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.

The Saddam Papers

Saddam soon will be history. It’s important that the United States collect and preserve as much of it as possible. I refer to the vast archives of the various arms of the Iraqi regime: the presidency of the republic, the Baath Party, the Republican Guard, the intelligence and security organizations, the ministries of foreign affairs and information, and more. If the United States establishes a military authority to run the country, it should do what the Western allies did in occupied Germany: collect and collate the archives of the enemy. That’s necessary not only to locate any weapons of mass destruction, and to de-Baathize and de-Saddamize the state. It’s the only way to provide researchers with the evidence they will need to reconstruct precisely what went wrong in Saddam’s Iraq.

The process is already underway. In 1992 and 1993, two Kurdish groups turned over to the United States eighteen tons (four million pages) of Iraqi documents seized from abandoned government offices in the north. This massive collection has been digitized and used to great effect by the Defense Department and Human Rights Watch. The Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard has a significant portion of these documents in digital form, as well as other documents left behind by the Iraqis in Kuwait. (Kanan Makiya directs the project.) The documents themselves are stored by the National Archives.

But this is a pittance compared to the massive archives in Iraq itself. Documents from every military unit, government office, scientific lab, overseas embassy, secret prison, and interrogation cell, make their way in a steady stream to Baghdad. There they are passed up the bureacratic chain of command, in multiple copies, to the most trusted inner circles. In the protocols of the meetings held around Saddam’s long table, decisions of war, repression, and evasion are carefully recorded for further action. These are the real “smoking guns.” As Human Rights Watch put it in 1994 (in regard to the Kurds), “it is not unlikely that the strongest evidence of genocide will only be found in the event of a change of government in Baghdad and the opening up of security archives there.” That’s probably true for a whole range of highly sensitive subjects, from elimination of dissidents to support for terrorism.

When an army moves, its priorities are operational. That’s why it’s so important to emphasize, in advance, the need to avoid the destruction of enemy documents, and to secure them as rapidly as possible. Not only do the documents have immense long-term value. They are certain to back up the rationales for the war itself. Captured enemy documents can have a dramatic political impact. To this day, the Osama bin Laden video recovered in Afghanistan, in which he boasts of bringing down the World Trade Center, is the strongest public piece of evidence against him. Last spring, the Israeli Defense Forces seized a trove of documents from Arafat’s compound, Palestinian political offices, and police stations. The documents linked Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to terrorism, and their publication put Arafat beyond the pale in Washington. If the United States goes to war on only half a tank of international legitimacy, expeditious publication of Iraqi documents will be even more important.

It’s not just the Iraqis and Americans who have an interest in these archives. Kuwaitis might like to know more about Saddam’s decision to invade their country in 1990, and the fate of Kuwaitis who “disappeared” during the Iraqi occupation. Iranians might like to know about Saddam’s still earlier decision to invade their country in 1980, and Iraq’s strategic rationale during the war. And Israelis would wish to learn what Saddam was thinking when he sent missiles into Tel Aviv in 1991. His connections with Arafat and Palestinian groups will also be of prime interest. An international commission of historians could supervise that aspect of the work.

Personally, I’d like to see the documents from the foreign and information ministries. I want to read the evidence of the Baghdad regime’s cynical use of the soft-headed scholars and the gullible journalists, the do-gooders and the fellow travellers, the Ramsey Clarks and the John Pilgers. Send in the xerox machines.

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.