November 29, 2002

How the War Party Put Iraq on the Side of the Angels

Remember always, the principles and experiences which are special to you are the only ones that represent final truth and which are able to respond to the task of building the new society for the Arab nation.

~ Saddam Hussein, Speech to Arab Baath Socialist Party (1979)

Sen. Hiram Johnson's 1917 quotation about war – "The first casualty, when war comes, is the truth" – seems almost optimistic now. War on Iraq hasn't even started yet, and it already feels as if the truth was snuffed out long ago. As a recent cartoon by Tom Tomorrow in Salon superbly illustrates, the War Party's constantly morphing, maddening, spinning argument relies largely on the old assertion that Saddam Hussein "gassed his own people." The logic goes: Saddam Hussein is a bloody tyrant who gassed Kurds, so why not get rid of him? It's an appeal to mass-scale American empathy that – in countering concerns about whether Iraq is a real threat to the US – poses the question: "What do you care, John Q, if we go ahead and take out this bad guy?" But in light of the ridiculous comparisons between Saddam and Hitler, between alleged Kurd-gassing in the 1980s and the Nazi "Final Solution," or any of the other War Party lies, maybe it's time to try to answer the question: just how bad is this Iraqi bad guy?


Arguing that Baath Socialist Iraq is no Nazi Germany by appealing to memory and scholarship will get you nowhere with most members of the War Party. At least there's an air of honesty about President Bush's ridiculous Hitler references, since our head of state appears to have never read a book at all. But many war proponents who know better rely on the general illiteracy of a public that reads little apart from newspaper articles and columns. I know a few educated and perceptive people who have visited Iraq in the last few years and did not perceive a reign of terror or mass fear among the inhabitants. Of course, the war drum-bangers might accuse such first-hand witnesses of being latter-day George Bernard Shaws (assuming they have ever heard of the writer), so it's far better instead to cite a prominent member of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) as proof that, whatever horrors may lie in the history of Baath Socialist Iraq, the country today is reasonably peaceful apart from areas where it is daily bombed by American and British planes.

In 1986, INC member Kanan Makiya published a book about Iraq called Republic of Fear, and in 1998 another edition of the book came out with an introduction covering developments over the twelve years subsequent to 1986. Makiya paints a picture of a country that went through a bloody ordeal beginning almost forty years ago and ending some time in the late 1980s. In 1963, the Arab Baath Socialist Party (ABSP) took power in Iraq and began settling scores with Communists and other enemies before its ouster nine months later. Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War gave the Iraqi Baathists new impetus, and after the Baathist coup in July 1968 toppled a military dictatorship, ordinary Iraqis responded with widespread enthusiasm to the anti-Zionist Baath ideology. According to Makiya, the Iraqi public "entered this new world of experiences with great gusto."

What sort of ideology is Baath Socialism? Although it stresses duty to the nation and society, Baathism is tinged with a peculiar Arab individualism, in contrast to the anti-national collectivism of Communism and left Socialism. Baathism, says Makiya, is an ideology of conscious, Arab-centric myth-making that requires each individual Arab to cultivate "an 'external wall' to ward off bad influences that… [come] from outside.'"

Ba'thist ideology, which can hardly be pinned down to a real social class in the absence of a singular Arab society, is about fabricating a parochial world view made up exclusively of social myths… culled from Arab and Islamic tradition, and organized intellectually with the help of a host of concepts borrowed from the Left. Arab unity, freedom, Arab socialism, and the struggle against imperialism and Zionism are some of the catchwords of the mythology. The combination of myths and organizing concepts like imperialism acts as a filter in relation to the outside and provides a model not for what Arab society is, or what it might realistically change into, but what it is willed into becoming… The important thing about this ideological production is not the ideas themselves, or their correspondence to social reality, but the initiative taken in making them real.

According to Makiya, the reification of Baathist ideology caused Iraqi "civil society" to cave in on itself, plunging into an orgy of bloodletting and fear for the next ten years. With the benefit of hindsight, the book makes the nightmare look like the ideology's end in itself, a deliberate culmination of a period of Arab frustration and hatred from defeat at the hands of Israel, and an image frightening enough to serve as a "warning" to outsiders and enemies of the Arab nation, especially Zionists. Whether or not this was the intention, Baathism had that effect.

On December 5, 1968, a day after Israel hit Iraq with an air strike that killed sixteen and wounded thirty, 40,000 people accompanied Iraqi soldiers' coffins from Liberation Square to the Presidential Palace. In January 1969, writes Makiya, the Baathist Iraqi government held public hangings of traitors and conspirators in Liberation Square in Baghdad:

Estimates of the size of the crowds that came to view the dangling corpses spread seventy meters apart in Liberation Square – increasing the area of sensual contact between mutilated body and mass – vary from 150,000 to 500,000. Peasants streamed in from the surrounding countryside to hear the speeches. The proceedings, along with the bodies, continued for twenty-four hours, during which the president, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr [Saddam's predecessor], and a host of other luminaries gave speeches and orchestrated the carnival-like atmosphere.

