What lurks in the shadows?

October 18, 2002

If the US topples Saddam Hussein, will it then foster a democratic society in Iraq or just replace an intractable tyrant with one more amenable to its interests? asks Charles Tripp

What will happen if the US desire for regime change in Iraq is achieved? The answer must in part depend on the circumstances of Saddam Hussein's overthrow. But it will also depend on an understanding of the kind of polity over which he has presided for so long.

Ruthless, autocratic and tyrannical, Saddam has dominated Iraqi politics for a generation, concentrating all power in his hands and making himself the centre of a personality cult of the usual extravagant proportions. It is not wholly surprising, therefore, that many see him as unique, a phenomenon without parallel in Iraqi history, hailed within Iraq as al-Qa'id al-Darurah (the leader necessity) and vilified beyond its borders as the source of all his country's misfortunes.

One result of this personality cult is that the continuities of Iraqi political society and the complex interaction between features of that society and the regime of Saddam have often become obscured. Another is that Saddam's forcible removal tends to be suggested as the cure for Iraq's ills.

Since the foundation of the state of Iraq some 80 years ago, several themes have recurred in its political history. These have stemmed partly from the nature of its foundation and partly from the ways in which the new state interacted with the societies subjected to its rule: its authoritarianism, its use of armed forces to quell resistance and its exploitation of troubled ethnic and sectarian divisions of Iraqi society.

In addition, the effect of the political economy of oil, as Iraq became a major oil producer from the 1950s onwards, has been twofold. It has reinforced the centralising tendencies visible from the state's earliest years and concentrated immense powers of patronage in the hands of those who have seized the centre, giving them the means to develop the spreading networks of the "shadow state" behind the facade of public institutions. Here, connections based on kinship, local identities and trusted association form a web of power that blurs the distinction between public and private in political life. It is here that real power resides.

In this historical trajectory, Saddam and his regime no longer seem so out of place. He has been exceptional in the long time he has managed to stay at the centre of power, and his methods have been correspondingly extreme - exemplary violence, collective punishment and torture and terror - but they were by no means unknown in the preceding 50 years of Iraq's political history.

He has also been extraordinarily astute in knowing whom he can trust, whom he should favour and when. He has promoted his family, clan and provincial allies from the Sunni Arab northwest of Iraq before all others, but not exclusively. The lure of patronage has been spread wide, inducing collaboration from a range of sectors and reinforcing the networks of the shadow state.

Saddam's skill and the resilience of the system he has manipulated so effectively and reinforced have been demonstrated in the past decades of crisis, war and sanctions. Opposition has been driven underground or into exile. The inner core has held together. Systems of surveillance and repression have proliferated. In conditions of scarcity, resources have been used effectively to draw a wide range of people into the networks of patronage. Tribal and local identities have been encouraged, forming important channels for social control and the distribution of rewards. Although Saddam and his clan are hated by many, the grammar of politics, whether implicit or explicit, is comprehensible to most. Al-Tarhib wa-l-Targhib (intimidation and attraction) is a common idiom of statecraft, not only in Iraq.

The question arises, therefore, about what happens when such a system is "decapitated", to use US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's term. The removal of Saddam and his clan would open up vistas of opportunity for some and terror for others. It would also reveal the depth of the politics of complicity, collaboration and shame. In such circumstances, there would be the immediate danger of communal and other inter-Iraqi conflicts, following faultlines that Saddam has helped to deepen over 30 years, sharpened by feelings of personal revenge and the settling of scores. But there is also a possibility that much of the shadow state, its principles, if not all of its personnel, would persist, reproduced in the forces imposing order and protecting privilege.

The chances of such an outcome would be much enhanced if Saddam were to fall to a military coup d'état by elite forces of the regime seeking to pre-empt a US-led invasion of the country. In many respects, this has long been the preferred outcome of some powerful figures in the Bush administration. Promising more liberal times ahead, a new government set up in this way would use the language of inclusivity, of compliance with all United Nations requirements and of reform. Meanwhile, it would keep the oil flowing, maintain order and keep tight hold on the sinews of central power. Although it is unlikely that such a regime would match the repression or brutality of Saddam, the authoritarian, patrimonial and possibly clannish trajectory of the Iraqi state would have been maintained.

However, if no such internal coup materialises and the regime in Baghdad falls to a US-led invasion that leads to the military occupation of the whole of Iraq, other outcomes are imaginable. Two diverging paths can be mapped out, the contours of which are already visible in different branches of the Bush administration. The first can be characterised as the "micro-management" of Iraqi politics. This refers to a determined effort on the part of the US, with the assistance of the international community, to shift Iraqi politics in a wholly new direction, implying the rebuilding of the Iraqi state at all levels. It would involve the decentralisation of power, the creation of the conditions in which civil society could emerge and the founding of a democratic polity.

It would also involve a long-term commitment of resources and effort on the part of the US and others. They would have to tread a fine line between encouraging a particular form of local politics to emerge while resisting the temptation to dictate the outcome. They would run the risk of inciting armed groups opposed to western-imposed solutions. This could cost US lives and compel foreign forces to act like an army of occupation, creating a vicious cycle of reprisal and repression. Other forms of challenge could include subversive attempts to reconstitute elements of the shadow state behind the facade of new institutions in the name of preserving order and efficiency.

The alternative is a laissez-faire approach that avoids entanglement in the project of "nation-building". This would see the US disengaging and withdrawing after invasion, leaving in place a system that guarantees their minimum desiderata: the rooting-out of Saddam's closest associates, the destruction of all weapons of mass destruction, the maintenance of social order, the development of the oil industry and the establishment in Baghdad of a government sympathetic to and respectful of the strategic concerns of the US. This may mean an Iraqi government that falls back on the old authoritarian stance and rationales.

For reasons of economy, the reduction of risk to US forces and, ultimately, indifference to the fate of Iraqis, many fear the latter path will be taken in the aftermath of a US-led invasion. In such an eventuality, those Iraqis who are presently held up as champions of the open, liberal and federal state that Iraq might become fear that, at best, they will be abandoned to the mercies of the forces of order and "stability", and at worst that they will be regarded as troublemakers seeking to destabilise a situation that suits US strategic interests and will be dealt with accordingly.

It is for this very reason that Iraqi Kurds, liberals and representatives of the Islamic movements among the Shia and Sunnis alike look with some ambivalence at the present US preoccupation with regime change. Although none of them would dispute the vital need to change the regime in Baghdad, there is deep concern about the kind of regime that the US would like to see in its place.

Charles Tripp is reader in the politics of the Middle East in the department of political studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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