Dictators and their demises
April 9, 2003 4:41 AM   Subscribe

Dictators and their demises: a miscellany. Saddam and the Destruction of Civil Society in Iraq is the timely find, and deals with the entire history of Iraq since the Ba'ath party takeover, including a detailed ideological history of the party and the increasingly totalitarian aspects of Saddam's rule in Iraq. To ask whether democracy, even in a non-Western sense, has a chance in Iraq is to jump one step ahead of the game. The fundamental questions we need to answer first are: What was the nature of Iraqi civil society before the Ba`thist regime destroyed it? How did the Ba`th oliberate it? And can Iraqi civil society be rebuilt after Saddam has left the stage? [more inside]
posted by dhartung (19 comments total)
This is an extraordinary article, one that deals honestly with the various changes in Iraq throughout the 20th century, beginning with tribalism harnessed into nationalism, a period of Communist influence (partisans remain), and then the Ba'ath coup and tightening grip under the ideology of Michel Aflaq, a Parisian-educated socialist who derived inspiration from Nazism, and then eventual Saddamization, to the present day, as reconstituted after the Gulf War, with much of the original Ba'ath purpose lost amid a totalitarian personality cult.

Another fascinating site by the same author is The Conspiracy Against Hitler. Many of us undoubtedly know of Carl von Stauffenberg, the young Wehrmacht officer who planted a bomb near Hitler but, inflicting only superficial wounds, could not then launch the hoped-for coup. What many do not know is that this conspiracy reached both to the highest levels, involving names as well-known as Canaris and Rommel, and all the way back to the van of the Czech crisis when in 1938 Hitler instigated the seizure of the Sudetenland and the erasure of Czechoslovakia as a political entity. Patriotic, humane officers, the conspirators correctly feared for Germany should it start a war against a broad swath of allies including the United States. The unknown story behind the Munich appeasement was that some of the opposition attempted to warn Chamberlain that Hitler's plans could be forestalled with a simple show of force, even putting British and French troops on stand-by alert. This advice was ignored by the UK government (though not by Churchill, in the opposition), and Nazi Germany invaded. A similar scenario preceded the invasion of Poland.

During the six years of the coup plot, fully 17 attempts at assassination were planned, all of them ending in farce or tragedy. Hitler was blessed with incredible luck, a sixth sense, or just good instincts for self-preservation. Over the years as attempt after attempt failed or was called off due to disadvantageous conditions, the plotters despaired. Older generals could not overcome ethical principles. It fell to younger colonels (as it often does in lesser backwaters of history), many of them disgusted by the Nazis as deeply as they feared for Germany, to execute the most daring elements of the plans. At the worst moment, a plot was called off because a lone bomber tried to kill Hitler himself, after which security circumstances surrounding the Fuehrer became almost impossible. The most emotionally involving story is that of Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, who had opposed Hitler politically since the beginning, and in the end persuaded his eldest son to risk his own life in an aborted suicide bombing attempt; and when seized after the July 20 bombing, was executed without revealing his son's involvement. Sadder still, in another way, is the phalanx of senior generals, all of whom wished to oppose Hitler, but none of whom would risk it alone.

There are many hours of reading and exploration here: some of the best goodies are well-hidden. My only reservations about the site are its unwieldy UI and its lack of outbound links.

Another dictator who feared assassination was Stalin: the Jewish Doctors' Plot {NPR audio story} was the last paroxysm of his rule. But Soviet archives suggest that though the doctors were, as history has largely judged, innocent, Stalin may indeed have been felled by poisoning arranged by Beria, as part of a vicious power struggle with the Khrushchev faction, or at a time of unity in fear of a nuclear war with the West.

And to come full circle, Saddam, who has smashed assassination plots as well as eluded American bombs, may have escaped once more.

This bumps over with Mo's theme, but I've been working on this post since yesterday!
posted by dhartung at 4:43 AM on April 9, 2003

Wow! I envy your patience dhartung. I can't comment on content yet but, thanks!
posted by talos at 5:12 AM on April 9, 2003

dhartung - an imposing post. You showed admirable restraint though: I hope your post serves as a stand-in for the "They're dancing in the streets in Baghdad" comments. It would be appropriate.