Poring through Republic of Fear, it's easy to get carried away thinking about the "evil" in Iraq that should be destroyed for the sake of humanity. But the book doesn't leave the reader with a strong sense either that present-day Iraq poses a direct threat to America, or that the chronicle of horrors is more than a receding memory among today's Iraqi masses. Furthermore, the victims of Iraq's Baath Socialist "Revolution" of the late 1960s never approached anything on the scale of the revolutions in Russia or China, both of which America had very cordial relations in the twentieth century.

In 1933, the United States extended full recognition to the Soviet Union at a time when millions of people were – at that moment – dropping dead from state-imposed famine, and in years to come hundreds of thousands were hauled into secret police cells to take a bullet in the back of the neck. There has never been mass outrage in America over that, or the forging of an alliance with the USSR in WWII, or the establishment of détente in the late-sixties' and early-seventies'. The argument that, "Well, America has learned more since then and now we need to do the right thing," doesn't square with Iraq's internal political reality today. Republic of Fear was originally published in 1986 – two years before the end of the Iran-Iraq war, when the US strongly supported Saddam – and the 1998 edition's introduction says that it:

… describes a state system that no longer exists in post-Gulf War Iraq. The war, the uprising that followed on its heels, and seven terrible years of sanctions and economic privation have seen to that. Nothing in Iraq today is as it was in the heyday of the regime's absolutism, which reached its apogee in the late 1970s, the key period encapsulated in the book's title… [Saddam is] a tin-pot dictator by Western standards (in comparison with Stalin or Hitler)…

In other words, by an INC member's own admission, the period of the worst excesses of Baathist terror is long over. Whatever Saddam may be, he is hardly a global menace or even someone from whom the US needs to rescue ordinary Iraqis. The Washington Post's description of Saddam Hussein at the time of the Gulf War as "a villain from Hollywood central casting" still seems closer to the mark than any of the latest demonizations by the War Party hacks. Although an admirer of Stalin, Saddam resembles the old Soviet dictator primarily by his origins as a peasant from a small town, Tikrit (Stalin hailed from provincial Gori in Georgia), his past penchant for show-trials and purges, and his bushy mustache. He hardly resembles Hitler at all. Unlike Hitler, Saddam is no ex-rank-and-file soldier with a talent for military strategy, and his "blitzkriegs" haven't managed to secure control even over other territories, never mind an entire continent.


What is Saddam's story? This particular dictator has somehow managed to become the subject of innumerable lurid and prurient books and articles, with the authors drooling over the supposedly unprecedented cruelty and tyranny of his tenure as leader. But how justified is this picture?

Saddam was born in 1937 in the village of Al Awja, near Tikrit, and was illiterate until age ten. According to Said Aburish, author of Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge, Saddam "heard that his cousin could read and write and demanded that he be afforded the same opportunity." Inspired by his uncle, a pan-Arabist army officer, Saddam joined the ABSP and the world of underground pan-Arabist activists at age 19. He was forced into exile in 1959 and earned a law degree from the University of Cairo in 1962. Returning to Iraq in 1963, he was arrested and imprisoned after the ABSP fell from power that year.

In 1968 the Baath came to power in a coup that overthrew the military junta, and the next year Saddam became vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, the highest executive body in Iraq. According to an article from the Online NewsHour:

As vice chairman, he oversaw the nationalization of the oil industry and advocated a national infrastructure campaign that built roads, schools and hospitals. The once illiterate Saddam ordered a mandatory literacy program. Those who did not participate risked three years in jail, but hundreds of thousands learned to read. Iraq, at this time, created one of the best public-health systems in the Middle East – a feat that earned Saddam an award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO].

Saddam Hussein consolidated his power through a police state. Yet, although he built an impressive economic infrastructure from scratch, official Western histories have characterized his rule primarily by acts of arbitrary cruelty. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, when Saddam assumed the presidency in 1979, he "had 21 senior officials of his Baath Party – potential rivals – murdered en masse" – a tactic reminiscent of Stalin's purges. However, perhaps the most infamous story about Saddam concerns his alleged shooting of a health minister during a cabinet meeting. Descriptions of the circumstances surrounding this incident vary widely, with some suggesting it was simply an arbitrary act of madness. But the Christian Science Monitor explains the event thus:

On one celebrated occasion in 1982 [Saddam] interrupted a cabinet meeting to step outside with his health minister, Reyadh Ibrahim Hussain, who had overseen the purchase of a defective batch of penicillin for the Army… The president shot the offending minister dead in an anteroom, then returned to finish chairing the cabinet session.

