Reason to hit at the hitman?

The Saddam Hussein Reader
December 20, 2002

Paul Cornish examines the background to, and arguments for, war against Saddam Hussein.

In assembling this timely textbook in Saddam Hussein studies, Turi Munthe set out not to produce a biography by committee, but to bring together the essentials of many of the arguments doing the rounds. The result is a book that is full of contradiction and intellectually indigestible at one sitting. But that, of course, is precisely what characterises the current crisis.

Munthe has collected 38 essays and other contributions published since the 1950s on Saddam (including two offerings from the man himself) as articles and book chapters. Several authors make rather uncomfortable bedfellows and, as a whole, the book reads like the collected diagnoses of a team of doctors who cannot agree which of their patients is most ill, and why.

Distracted as they must now be by more than 11,000 pages of Iraq's "weapons dossier" it is probably too much to expect policy-makers and policy advisers in the United Nations, the US, Britain and elsewhere to read this book from cover to cover for any other reason than to mine it for "evidence" to suit this or that cause. But this book is nevertheless a salutary reminder that we are now in a deep and sticky mire, much of which is of our own making and from which escape will be neither easy nor clean.

Munthe's compilation charts the highlights of Saddam's career: his apprenticeship as a Baath Party hitman in the late 1950s; his appointment to the deputy leadership of the party in the 1960s; his winning the presidency and total authority in Iraq in the late 1970s; his war with Iran in 1980-88; his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent war with the US-led coalition in 1991; his cat-and-mouse game with the UN inspection regime until 1998; and his inclusion in George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech after September 11 2001.

The curriculum vitae of the West's anti-hero has been decades in the making - Saddam is clearly a survivor. In large measure, his survival skills can be attributed to the short-sightedness and incompetence of others, especially in the West, whose deficiencies he has exploited with skill and alacrity. Saddam's career was certainly boosted by the blinkered pragmatism of the cold-war pursuit of spheres of influence, by the West's visceral and uncritical fears of Islam, by its venal disregard of the consequences of supplying Iraq with whatever it wanted by way of weapons and related technology, and latterly by the gross misjudgements of key western diplomats.

But for some commentators this guilty discomfort is too gentle and too tolerable - the price hypocrisy pays all too easily and insincerely to virtue. In his swingeing critique of US and UK policies, Noam Chomsky argues that the term "rogue state" ought more accurately to be applied to those countries that gauge the value of international law in terms of the contribution it makes to their own narrow national interest, and "anoint themselves global judge and executioner".

The Arab world must also carry its share of the blame. For too many Middle Eastern ruling elites, certain great causes of the 20th century such as Arab unity, anti-westernism, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism have provided a welcome diversion from the tensions and shortcomings of their own systems of government. For reasons of self-preservation it made sense for various leaders to sponsor popular movements, which they hoped nevertheless to control and contain. But it then proved impossible to prevent these causes being exploited by Saddam for his own reasons. As a result, he was able to position himself on the moral and political high ground others had created and strike a popular chord. Amatzia Baram, an Israeli analyst of Iraq, writing in 1994, saw an "upsurge of public admiration" for Saddam's Iraq in the Arab world in early 1990. "For the first time since Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir, an Arab leader stood up to Israel and fearlessly threatened it with annihilation."

Surely the Middle East (and the rest of us, for that matter) can do better than this? In a plea for more intelligent and inventive thinking about how to encourage peace and stability around the world, Edward Said is puzzled and disappointed by the "general air of mediocrity and corruption" hanging over the Arab world, "a part of the globe that is limitlessly wealthy, superbly endowed culturally and historically, and loaded with gifted individuals".

It is clear then: we are all deeply implicated in the Saddam Hussein saga. But as the crisis deepens, the question is whether past misdeeds and misjudgements deny us the authority or legitimacy to pronounce on how to remedy the situation, and still less to do anything about it. Much of the debate on Saddam and Iraq seems rather too self-consciously to have moved in this direction, with this or that reputation shown to be flawed and hypocritical, this or that argument shown to be less than a perfect basis for taking a decision. But surely, if it was wrong in the past to support, condone or merely ignore him, the same must be true now? If the cynicism of the past is not simply to be replaced with a debilitating guilt complex, someone, somewhere, ought to do something. But what, and to what end?

Saddam has been an extraordinarily clever, ruthless and effective operator. As a propagandist, he has made adroit use of a range of public images as the circumstances have shifted, domestically, regionally and internationally: brave soldier, sophisticated statesman, loving father, brother Arab and devout Muslim. He has encouraged comparisons between himself and both Saladin and Peter the Great. Although a Sunni, he has even, according to Ofra Bengio, published an "official" genealogy to prove his descent from the tribe of the Prophet Mohammed to claim legitimacy for his rule over Iraq's Shia majority.

An especially disquieting insight comes in Said K. Aburish's account of the purge of July 1979. Several hundred senior members of the Regional Command Council and the Baath Party assembled in a conference hall to witness about two dozen of their number being exposed as conspirators and traitors. As the meeting progressed, these terrified apparatchiks did whatever they could to preserve themselves by following their dictator's scripted mood swings, cheering and weeping on cue. Aburish describes the subsequent execution of Saddam's political opponents as "an original Saddam invention". The killings were a team effort - an execution squad was formed from Saddam's inner circle of supporters, each of whom was given a weapon and ordered to shoot. Jointly implicated in mass murder, the executioners'

dependence on, and loyalty to, their protector and benefactor could only deepen. With friends and supporters like these, it is perhaps no surprise Saddam became, according to Baram, "trapped in his own myth".