So: Saddam runs wild and free, like Osama?....Do his doubles count too? And how do we know that the original Saddam didn't die in his sleep, of natural causes, six months ago? Anyway, good riddance. dead or not. I think that, without all the attention, he'll just shrivel up.
posted by troutfishing at 5:13 AM on April 9, 2003

It seems the CIA might have bungled up (yet again) and allowed Saddam to escape the strike that was supposed to kill him early in the war. From this article:

"Worse, Aviation Week claimed, once the CIA had its tip about Saddam, it waited three hours to present the information to the White House. Why the wait? Because the CIA wanted to have handsome briefing books it could hand to the president and his aides! By the time the briefing books were prepared and Bush said go, the information was already old. Then, because no B2s were "on station" over Baghdad, target coordinates had to be transferred to the nearest available weapons--Navy cruise missiles and F117 "stealth" fighters at an airbase near Iraq. The cruise missiles and F117s took about two hours to reach their targets--which is fast by the standards of having no prior notice, but slow considering that at least five hours had elapsed between when the intelligence was first received and when the first bomb exploded. By then, apparently, Saddam had moved. "

posted by PenDevil at 6:27 AM on April 9, 2003

PenDevil: Reminiscent of the timing problems with the Khost strikes of '98. All due props to AvWeek, but they're military-oriented and probably just repeating a slur on the spooks. Briefing books? You're F'in kidding me. It makes complete sense that they were unprepared to deal with such specific and sudden information on the eve of the war, and that assets they could have used were unavailable (that is pretty much the nature of war). I tend to believe the CNN report much more; it just sounds more the way you'd expect people to react, and the chaotic process that would likely result when plans had to be changed in a big hurry:

At least one CIA source gave the agency what it thought was "a positive ID" for Saddam.... If the U.S. military acted fast enough, it could kill Saddam while he slept. Tenet rushed to the Pentagon and briefed Rumsfeld; the two called the White House to request a meeting. An hour later Bush met with Tenet, Rumsfeld, JCS Gen. Myers and the other members of the war council. From Qatar, Franks dialed in over a secure line. The group spent the next three hours shuttling in and out of the Oval Office, discussing what to do with the intelligence on Saddam, running through scenarios and calling for more information. Fresh reports detailing the dimensions and coordinates of Saddam's bunker streamed in from the CIA.

Remember, this was on the eve of an invasion that was months in the planning. Regardless of the outcome, I still think the shot was worth taking, and I'm sure it had a side-benefit of truly rattling a man who strongly deserves a rattling.

This is really just one more aspect of the difficulties of combined arms doctrine: here using Cold War-scaled air power to exert special ops style objectives, with fast response times, last minute changes, and extreme field flexibility. That they pulled it off at all is indicative of the commitment this administration has to military transformation, and everything else I've seen in the campaign underlines that.
posted by dhartung at 8:07 AM on April 9, 2003


excellent, excellent job on your content-rich posting. a deep contrast with the adolescent, dogmatic crap that fills MeFi these days.

thank you for helping to educate us all.

now back to celebrating over the liberation of the Iraqi people from their own Hitler :)
posted by reality at 8:42 AM on April 9, 2003

Indeed, incredible post. Unfortunately, it'll be hours or days before I've digged deep enough through it to be able to post any informed comment. But know that I, for one, am enthusiastically taking advantage of your research (starting with the Iraq dissertation).
posted by gsteff at 8:52 AM on April 9, 2003

While your celebrating and congratulating one another, you might try reading this little part of the "article" (actually, a dissertation).

What this paper proposes is certainly not an Allied crusade of American and allied foreign armies into Iraq to remove Saddam and his regime. Ideas of this sort were advanced by a number of U.S. politicians during the Gulf War. But President Bush speedily declined that option fearing, with good reason, that such an endeavor would vastly complicate U.S. military logistics and strategy, turn into an open-ended commitment incurring an unforeseeable number of casualties, and worst of all leave the United States in the position of having to administer Iraq for possibly years to come. This is clearly not a feasible solution.
posted by raysmj at 9:11 AM on April 9, 2003

