Liberation day in Iraq?

On April 9, 2003, the day Saddam’s statue came down in Baghdad, National Review Online asked me for a quick response. In the midst of the exuberance, and the facile comparisons with the fall of the Berlin Wall, I struck this cautionary note:

The Iraqis, in the end, did not rise up. They waited to see the whites of American eyes before they headed into the streets. They did not earn their freedom; they had it delivered to them, U.S. federal express. It is doubtful they are ready to assume its responsibilities.

This is the time to put illusions aside, and take a hard look at the people whose fates we now control. Just as they could not remove the dictator without American lifting, they cannot make a civil order without American prodding. There’s nothing exceptional about an excitable crowd in Baghdad. “Liberation Day” will come only when the Iraqis go to the polls, and convene a parliament.

Why did I strike that note? Ali Salem, the Egyptian playright, had shared a podium with me six months earlier, and had said something that stayed with me. Salem:

I hear so much talk of liberation. Liberation can occur only from within. People do not merely fail to welcome their liberators, they hate them. In general, we hate those who see us in a bad condition, and hate even more passionately those who save us from our plight.

Ali Salem spoke a very profound truth, and when Iraqis failed to rise up against Saddam six months later, and came out in large numbers only to pillage their own country, Salem’s words came back to me. This was not a liberation. The next opportunity could only be an election day when Iraqis, by a civic act only they could perform, would finally liberate themselves.

That day is here. The Iraqis did not turn out to join in the overthrow Saddam, because they were afraid. Now they must turn out to forge an alternative, and if they fail to do that because they are still afraid, then they are lost. They will slip slowly beneath the waves of some new despotism, condemned to reenact yet another cycle in the tormented history of a country that should never have been.

America owes Iraq this day, but beyond it there is no enduring obligation to sacrifice more for Iraqi freedom than the Iraqis are prepared to sacrifice. No people has achieved and sustained democracy that did not have men and women prepared to fight and die for the right to place a ballot in a box. Iraq is no exception.

My readers know that I’ve always been a skeptic about the democratizing project in the Arab world. The odds are against it. But I’ve always understood that skepticism cuts against the American grain, and that most Americans feel duty-bound to try. I hope against hope that this majority is right and that I’m wrong. What’s important is that when this day ends, and the outcome becomes clear, we put aside lingering illusions and see it for what it is: either a beginning, or an end.

Saddam in Court: Who’s on Trial?

With Saddam in U.S. hands, thoughts turn to his future trial. Various pundits have claimed that it won’t be enough to examine Saddam’s crimes. It will also be necessary to probe U.S. and Western support for his regime, during the decade of the Iran-Iraq war and the lead-up to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The late Elie Kedourie, historian and political theorist at the London School of Economics, put the issue in just the right perspective, in an interview granted in June 1992. (This was less than three weeks before his untimely passing.) Kedourie, it will be recalled, was a native of Baghdad, and an acute observer of Iraq’s troubled history. The interviewer told him that a Paris-based scholar had declared Saddam to be a “creature of the West.” Kedourie’s reply:

I do not understand what he means by that. If he means that it was Western governments that put him in power, then that is not true. If he means that from 1980 to 1990 the American and French governments and German firms did their best to help him, this is perfectly true. But you have to look at what their intentions were….The Americans believed, mistakenly I think, that if they did not do something in order to stop Khomeini, he would sweep over the whole of the Middle East. I think there was little prospect of that, but that is what they believed and therefore they chose to support Saddam. Again, within its own terms it was a rational if mistaken calculation. It was a terrible mistake, which lay at the back of the invasion of Kuwait and the war that followed, which I consider an unnecessary war. It was the result of policies that the Americans had followed vis-à-vis Saddam for ten years and that made him think that he could invade Kuwait with impunity.

A calculation went wrong. But I do not think that there was anything else there. Saddam is not a creature of the West. He is not a creature of anybody.

There are two crucial points here. First, Kedourie knew far too much about Iraq to regard Saddam as the West’s creation. He understood precisely which tectonic forces, by their immense internal pressures, had combined to produce him.

Second, Kedourie did not rail against the United States for its best-guess policies of the 1980s. He regarded the U.S. decision to back Saddam against Iran as a mistake and a miscalculation. But as a thinking historian, who never stopped reading in diplomatic archives, Kedourie thought it perfectly legitimate for states to calculate and act on self-interest. (This was always preferable to action the name of ideology. Ideological states, Kedourie believed, were intrinsically dangerous to their peoples and their neighbors.) Kedourie also knew and expected that states, working in a fog of partial knowledge, were bound to make mistakes in pursuing their interests. He never set himself up in Olympian judgment of policymakers for these sorts of errors.