The timid Westerner cringes at the thought of such "uncivil" behavior, but Saddam's act – while not very "nice" – sent a message: jeopardize the lives of my troops when angling for kickbacks on imports and you will suffer the ultimate penalty. The incident brings to mind the plot of the old Orson Welles movie, The Third Man, in which Harry Lime – the American spy who has disappeared into the darkened alleyways of post-war Vienna – profits from the buying and selling of diluted penicillin in the war-torn city, causing the slow and painful death of thousands of children. How does justice catch up with Lime? With a bullet in the back from an old friend, a fellow American.

Makiya devotes the introduction to the 1998 version of Republic of Fear to a discussion of a new manifestation of brutality in Iraq after the Gulf War in the form of brandings, amputations and other disfigurement as punishment for crimes such as theft or desertion. "The world of the Iraqi Ba'th was Kafkaesque in 1980, but by 1997 it had become even stranger," he writes. But Makiya is reaching here. However gruesome such laws and punishments may seem to Westerners, Iraq's tinkering with them pales beside the plethora of US allies that have had them in place a long time.

Even in the area of sponsoring international terrorism, in nearly 300 pages Makiya – an INC member and clearly no apologist for Saddam – refers to Iraqi involvement in "international" terrorism only once, and it has nothing to do with America:

After [Saddam Hussein] threatened in February 1980 that "the hand of the revolution can reach out to its enemies wherever they are found," several opposition leaders were assassinated in Beirut and at least one attempt was made in Paris. The Estikhbarat [Iraqi military intelligence] assassinated Abdul Razzaq al-Nayef in London… and provided training and logistical support for the Iranian London embassy siege in May 1980. Their involvement in the assassination of Palestinian leaders by the Abu Nidhal group through 1980 is also likely. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) tried to return the favour to Abu Nidhal while he was undergoing medical treatment in a London hospital in 1979, they could not get at him because "the Iraqis had turned the hospital into a fortress."

Iraq taking sides in past internecine Arab hits between the PLO and Abu Nidal shouldn't be something that raises any American eyebrows. There is no allegation in the book that Saddam or the Iraqi regime sponsored terrorist attacks against the US or any other Western power, although the chronology at the end of the book mentions the two chief conspirators in the February 23, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center in New York "carry[ing] Iraqi passports." Even this should be irrelevant in assigning blame for international terrorism, given that the 9/11 hijackers carried passports from several countries whose governments haven't been accused of sponsorship.

Republic of Fear leaves the reader with an impression of Iraq as a country that went through a painful, bloody, and at times sick nightmare over a couple of decades, but is neither a credible threat to the West, if it ever was, nor an especially awe-inspiring tyranny now. In fact, it is much more likely that – at least in the central areas of Iraq still under sovereign Iraqi control – some degree of stability and predictability characterizes ordinary peoples' lives. Makiya has thrown himself in with Ahmed Chalabi and the INC's "silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London," to quote US Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, but that only gives more credibility to his omissions about the nature of the Iraqi regime today, because Makiya has no reason to pull any punches. Why does Makiya want the US to invade and remove Saddam? Because Makiya is a believer in "universal norms" and the United Nations' ability to solve problems and make everyone get along. But there is nothing about the moral arguments he makes that is wildly compelling by way of justifying a US invasion of a sovereign state. In other words, the primary achievement of another American bombing campaign and invasion would be, as usual, to destabilize and ruin yet another region of the world.


Whatever the flaws in Republic of Fear as a treatise, it is at least well written prose. Another book about Saddam Hussein, Study of Revenge – Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War against America, by Laurie Mylroie, reads like a dry, dull and annoying dissertation on behalf of an Israeli geo-political plan. The book doesn't actually admit that it's an arrow in the quiver of Richard Perle and the Israeli lobby, but it doesn't have to. Published in 2000 by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the book features glowing mini-reviews on the back cover from former CIA Director James Woolsey, Richard Perle, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the main leaders of the anti-Iraq charge outside the cabinet and US national security council. Listed at the back of the book among the Board of Trustees of AEI are Halliburton Vice Chairman Dick Cheney, Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, and Alcoa Chairman Paul O'Neill (now Treasury Secretary). Among AEI's Officers is Senior Vice President John Bolton (now Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs). Wolfowitz is listed as a member of AEI's Council of Academic Advisers, and the Research Staff includes "Freedom Scholar" Michael Ledeen and Perle himself.

The book can't prove its central thesis – that Saddam Hussein was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing because he wanted revenge for his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. So it relies on the idea that it "makes sense." After all, wouldn't you want to "get America" if you'd suffered such a crushing defeat in war? It's an eye for an eye, and all good Americans believe in an eye for an eye, don't they? Mylroie quotes Milton's Paradise Lost (from which the book's title is taken) at both the beginning and the end to analogize Saddam Hussein and Satan:

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; th'unconquerable Will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield;

And what is else not to be overcome?