Thanks, dhartung. (Too bad it's so sloppily written—"The wily perfidious Albions of the British imperial civil service..."—but what do you expect from a dissertation?) This ties together a lot of useful information, sometimes quite surprising, as in this quote from Chapter 2: "some mahallahs [city neighborhoods] fought on opposite sides of the war [WWI] while other mahallahs stayed neutral." What particularly struck me, though, was the description of one aspect of pre-Ba'thist Iraq in Chapter 3:
One can not understand the nature of Iraqi civil society prior to the Ba'thist seizure of power without considering the phenomenal role played by the Iraqi Communist Party. Unlike any other political force under the monarchy and under Qasim—by virtue of its energetic leadership in defense of the excluded Shi'a, of the repressed Kurds, of the meagerly salaried industrial workers, of teachers earning fixed incomes that could not keep pace with inflation, of peasants still vulnerable to their shaikhly landlords (in spite of Qasim’s land reform), and of the masses of slum-dwellers of Iraq’s inner cities—the ICP appealed across the board to a vast majority of the population.
This, to me, is one of the great mysteries of the twentieth century: why is it that in so many countries (including, for example, China, Vietnam, and Greece) the only effective populist force opposing the oppressive traditional societies dominated by rapacious landowners and corrupt politicians was the Communist Party? Why were other reformist parties, not dominated by Leninists who would institute their own oppressive societies if they achieved power, so ineffective if they existed at all? Was there some romantic allure to "party discipline" and all that went with it that attracted people who were left cold by "mere" reformism? It's one of the things I keep reading history to try to figure out.
posted by languagehat at 9:45 AM on April 9, 2003

Interesting M.A. dissertation, although I would have thought the gratuitous Nazi references therein and herein would have offended some....guess they must be ok when they support a certain viewpoint.


Seriously, interesting stuff though, dhartung. One wonders, though, given that the dissertation is purported to be "the entire history of Iraq since the Ba'ath party takeover", about the apparent lack (I may have missed it) of any mention of United States' support of the Iraqi dictatorship during some of its darkest hours of destroying "civil societies". For example, Simon Harak notes:

Also in 1979, Iran's Muslim fundamentalists engaged in the largest nonviolent demonstration in history to oust the Shah installed by the US and backed by the US-trained secret police, the Savak. Obviously, then, during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War,"We couldn't allow Iran to win," explained American officials.(20) The United States supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq even altering our laws so that US companies could sell Iraq the resources for WMDs,(21) and helping Iraq with satellite targeting for chemical warhead attacks on Iran.(22) This support continued through the gassing of the Kurds in Halabja, when the White House intervened to kill the Senate's "Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988," aimed against Iraq.(23)

As Hussein's human rights violations became more and more flagrant, the US response was to send a parade of US government representatives to support Hussein Donald Rumsfeld,(24) Alan Simpson, James McClure, Robert Dole, Frank Murkowski, together with US Ambassador April Glaspie. Typical of their statements is one from Senator Howard Metzenbaum, announcing himself "a Jew and a staunch supporter of Israel." He went on to tell Saddam that "I have been sitting here and listening to you for about an hour, and I am now aware that you are a strong and intelligent man and that you want peace."(25)

The Iraq-Iran war involved the use of chemical warfare, the vast militarization of both societies, and cost some 750,000 casualties on both sides. Yet we did not consider Iraq as a "threat to security and peace" we actually assisted them. It seems then, that our present moral outrage at the crimes of the Iraqi regime absent at the time is at best convenient.26

Excerpts from his references:

[20] Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas,” New York Times, Aug. 18, 2002, p.1 www.nytimes.com/2002/08/18/international/middleeast/18CHEM.html

[21] "U.S. Chemical and Biological Warfare-Related Dual Use Exports to Iraq and their Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the Persian Gulf War," Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs with Respect to Export Administration, reports of May 25, 1994 and October 7, 1994. See also, Matt Kelley, “U.S. Supplied Germs to Iraq in '80s,” AP September 30. http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story2&ncid=716&e=2&u=/ap/20020930/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/us_iraq_bioweapons These reports were re-read into the Senate record during the Hyde hearings in September, 2002, which can be read at: www.fas.org/irp/congress/2002_cr/s092002.html

[22] Tyler, p. 1

[23] George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), pg. 238. Cf. also, Noam Chomsky "What We Say Goes": The Middle East in the New World Order, A Post-War Teach-in April 4, 1991, published in Z Magazine, May 1991 , Vol. 1, No. 5; www.zmag.org/chomsky/index.cfm