Yet Saddam is much more than a small-screen Baath Party myth. As well as an accomplished and ruthless political manipulator, he is a brutal, genocidal tyrant. George Black's report on al-Anfal - the 1987-89 "campaign of extermination against the Kurds of northern Iraq" - records the abuses visited on the Kurds: tens of thousands of summary executions, mass disappearance, the use of chemical weapons, destruction of villages and facilities, forced displacement and imprisonment. Black goes further, drawing a parallel between al-Anfal and the three-step system for genocide perfected by the Nazis during the Holocaust: "Definition, concentration, annihilation".

The shame is that Saddam's treatment of the Kurds and so many others in Iraq has gone on for so long and that the international community has done so little about it. It is as if genocidal tyranny can be a spur to action only when supplemented by evidence of some other, preferably cross-border, crime, such as links to terrorism or acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the latest tape recording of Osama bin Laden apparently pledging his support for the people (not the leader) of Iraq is genuine, then the Bush administration's threat to use military force against Iraq may have engendered by default the unholy alliance between al-Qaida and Baghdad that Washington has long alleged. Otherwise, the claim that Saddam's regime had developed links with al-Qaida has been one of the least plausible aspects of the US response to the attacks of September 11 2001 as Joshuah Micah Marshall notes.

WMD, however, are a different matter. There is no dispute that Saddam has acquired various such weapons, and missiles, and has put them to use in the past. For Johanna McGeary, senior foreign correspondent at Time magazine, WMD give Saddam "the global position he craves. A nuke plus a long-range missile makes you a world power. Deadly spores and poisonous gases make you a feared one. These are the crown jewels of his regime."

Having previously published its report on Iraq's WMD programmes, the British government has now produced a second "dossier" detailing Saddam's grotesque human-rights abuses. The government's strategy is clearly to merge the two images - murderous tyrant and scheming proliferator - to show that the threat (and use) of armed force against Baghdad is both reasonable and necessary.

Several human-rights organisations claim that their work has been exploited and used selectively by the British government to strengthen the case for war. These objections might or might not be sound: if there is a case for responding to human-rights abuses in one country, is the case not reinforced, rather than undermined, by the international community's failure to respond to other abuses elsewhere? But the argument for military action does nevertheless begin to look more solid, at least when presented in terms of WMD proliferation and human-rights abuses. The main argument against war - that Saddam could still be contained and deterred through more limited military action, with economic sanctions - might suit those persuaded by realpolitik , but appears singularly unlikely to achieve much by way of stopping further murder and repression, and relies too much on the delicate, semi-consensual edifice of the UN inspection and monitoring team.

It is increasingly probable that the current crisis will lead to military conflict with Iraq. There are now three forces rushing into collision, with too much power and too many reputations at stake. It is inconceivable that the Bush administration could (or should) back off and elect for a policy of "live, and let live" with Saddam. Equally inconceivable - judging not least by several essays in The Saddam Hussein Reader - is that Saddam will renounce WMD, surrendering weapons and research facilities to the UN. For their part, the UN inspection teams can do nothing other than continue to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1441 - for the reputation of the UN system is at stake. But if the use of armed force against Iraq is uncomfortably close to being inevitable, plenty of careful thought is still required as to how it should be used, and to what end.

Reportedly, the Bush administration has developed a campaign plan that is as cautious and flexible as these things can be. The US plan is to apply force in phases. The object, it seems, is to crack the nut as carefully and as cleanly as possible (and preferably for the Iraqis to do it themselves) rather than pulverise it with a sledgehammer. There would be extensive psychological operations against Saddam's supporters and troops; there would also be precision use of air power - this is by now a familiar theme, and for many a hugely discredited proposition.

As for the "end state", a little more humility is in order. Anybody with a clear sense of where war against Iraq will ultimately lead probably makes sense only to himself or herself. With so much "real-time" information, "network-centric warfare", sophisticated communications and accurate weaponry, we are feeding an illusion that war - any war - is a linear problem, susceptible to careful management and control through computerised planning, phased operations, precise targeting and the like.

But it would be better to admit that in the Iraq crisis, we are seeing great political forces rubbing together unpredictably and violently, like jagged tectonic plates, and that we are standing in the centre of it all. With an eye to unforeseen and possibly unmanageable consequences, this indeed calls for military force to be used carefully and incrementally, and for a heightened determination that such force should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. Armed force cannot be a substitute for thinking. If there is to be military action against Iraq, that decision must be driven by a rational and defensible political purpose, one that is attainable and can be communicated as clearly and transparently as possible. Deposing Saddam because he has been a cruel tyrant and WMD proliferator is a clear enough goal.

The purpose cannot be, however, to take the first step in democratising the Middle East by force, as some hawks would have it. And since war ought to be driven by politics, the people of Iraq deserve a moment's pause. Munthe's compilation makes it difficult to identify any government, organisation or individual that emerges with much credit or consistency from the Saddam saga. The only consistency is that the Iraqi people, who have been victimised for decades, are facing the prospect of yet more punishment. The humanitarian costs of military action in Iraq are foreseeable and avoidable. How military force is used matters as much as why. War in Iraq will not be painless. But with their sophisticated surveillance and target acquisition systems, and precision weaponry, the West's armies and air forces ought to be capable of achieving high standards of discrimination and proportionality - the hallmarks of humanity in warfare.

Paul Cornish is director, Centre for Defence Studies, King's College London.

The Saddam Hussein Reader: Selections from Leading Writers on Iraq

Editor - Turi Munthe
ISBN - 1 56025 428 9
Publisher - Thunder's Mouth Press, Avalon Publishing Group
Price - $17.95 (£11.42)
Pages - 556

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