Satan himself, nursing "immortal hate"! If Saddam ever saw this book he could only have felt flattered. But the book isn't ultimately convincing. Here is a quote from the introduction:

This book is an invitation to meticulously examine the evidence, to do the job that Washington should have done. In the process, we will catch the FBI in the "mistake of the century," as one distinguished former US ambassador to the Middle East described it… We will discover that the World Trade Center bombing did indeed have state sponsorship – from Iraq. We will understand that Saddam Hussein is the single greatest terrorist threat to America. He seeks revenge for the Gulf War, even as he also seems to think his terrorism will undermine the anti-Iraq coalition.

In 260 pages of Mylroie's text, "we" don't discover anything of the kind about Iraqi state sponsorship of terrorism, nor do we "understand" that Saddam is an unambiguous terrorist threat. If anything, what we understand from reading this hurriedly written tract full of circumstantial evidence is that a powerful Washington clique has wanted to remove a historically virulently anti-Zionist secular Arab regime in the Persian Gulf (a regime that lobbed Scud missiles at Israel during the Gulf War) since well before the current president took office, and that this clique evidently succeeded in coordinating its plans with the Texas Oil Scumbag Brigade prior to 2000 to further its aims once the brigade was "elected." The cabal is clearly sinister, made up of people who have never even served in the military – let alone fought in a war – and who have no qualms about watching distant death and destruction from the cozy confines of Washington office suites.

Politically, the cabal's formula is almost failsafe, since it appeals to the convictions of millions of Americans who – in their woefully misguided textual interpretation of the Bible – believe Christians have a duty to make war against Arabs on behalf of the current state of Israel. And if anybody doesn't think this crowd and its followers are dangerous, check out what Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) said about John Bolton: "John Bolton is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon, if it should be my lot to be on hand for what is forecast to be the final battle between good and evil in this world." I don't know how anybody else feels, but as far as I'm concerned, people who believe in the inevitability of something (e.g., Armageddon) are more likely to cause it to happen, especially if they're in a position to do so. In fact, the tragedy of 9/11 itself looks like a "self-fulfilling prophecy" – something the War Party could point to, citing Mylroie's thesis with a "We told you so," and accelerate its program of war against the Muslims of the Middle East. War against Iraq is not defensive but offensive – the first stop on the creation of Greater Israel by force.

Now that Washington has bribed all the necessary members of the UN Security Council into going along with its war plans, Iraq will be a sitting duck after the formality of inspections is over. Iraqis can then wait for the daisy-cutters and cluster bombs to start falling while the War Party in the US gloats over the further destruction of their homeland. Then maybe there will be a period of rule by "international administration," and the tearing apart of whatever fragile social fabric remains in the war-torn Arab republic. If the New World Order viceroy government of Ahmed Chalabi looks anything like what's set up in places such as Kosovo or Bosnia, Iraq can expect to see a rapid rise in crime, gun-running, prostitution, drugs, etc., while Big Western Oil takes control of the country's primary wealth. And for those who think the antiwar movement is all about blaming America first, there is also the issue of the families of Americans sent to fight in the deserts of Arabia and guard seized oilfields, only to return to their parents, spouses, children or other loved ones in flag-draped boxes. That's the truth of this war. All the crowing about "freedom" and removing an evil tyrant is just smoke and mirrors to conceal sleaze and an evil imperial agenda. How sad and ironic that our heinous Western leaders have, on this occasion, placed Saddam Hussein on the side of righteousness while the real "Satan" is alive and kicking in the think-tanks of K Street, Washington, DC.

– Chad Nagle

Write to Chad Nagle

Chad Nagle is a professional writer and lawyer. He has been published in the Wall Street Journal Europe, the Washington Times, and several other periodicals. Mr. Nagle traveled extensively throughout the ex-USSR from 1992-97 as a research consultant. Since mid-1999, he has traveled widely in the former Communist bloc on behalf of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.

Previous articles by Chad Nagle

How the War Party Put Iraq on the Side of the Angels

Day of Preemptive Protest Appeals to Patriotism

House Panel Rushes to Join the (War) Party

Will Congress Rubber-stamp an Unpopular War?

A Sensible China Policy For The American People

Hainan Dim-Sum: Feeding a Bully's Sinister Agenda

The Revolution Comes to Ukraine

Red Dawn in Moldova?

Musings On The New Imperialism and Post-Western World Government

Soros: False Prophet-At-Large

Belarus: Oasis In The Heart Of Europe

Serbia Joins the West

Death of a Patriot

The Twilight of Sovereignty in Azerbaijan

The Ukrainian Model of Democracy

The Slow Strangulation of Democracy in Slovakia

Patrick Buchanan and the American Reformation

The Betrayal of Democracy in Post-Soviet Georgia

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