[24] The same, as testified to by Former Reagan official and National Security Council staffer Howard Teicher in his affidavit on “Iraqgate.” www.webcom.com/~lpease/collections/hidden/teicher.htm See the most recent reports of his visit to and support of Hussein in Christopher Dickey and Evan Thomas, “How Saddam Happened,” Newsweek, September 23, 2002. www.msnbc.com/news/807688.asp

[25] As reported by Robert Fisk, “Saddam Hussein: The last great tyrant,” The Independent, December 30, 2000. www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=40447

posted by fold_and_mutilate at 10:34 AM on April 9, 2003

Now that Saddam's government is gone I'm interested in seeing what develops to replace it.
The lessons of history such as many of the above links contain may indicate the hardest part of action in Iraq is yet ahead for the US.
The British may have a thing or two in their twentieth century history that would be instructional?
posted by nofundy at 11:38 AM on April 9, 2003

Time for an anthropology of post-Ba'ath societies? Residents of Basra say that all the sheikhs are bad, and hope the new leaders are drawn from the "merchant class." The article gives another more recent example of the claims of the thesis. There is no separation between contemporary political institutions and local social structure. The "transition" period is going to be felt at all levels of society for a very long time. There is a chance for a "tipping point" of total social breakdown, if in fact there is no legitimacy left in any institution. I wonder what role an instituted reconciliation process (along the lines of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission) would serve.
posted by rschram at 1:25 PM on April 9, 2003

Languagehat: It's because in some weird way these Communist parties you mention included all the progressive nationalist forces in these countries. They became both the standard bearers of the enlightenment and the only consistant power for change giving voice to the marginalized of these societies while embracing patriotism at the same time.
Note that both the Vietnamese and the Greek "Antartes" had rather "non-conventional" Leninists at their helms: Ho Chi Minh and Velouhiotis (f.e. priests were members of EAM and Aris made a public display of paying respect to them).
posted by talos at 1:32 PM on April 9, 2003

"The United States has supported Saddam in the past." Thanks fold_and_mutilate for the great link. Even the National Review didn't have the nerve to leave that out of its Operation Iraqi Freedom Primer.
posted by Sixtieslibber at 3:21 PM on April 9, 2003

talos: That's not an answer, just a restatement of the problem. Why did "these Communist parties" include "all the progressive nationalist forces in these countries"? Why weren't there other, non-Leninist, parties equally dedicated to nationalism and reform that might have attracted people who didn't want to run the risk of winding up in a People's Republic? Here in the US, it was the Communists who bravely opposed Jim Crow when even the progressive members of the established parties were by and large wringing their hands and murmuring about the necessity of patience. (See J. Baldwin, Invisible Man.) Why? Damned if I know.
posted by languagehat at 5:17 PM on April 9, 2003

Though I share others' concerns about the slightly juvenile stylistics of the thesis, like languagehat, I'm intrigued by the notion that the exclusion of the Iraqi Communist Party was a mortal blow to civil society:

Unlike the communist parties of other nations, the Iraqi Communist Party generally avoided revolutionary slogans, focusing instead on reformist themes like the cancellation of peasant debts, the redistribution of shaikhly land to the peasants, the right of workers to strike for better pay and shorter working days, social security pensions for the elderly, and the legalization of political clubs and trade unions.

That sounds quite like the Italian Communists in the period before the Red Brigade: the complement and contrary to the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church and its political children. (And, judging from what talos said, was also the case in Greece.) To answer languagehat's question, I think the reason for the widespread success of the various Communist parties in continental Europe is that they came not just with an ideology, but with a fairly well-defined organisational structure as well to mimic the church-and-state structures already in place. (Think of Spain, or even the French Maquis, as well as the Italians -- or even the Marxist 'liberation theology' of a few decades ago: Communism may have come from a Jewish thinker out of a Protestant landscape, but it binds well to Catholicism, and to some extent, Orthodoxy.) In Britain, the trades union movement had more of an institutional heritage to draw upon, and it's not too much of a cliché to say that the British tend not to go in for all-encompassing ideological loyalties other than to a football team.