But while he could understand errors of calculation, he could not pardon failures of will. For Kedourie, support for Saddam before 1990 was an error, but the decision not to remove him in 1991 was a failure. U.S. leaders lacked the will to act in pursuit of the U.S. national interest, and so fell down on their sworn duty. In a May 1991 lecture, Kedourie said this:

The American campaign stopped in its tracks by order of the president. Given this aggression by Iraq, and given that Iraq had to be stopped, one would have thought that it would be quite meaningless simply to liberate Kuwait and leave untouched the structures of the Baathist regime which had organized and committed the aggression. Iraq is a very populous and a rich country. If the regime remains in place, there is no way it can be prevented from reestablishing itself and acquiring new supplies of weapons of all kinds….It may not be possible next time around to organize an expedition of half a million troops and an armada in order to deal with this recurrent situation. So as things look to me now, the aftermath of the Gulf war seems a tremendous failure for the U.S.

As usual, Kedourie shows us the way. Saddam was no one’s creature. It would be an affront to justice to diminish Saddam’s criminal culpability by invoking U.S. policy mistakes, however egregious. Mistakes are not crimes.

The decision that left Saddam in power in 1991 was a monumental failure, and one that history has already judged severely. But at least credit those who did organize an expedition and an armada in 2003, and who did their duty despite the criticism of feckless “allies” and the absence of “international legitimacy.” Some of those who launched this expedition were party to the previous mistake and the earlier failure. By their actions this year, they have balanced the books—and then some.

Getting Iraq Right…from Miami…in Ohio

Adeed Dawisha is an old friend with a new book: Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton University Press). It’s a searing indictment of Arab nationalism from an insider’s perspective. And it’s especially relevant now, for the reason I underline in my jacket endorsement of the book:

Why does the world need this eminently readable book? Because academe is awash with speculation about the emergence of a “new Arabism.” Dawisha’s point is that anyone who lived through Arabism’s heyday knows how disastrous it was, and that the new Arabist nostalgia ignores history.

A lot of that new nostalgia fixed itself upon Saddam Hussein, who has now ended up in the same dustbin with Nasser.

I and my colleagues at the Middle East Quarterly thought so much of Dawisha’s book that we published an excerpt, which will give you the flavor of his uncompromising style. The book has now received a favorable review from the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim in The Guardian. Shlaim stands very much on the other side of the fence from me, and since we would agree on little else, Dawisha’s book deserves to be described as transcendent.

Dawisha was born in Iraq, and it’s worth quoting a few things he said on the eve of the war, since they were very courageous and prescient. Dawisha, speaking two months ago:

In academia, the prevalent attitude is to be anti-war, anti-invasion. I am not. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein is a subject of much higher moral order than avoiding a war. It is a mystery to me how people in academia, who consider themselves liberal, don’t see that in terms of justice and moral responsibility of a civilized world, we need to rescue the Iraqi people from this nightmare.

“War is an evil,” he told an audience at the University of Michigan. “But sometimes, unfortunately, war is a necessary evil. And in this particular case, I think it is…War against Iraq in my opinion is not only permissible, in fact when I say this I shock a lot of people… to me it’s a moral obligation. Every person with an ounce of civility in him should recognize this fact.”

Dawisha also made right-on predictions of outcomes. On March 18, he predicted that Iraqi soldiers would “slip away from their units” and let the invasion succeed. They did. On March 20, he predicted that Saddam would only be supported in the fight by “eight or nine thousand men in his special Republican Guard…they’ll fight the Americans because if they don’t die at the hand of the Americans, they’ll die at the hand of the Iraqi people. Everybody else in Iraq detests Saddam.” And so it was. Some loyalists did fight, the rest filled the streets on arrival of the Americans and Brits to celebrate Saddam’s demise. Two months ago, Dawisha predicted that, “given America’s certain victory, and the Iraqis’ certain support, today’s nay-sayers will look pretty dumb tomorrow.” It looks like that prediction was on the mark, too.

So it pays to listen to Dawisha’s opinion on the day after. First, he argues that the United States alone must fashion Iraq’s political framework. Dawisha sees a possible role for the UN and other powers in the economic reconstruction of the country.

But I’m not very clear why they should be brought in, in the political reconstruction of Iraq….We want to put Iraq on a democratic path, whether this takes six months or a year or eighteen months, but we want to be there when we’re trying to orient the Iraqis towards democracy creating political institutions, writing a constitution. I’m not very clear [on] what the Chinese, for example, or the Russians have to add to this endeavor.

I’m not sure the French would have much to add, either. And Dawisha doesn’t favor the quick turnover to Iraqis now demanded by Arab “opinion” and panicky Arab leaders (who would be all too pleased to see the Baath creep back). He argues for a two-year period of political reconstruction: six months of stabilization, during which a constitution would be written; six months for the creation of political parties; and elections a year later. All sensible.

Dawisha has written an important book, made courageous moral arguments in the midst of a storm, ventured accurate predictions, and offered practical solutions. All of which probably explains why he teaches at a place called Miami University in Ohio, while mediocrity is celebrated and rewarded at places like Columbia and Stanford. Go figure.

CLARIFICATION: A few readers have written me, to attest to the virtues of Miami University in Ohio. I intended no slight to the university as a whole. But no one would go there specifically to study the Middle East, and it is not listed among the 120-plus colleges and universities in the United States that boast of having Middle East programs. On the other hand, many places that have large programs, some of them subsidized from Washington, have no one of Dawisha’s caliber. And that, as I wrote, is hard to figure.