blair and Colin Powell at least have some grasp of this, which is why they should not be too surprised at the outcome when the famous “road map” for peace runs into the Israeli wall around the Palestinian bantustans, and the naïve expectations of Washington that a new regime in Iraq will kiss and make up with Ariel Sharon are dashed to the stony Levantine rocks. Clinton’s team had closer ties to reality. They did not push for democracy in the Middle East, since they knew that any elected governments there would be more firmly opposed to Israeli policies than the more biddable kleptocracies.

More worldly-wise, Hiro concludes with a mention of the concept of “an eye for an eye” as “an integral part of the tribal culture that runs deep among Iraqis.” The United States may have used smart bombs, but they were not as smart as they thought, and the trigger-happy GIs who have been shooting up civilians are even less smart. There are a lot of eyes waiting on account. As the hawks in Washington are beginning to discover, one of the oldest fairy tale curses is getting what you wish for. They got their regime change and their invasion. Watch them suffer.

Ian Williams is the author of Desert­er: Bush’s War on Mil­i­tary Fam­i­lies, Vet­er­ans and His Past, now avail­able from Nation Books.
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