“The Iraqi People”

Read these words, written by an esteemed Iraq expert:

There are present in Iraq civilian forces possessed of brains, literacy and organizing experience, and reflecting a meaningful diversity of interest and opinions. However, the men at the head of these forces have not yet developed the ability to coexist, to play the game by recognized rules, to compound their differences for the sake of an agreed higher denominator. In addition, it is doubtful whether a sufficiently large part of the population can be interested in orderly and sustained political activity—distinct from the appeal of rabblerousing catchwords. Lastly, and most important, the civilian forces lack the prestige and forcefulness to induce the army to accept the role of a non-political guardian of public order, in times of disturbance as well as in normal circumstances.

That assessment could have been written this morning. In fact, it was written by the late historian (and my colleague) Uriel Dann 35 years ago, in the conclusion to his book Iraq under Qassem. Note that Dann located the core of the problem in the weakness of Iraq’s “civilian forces,” not in oppression by its military ones. Dann did not believe that the Iraqi people could be led; they could only be incited or intimidated, a combination that later worked perfectly for Saddam. I don’t think Dann would have suffered fools babbling in his presence about Iraqi “civil society.”

That same assessment is implicit in this crucial passage from his book:

A climate of violence is part of the political scene in Iraq…It is an undercurrent which pervades the vast substrata of the people outside the sphere of power politics. Hundreds of thousands of souls can easily be mobilized on the flimsiest pretext. They constitute a permanently restive element, ready to break into riots which more than once in recent years have resulted in mass butchery. This climate of violence…has been the cause of more political and judicial assassinations than have taken place in any other Arab country in a comparable state of social advancement.

Notice that Dann did not locate the problem only in Iraq’s military (he called it a “caste,” easily distinguished by its various uniforms). He thought that violence was endemic to Iraqi society, and perhaps inherent in the very nature of the polity. “There is no ‘Iraqi nation’,” he announced at the very outset of his massive tome—and the rest of the book proved it.

Dann’s skepticism about Iraq’s political culture led him to this conclusion: “The army leadership alone can ensure for Iraq a modicum of stability and ordered progress.” That was true, for some years, under the Baath. But Saddam brought out the army’s fatal flaw: its weakness for “Arab” adventures, such as the invasions of Iran and Kuwait. Iraq’s sole national institution showed itself to be defective at its core, and when it acquired some technology, it became an engine for the export of Iraq’s violent malaise to places abroad.

Yes, only the army leadership can ensure a modicum of stability and ordered progress. The difference between Dann’s perspective in 1968, and ours today, is that we know it will have to be the United States army. Dann would have welcomed the removal of Saddam: after Saddam was spared in 1991, Dann grimly predicted that “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.” But once Saddam is gone, it will fall to America to make Iraq a nation. What would Uriel Dann have thought of that?