Of course, attempting to re-institute what was basically a democratic socialist institution within Iraq would cause both neocons and globalisers in the US to shit themselves, but would also expose the fact that the democracy that would best suit Iraq right now is precisely that which the US sought tacitly to overthrow in Venezuela: that is, one which spoke for the majority after a period of minority hegemony, and which sought to direct the nation's wealth towards offsetting the social deprivation of that majority.

What an ironic web we weave.
posted by riviera at 8:50 PM on April 9, 2003

riviera: Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I do agree the dissertation is somewhat unpolished; but then, he only says it was submitted, not that he got the degree!

Two points. First, to the one about Euro social structures, I suspect that the structure of Arab society, with its mix of communitarian obligations, documented as far back as Ibn Khaldun, would be naturally receptive to socialism: the shura (consensus committee) tellingly resembles soviet. Following on languagehat's point, I suspect that most agrarian societies have similar small-town governance and this may explain some of the movement's appeal. Second, one of the ironies of Marxism historically is that, first, his ideology was designed around industrial societies (where labor became divorced from capital), and yet had its primary successes in largely agrarian nations (e.g. 1917 Russia, 1949 China); and third, the communist nations have historically proven clumsy at administering agriculture without deprivation, starvation, or even bloodshed (kulaks, five-year-plans, Cultural Revolution). Something to ponder, certainly. Finally, I'm not so sure that given the history of Europe between the Revolutions of 1848 and V-E 1945 it can be said that political movements such as communism were tamed, but certainly since then they have largely found a political sweet spot as progressive social democrats. Is it Europe's industrialization, or its extensive participatory political tradition, that encouraged this? Or is one wrong to discount the violent century?

scoldy: You know perfectly well what "gratuitous" means: in your case, it was your persistent habit of bolstering an argument against a current policy with a comparison to Nazi Germany. As a method of argument, it's an admission of weakness. The fact that you have stopped using such low tactics is appreciated (and if you would deign to let us know your e-mail, I would have mailed you to say so). The fact that you haven't stopped with the preaching, sarcasm, and obvious baiting (all the while insisting on the sanctity of your anonymity): well, that isn't appreciated. Join the community, join the real world, or be judged by your nature.

As I have not denied prior US support for the Saddam regime, I fail to see the barb in your point; and in any case, my response is that of Hitchens: Does that then not double, or treble, our responsibility to remove him? To point out that we cynically supported Saddam in the past is not really argument. Ultimately, however, I'm confident that our contribution is dwarfed by other donors to his cause.
posted by dhartung at 12:35 AM on April 10, 2003

dhartung (I can't resist taking a jab at the "Hitchens defence"): Imaginary scenario: Would you take seriously say, Russia's claim that it will invade Georgia to restore democracy, since- after all- they had helped the current regime win the civil war?
What about if France invaded the Congo on a similar excuse.
Imagining that the war against Iraq was a result of ethical reckoning is not really realistic. If Hitchens was president I might be for the war against Iraq (maybe). He isn't. The American Zirinofskys are.

Languagehat: You're right. Let me take another jab at it.

why is it that in so many countries (including, for example, China, Vietnam, and Greece) the only effective populist force opposing the oppressive traditional societies dominated by rapacious landowners and corrupt politicians was the Communist Party?

1. The communists were proponents of radical enlightenment values. They were the only such proponents with the desire, missionary zeal and persistance to go find the victims of "rapacious landowners and corrupt politicians" and educate them in humanism. Now, post-Stalin, this might sound as an oxymoron, but if you read older communist fighters' memoirs (and languagehat, since you know Greek I enthusiastically suggest this book, by Hronis Missios who has moved even more to the left [greek link] in his old age), this was a real driving force.
2. The communists were willing to die for their cause. Martyrdom is a great advertisement in a heroic culture. This greatly enhanced their credibilty.
posted by talos at 3:50 AM on April 10, 2003

dhartung: I have to agree with talos about the Hitchens approach. I don't trust the gang of thugs and idiots currently in power here to nominate decent judges, let alone run the economy; why would I trust them to do the right thing in Iraq? I'll be delighted to be proven wrong, but I'm expecting big problems once the flower-throwing and statue-pulling phase is over. (The American flag draped over the statue's head was a trivial matter, but a bad sign.)

talos: Good points, and thanks for the reading suggestions. I've actually had the Missios book recommended before, so I'll have to go see if the Donnell Library has it.
posted by languagehat at 9:34 AM on April 10, 2003

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