“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?

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.