Letting Saddam Off the Hook


Getting rid of the Ba'th regime in Iraq has been the cause of my life for almost a quarter of a century. Precisely when the United States found in the totalitarian regime a worthy ally to stem the tide of fundamentalist Khomeini forces in 1979, the leftist movement to which I belonged discovered, belatedly, that it was in the jaws of a rapacious Leviathan.

I was a member of the Iraqi Communist Party and the editor of the paper's international and Arab affairs department. I hailed the collapse of the Shah of Iran as a portent of "the end of single-party systems." This did not endear me to the Iraqi government. We got a tip I was blacklisted, and I had to leave in less than six hours! I flew to Beirut on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October 1978 to avoid the horrible fate that thousands of my colleagues had met: torture, rape, or assassination. You had either to be with the Ba'th or you were against it.

For a decade or so, we lived like global underground nomads, changing countries, dialects, names, and passports, fake or otherwise. More than 200,000 Iraqis -- mostly intellectuals and professionals from the left, liberal, or Kurdish nationalist currents -- crossed the border. The world took no notice. Why should it? I took solace in the writings of German intellectuals who sought refuge outside beleaguered Europe under the Nazi rule. New vocabulary entered our lexicon: exile, identity, alienation, and angst. These were accentuated by a sense of weightlessness, that unbearable lightness of being. New layers of emigrants inflated our ranks to reach an estimated 3.5 million Iraqis in exile in the late 1990s -- the crème of the nation. In London, my last home base, aged liberal politicians from the monarchy socialize with middle-aged leftists or rub shoulders with young disillusioned Ba'thists who seek asylum, unified by a sense of loss and desperation.

As a young man, Saddam Hussein admired Hitler's system of government. Stalin and his totalitarian model became Saddam's exemplars. Saddam tailored his system along Nazi and Stalinist lines, though it had a number of new features as well. In keeping with Nazi ideals, Iraq's Ba'th system had four main pillars: totalitarian ideology, single-party rule, a command economy (nominally socialist), and firm control over the media and the army.

Unlike the Nazi model, the Ba'th version transformed Iraq's traditional tribes and clans into key state institutions. These groups still survive in rural provinces and outlying rural areas.

Oil revenues were another cornerstone of the Ba'th system. Massive oil reserves and revenues provided the government with autonomous resources that reinforced its authoritarian tendencies and enabled it to build massive security services. Between 1968 and 1980, the proportionate size of the armed forces to the population rocketed from 3 per 1,000 to 60 per 1,000. Equipped with wealth and manpower, the Ba'th regime ruthlessly destroyed the organized movements of the left, the nationalist Kurds, and the liberal Shi'a movements.

Affiliation with the single ruling Ba'th party was almost mandatory. No government employment, higher education, or business was available to nonparty groups or individuals. Playing along, the Westernized middle and upper classes took advantage of expanded opportunities and prospered during the oil boom in the late '70s. Their success exceeded all expectations, despite the restrictions of the command economy. In 1968, Iraq had fifty-three millionaire families; there were 800 such households in 1980, and some 3,000 by 1989. Salaried employees and property owners became powerful social forces. They did not owe their prosperity to a free market system; rather, they were dependent on government employment and contracts. Within the corridors of power and the newly ascendant social classes, tribal or kinship-based groups held strategic positions. A ruling class-clan rapidly developed and maintained a tight grip on the army, the Ba'th party, the bureaucracy, and the business milieus.

As the Ba'th regime felt domestically confident, it began to look outward for regional supremacy. The Iraq-Iran war was an outcome of these grand designs, which soon depleted Iraq's human and material resources. In 1988, Iraq emerged from the eight years of war a military giant but an economic dwarf. Global waves of democratic change, above all the demise of single-party systems in Eastern Europe, aggravated the crisis. Reforms were offered but not delivered. Instead, Saddam pursued a new adventure to seize the King Solomon treasures of Kuwait to remedy the woes of the previous war.

The climax is known too well.

Totalitarianism is a flawed system; it constantly produces its own antithesis. It starts with constructing impersonal institutions but ends up promoting a personality cult; it strives to homogenize the nation, but its assimilative techniques deepen ethnic and cultural cleavages, ripping the fabric of the nation apart; its command economy claims egalitarianism as its ideal, but it actually widens the gap between the rich and the poor, creating crony capitalism; it claims to embrace lofty ideals of progress, yet it destroys civil associations and strives to retrieve outdated traditional value systems; it gives obsessive priority to regime security but actually endangers national security. Such is the story of Iraqi totalitarianism.

