Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sleeping with Saddam, the lesser enemy?: realpolitik vs. the neocon agenda

Leftists often criticize our present intervention in Iraq by bringing up the point that the US supported Saddam back in the 80s against Iran in the ill-fated--and ultimately stalemated--war that cost many Iraqi and Iranian lives. For example, see this comment in a recent thread:

Are you [Neo} arguing that it's ok if the US practically created Saddam and supported him throughout much of his reign of terror, and eventually had to spend billions and sacrifice thousands to undo the damage, because we are, after all, but mere "imperfect players in an imperfect world."

First of all, I wonder at the logic of the point being made--obviously, if we really did create and support the monster Saddam, then we certainly have a deep obligation to take him out, and even to sacrifice thousands to undo the damage, regrettable though that would be. What's the alternative? Say "Oops, sorry!" and let his regime fester, uncorrected, forever?

Of course not. If the critics were sincere about their argument, it would be used to justify our more recent intervention, not to blast it. But somehow, I've never seen it used that way--odd, isn't it? It does me make wonder whether their argument might just be sophistry.

However, I'll assume this commenter's motivations were sincere, and respond to his/her argument on its merits.

The United States has choices about its actions in the world. The first choice is whether to act at all--not that total inaction is really possible, but relative inaction is. That's the course isolationists have advocated for years, if not centuries. It used to be more possible back when the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans represented huge gulfs of space and time, but it wasn't really possible even then.

And in the last century and this, it most certainly has become less possible. One of the reasons, of course, is that both action and inaction have consequences, although we are able to see the consequences of action more clearly. So, the US cannot help but act--even by refraining from action.

Initially, our attitude towards Saddam was largely shaped by the Cold War, and rightly so. Back then all third-world countries had a choice themselves--and that was, essentially, whether to ally with us, with the USSR (and/or China), or whether to play both sides against each other. In the real world--and that is the one in which we live (after all, we're talking about "realpolitik" here, are we not?) those alliances mattered greatly, and third-world countries were somewhat like chess pieces in the power play of the large states that were struggling with each other for dominance.

The Soviet Union was rightly seen as an evil empire, not only cruel and repressive, but openly interested in amassing as many "satellites" (remember that word?) as it could. Rumor from those old retired CIA agents with the loose lips has it that Saddam was originally supported by the US in 1959 in attempting the assassination of Iraqi ruler Qassim, who was allying with the Soviets at the time.

Whether or not it's true that the CIA recruited Saddam for such a plot--and again, let's assume for the sake of argument that it is--it was the way of the world in 1959. I don't like it at all, to tell you the truth. I wish the world were different. I wish we had found more of an Ataturk to support, someone who would reform and modernize the country with a strong but not an overwhelmingly harsh hand.

But would it have been better to have kept our hands clean, isolated ourselves from the world, and left the field to the Soviets? As I said, both inaction and action have consequences, and some of the consequences of either or both are always going to be bad. And nations must choose, given incomplete information.

What was the incomplete information here? Well, if you read that Wikipedia article on Saddam (and here it is again, in case you missed it the first time) you'll see who Saddam appeared to be back in the early 70s, when he first amassed power in Iraq as right-hand-man to his cousin al Bakr, the President. Not unusual for that time and area of the world, they already had a repressive security apparatus in place to deal with their enemies.

But there seemed to be quite a bit of good, as well. During the 70s, the amount of repressive violence there wasn't anywhere near the reign of terror it became under Saddam, who officially came to power in 1979. Saddam was Vice-President under al Bakr, whose regime in the 70s:

...was providing social services that were unprecedented among Middle Eastern countries. Saddam established and controlled the "National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy" and the campaign for "Compulsory Free Education in Iraq," and largely under his auspices, the government established universal free schooling up to the highest education levels...The government also supported families of soldiers, granted free hospitalization to everyone, and gave subsidies to farmers. Iraq created one of the most modernized public-health systems in the Middle East, earning Saddam an award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

To diversify the largely oil-based economy, Saddam implemented a national infrastructure campaign that made great progress in building roads, promoting mining, and developing other industries. The campaign revolutionized Iraq's energy industries. Electricity was brought to nearly every city in Iraq, and many outlying areas.

