Where have all the Iraq experts gone? Long time passing

As the United States moves toward a war to remove Saddam Hussein, we will experience many moments of deja vu. Whether we are any the wiser remains to be seen, but we are certainly poorer. That’s because two scholars who spoke great truths about Iraq are no longer with us.

Elie Kedourie was born in Iraq, whence he fled in 1949. He was the author of a string of seminal essays on Iraqi politics, and while his interests ranged widely at the London School of Economics, he always paid close attention to shifts in the tortured politics of his native Baghdad. During the Kuwait crisis, he became a frequent contributor to the opinion columns.

One article particularly pays rereading. Kedourie wrote it for the New York Times in the month following the Iraqi invasion. “We speak of the crisis,” he wrote, “as thought it is obvious what the crisis is and what its resolution might be.” Most observers assumed that removing Iraq from Kuwait would resolve the crisis. “However,” wrote Kedourie, “such an outcome would settle very little.” The problem, as he saw it, was the “imbalance in power between Iraq and its neighbors….To correct this imbalance requires action more drastic than slow-acting sanctions or embargoes, and more far-reaching than the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty.” Indeed, if the regime were allowed to keep its power, “Baghdad would be seen as having humiliated a superpower, and would seek to derive from such a situation maximum advantage in regional power politics.”

To reread Kedourie is to realize how precisely he diagnosed the core of the problem—not a decade later, not a year later, but a month after the Iraqis entered Kuwait. He understood, even then, that the only effective treatment would have to be “drastic” and “far-reaching,” that it would have to go beyond the liberation of Kuwait and a regime of sanctions. Had he only been heeded then, we would not be where we are now.

Uriel Dann lived and breathed Iraq. He was the author of a monumental book on Iraq under Qassem, a masterly work that hasn’t been superseded. (“I shall never forget,” he later wrote, “nor did my wife, how I once awoke in the small hours of the night believing that I was Qassem. The delusion passed.”) In 1991, as it became clear that Saddam would remain in the saddle, Dann wrote a piece for The New Republic (June 3, 1991), entitled “Getting Even.” Read these words and commit them to memory: they are the considered judgment of a man who knew Iraq as well as, if not better than, any “expert” alive today:

Saddam Hussein does not forget and forgive. His foes brought him close to perdition and then let him off….He will strive to exact revenge as long as there is life in his body. He will smirk and conciliate and retreat and whine and apply for fairness and generosity. He will also make sure that within his home base it remains understood that he has not changed and will never change….And the day will come when he will hit, we do not know with what weapons….And when he does…the innocent will pay by the millions. This must never be put out of mind: Saddam Hussein from now on lives for revenge.

So far, Saddam’s conduct abroad and at home has borne out Dann’s prediction to the last detail. Who is absolutely certain that if Saddam is spared yet again, the more dire part of Dann’s prediction will not come true?

A speeding car killed Dann in the fall of 1991; Kedourie died of a heart attack the following spring. Without them, we are more vulnerable to cant, wishful thinking, and loose analysis. In their absence, then, it is incumbent upon us to extract those nuggets of wisdom in their writings that bear repeating now. So here is one: the most astute one-paragraph guide to policy in the whole of the literature, penned by Kedourie:

In an unstable and disturbed area like the Middle East, where, in the twinkling of an eye the Shah becomes the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein turns from friend to foe, and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad vice-versa, it is impossible to build a policy on any durable assumptions about the character of this or that regime, or on the steadfastness of enmities or friendships. The only guide in such a quagmire is a firm and clear understanding of where one’s own interests lie.

It’s an elegant statement of a simple truth. So what will guide U.S. policy in this crisis? Dubious assumptions about “friend” and “foe,” or a clear understanding of American interests? Kedourie published those words in the New York Times in 1990. In September. To be precise: 9/11.