Iraq's totalitarian system has been a menace to its own people, the region, and the world at large. Leaving the monster in its place is an invitation to future catastrophe. This may sound like an endorsement of the war camp. Not at all. Warmongering is as shortsighted as philanthropic pacifism. The former deliberately neglects the possibilities of a political solution to the problem; the latter does not recognize the existence of the problem. Both are locked in an ideological cage.

Warmongering comes largely from the evangelical right, i.e., the new conservatism that imposes a clash-of-civilizations formula on world politics. The tragic events of 9/11 provided an ideal backdrop to Donald Rumsfeld's "leaning forward" argument for aggression. Perhaps the swift success scored by the United States in removing the fundamentalist Taliban regime was -- and still is -- a catalyst for further experiments in "surgical" removals.

But an invasion of Iraq may well prove too costly or degenerate into chaos. The demise of the totalitarian regime, however welcome, will involve and unleash latent, uncontrollable institutional and social forces beside which fantasy will pale. A civil war may begin nobody knows where and end up in nobody knows what. A palace coup might be convenient for the U.S. Administration, but it would be another tragedy for the Iraqi people.

War is as pernicious as totalitarianism. Both breed violence and mayhem.

Opposing the war in itself is good but not good enough. Letting the Leviathan off the hook is a grave mistake for which we will pay sooner rather than later. Opposing war, which is an instrument of politics, should not lead us to forget the crux of the things political. It is not weapons of mass destruction that count most; what really counts is the political system that controls them. Ignoring this fact by the forces of peace simply serves the war camp.

Dozens of nations have chemical and biological weapons. None has deployed them, except Saddam's regime, first against the Iranian forces, later against Iraqi civilians. Governments should be held responsible for such crimes. Ironically, the United States let Saddam get away with no punishment for the actual deployment of chemical and biological weapons back in 1988, but it is now adamant about confronting him for a possible deployment of such weapons in the future. This is the logic of preemption. Yet there is no law, domestic or international, that permits a prosecutor to go after an ex-convict for a future, would-be offense. There is every law to bring a culprit to trial for actually breaching human norms in the first place.

In all the decades of struggle and international lobbying, one approach has never been tried: a meaningful political process to disengage the various components of the regime from each other -- above all, a drive to split the ruling class-clan.

Here's what I think ought to happen. One, threaten Saddam with indictment. Two, give him an alternative for safe passage at the same time; this may create a crack in the ruling class-clan. Three, send a list of thirty or so of his aides who are persona non grata and demand that they leave the country with him. This ought to convince the rest of the class-clan members that they are not threatened en masse -- only those who were most responsible for the offenses of the regime. Four, encourage this class-clan to oust Saddam into exile and sweeten the deal by offering a mini-Marshall plan. This mini-Marshall plan would be made available provided power was transferred to a civilian, interim government.

Such continued pressure, a political onslaught, should be backed by threat of force. A few warning shots may well be sufficient. This would help split the ruling group and embolden the people to take matters into their hands. A painfully slow process of regime disintegration has already been going on, and this political pressure would hasten the process along. An invasion, on the other hand, would wrench matters out of Iraqi hands and would risk untold consequences.

By the way, a mini-Marshall Plan would prove far less costly than the projected $100 billion to $200 billion for the war and occupation. It would help rebuild the wrecked nation, and it could help further split the semi-monolithic ruling class-clan and encourage a meaningful change of hands at the top. This, then, could provide sufficient encouragement for a peaceful, or at least less costly, transformation.

The present U.S. campaign would achieve nothing of this. It is a military crusade, with diplomacy as a reluctant sideshow. And it is not geared to the interests or participation of the Iraqi people.

The reinception of the rule of law is a vital necessity for Iraq. It is also a precondition for any viable, emerging democracy. Such an eventuality will be the best safety net for regional peace and stability. Iraq is a vibrant nation that deserves such a future.

Faleh A. Jabar is a research fellow at the School of Politics and Sociology, Birkbeck College, University of London. His recent publications include "Ayatollahs, Sufis, and Ideologues: State, Religion, and Social Movements in Iraq," and "Tribes and Power in the Middle East," both from Saqi Books, London, 2002. His forthcoming title is "The Shi'a Movement of Iraq," Saqi Books.

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