On the basis of this, I don't think the US can be faulted for not having seen what was to come later, under Saddam's own watch as head of the country. Yes indeed, the Baath Party under al Bakr silenced many opponents in various harsh ways, including killings at times. But it was, unfortunately, nothing so out of the ordinary for the time and place.

Saddam began to show his true colors and to stand out in this regard only after he became President himself in 1979. I've referred before to the video he made of his early chilling and Stalinesque move to nakedly stamp out anyone who threatened his power.

But shortly after Saddam was flexing his newly-acquired muscles, we had a much greater problem on our hands: Iran. In fact, we still have that great problem on our hands, over a quarter of a century later, and the problem has only grown.

From their ascendance to power in 1979, the mullahs made it clear that their goal was to war against us in any way they could, and to dominate the Muslim world with a new type of totalitarian regime, one based on religious fundamentalism rather than a secular worldview such as Communism. But the goal was the same: "We will bury you.

Iraq's war against Iran started shortly thereafter, in 1980. At first we stayed out of it, but a few years later, when it seemed that Iran was actually going to win, we secretly helped Saddam with intelligence and facilitated Iraq's acquisition of arms from other countries. And yes, we even winked at his use of chemical weapons against the Iranians, and later against the Kurds (one of our very darkest hours):

Washington was strongly opposed to chemical warfare, a practice outlawed by the 1925 Geneva Protocol. In practice, U.S. condemnation of Iraqi use of chemical weapons ranked relatively low on the scale of administration priorities, particularly compared with the all-important goal of preventing an Iranian victory.

It seemed a no-brainer at the time to back Saddam. Not only did he appear to lack designs on us (unlike the Iranians), but it seemed back then that his regime--bad though it was in many ways--was one of the better (or at least the less dreadful) ones in a region not known for its enlightened rulers.

Everybody was wrong in their assessment of Saddam," said Joe Wilson, Glaspie's former deputy at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and the last U.S. official to meet with Hussein. "Everybody in the Arab world told us that the best way to deal with Saddam was to develop a set of economic and commercial relationships that would have the effect of moderating his behavior. History will demonstrate that this was a miscalculation."


We dumped Saddam when he invaded Kuwait; dumped him for good. The rest of the history is more familiar than the earlier years; I won't bother to reiterate it here.

So what are we are left with? A messy business, the choices a country must make in the real world.

I'm not whitewashing how bad it was. But those who require moral perfection in our actions on the world stage are either hopelessly idealistic and out of touch with the consequences of what acting on that idealism would have wrought (in this case, the triumph of the Soviets, and later the Iranians), or they are cynically mouthing arguments they don't even believe.

I wish the world were otherwise. But it's not, and pretending the lion has already lain down with the lamb is an absurdity, or worse. There are plenty of lions out here, about to devour huge herds of lambs, and sometimes all we can do is back the lion who seems less voracious.

The funny thing about the whole thing (and I mean funny-strange, not funny ha-ha) is that it is the neocon philosophy that represents one of the only strategies offering a possible way out of the realpolitik dilemma. And yet those who criticize our realpolitik decisions to back dictators also criticize our neonconnish decisions to overthrow them and try to institute a better and more democratic form of government. Odd, isn't it?

Make no mistake about it, however: the neocon notion that we should attempt actions designed to transform these countries into something better is not an easy one to execute, as Iraq has demonstrated (and, by the way, it does not always involve our waging war--sometimes it involves our supporting internal forces within the country itself, as suggested presently for Iran).

I'm disappointed in the missteps of the Bush administration while occupying Iraq (examples: not stopping the looters, not taking Sadr out, way back when). But I don't believe any of these to be insurmountable even now--if we had the political will in this country to understand how important it is to succeed at the task.

This is the stark choice we face: (1) realpolitik business as usual, "he's a thug but at least he's our thug;" (2) inaction, allowing totalitarian Islamism (or Communism before it) to take over most of the world; or (3) trying to transform these regions into functioning democracies that protect human rights.

The latter is the neocon agenda, and I'm all for it. I consider it the best alternative of the lot. But I don't consider myself naive about how difficult it is to do this and how much of an investment in time, energy, money, blood, and will it would cost to succeed. But the alternatives would ultimately demand a greater human sacrifice, and entail even more suffering.

Take your choice.

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