Wed Mar 26, 2003

The Persistence of the Old Regime

Robert Fisk, comparing Saddam Hussein to Joseph Stalin, was dismissed with contempt by David Adesnik, who said “Just when you thought he couldn’t be any stupider, he outdoes himself again.” Kevin Drum has already made a relevant comment here. But it turns out that Fisk is not the first to draw the comparison.

In a separate discussion, Daniel Drezner notes in passing that “the Baath Party has ruled Iraq for about thirty-five years. In both its organization and tactics, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Stalinist parties.” He goes on to quote approvingly from this piece by David Brooks, which makes it clear that “[o]nce in power, the party behaved, in some respects, as Leninist parties do everywhere.”

So maybe Fisk is on the right track here. But never mind about Fisk’s credibility. The real point is that the Baath party is very large, basically Stalinist in organization and has successfully held power for a long time. You don’t get to do that by populating the party apparatus with idiots. Instead, you populate it with thugs. Beyond that, the thugs are organized in a manner designed to maintain a tight grip on power.

Three consequences suggest themselves. First, in the short term, Saddam’s resistance is probably going to be much tougher than the U.S. has been hoping. Second, in the medium term, the backlash after his inevitable defeat could be horrible. Third, in the long term, Iraqi society is probably going to be living with the legacy of the Baath party for generations.

We’ve already seen evidence of the short-term problem. Resistance has been much stiffer than the Administration led the public (and possibly itself) to believe. This resistance is consistent with past evidence. This morning, Brad DeLong cited some relevant evidence about the Republican Guard’s behavior during the first Gulf War, from Kenneth Pollack’s first book. Brad commented that the Iraqi army may be “incompetent at using their artillery, unable to maneuver, unwilling to take the intiative, incapable of adapting to any surprise, armed with technologically-inferior and poorly-maintained equipment … yet large numbers of them, especially from the Republican Guard, will stand their ground and fight—until they die.”

The medium term problem is beginning to be noticed. Dan Drezner, for instance, is worrying about what he’s calling Debaathification. That is, what is the U.S. going to do with all the party members after the war? So far, the only solution he can think of is for the Baathists to resist as much as possible, thereby ensuring that as many of them as possible will be killed. The alternative, as Dan frankly says, is a purge. (Now there’s a word that owes a lot to Stalin.) Dan notes that

such purges are notoriously difficult to implement. Occupying forces often lack either the stomach or the energy to take the necessary actions.

It’s at this point—when words like “purge” are being tossed around—that much of the fine talk about “liberating the Iraqi People” sounds rather hollow. After their victory, those hoping to institute liberal democracy in Iraq are likely to find “The Iraqi People” (a noble abstraction) resolving itself into a multitude of Iraqi persons (a messy reality). Many of these people will have politically inconvenient biographies and personal agendas. What then? Does the U.S. really want to go down the road of purging the populace of the Baathists? (Where did I put my old Kulak detector?) More likely, does the U.S. want to take on the role of colonial administrator, struggling to keep a lid on the pot while waiting for a social revolution? Or, perhaps most likely, will the U.S. just declare victory as soon as Saddam is dead and get the hell out, perhaps installing a friendly puppet before leaving?

Kanan Makiya, writing to other Iraqi exiles, puts the point directly:

Why do I write this? Because I developed the impression … that some of you think you can lift your noses and ride into Iraq on American tanks, above the stink of it all, without having to wade knee-high in the shit that the Baath Party has made of your country. You cannot. That is a pipe dream. The Americans will be here for the shortest time that they can possibly get away with, and they will not understand during that time, nor even are they capable of imagining, exactly what it is they are dealing with, much less have they the stamina to move it all in the direction of the gentle and forgiving way of life (by contrast with Iraq) that we all have enjoyed for so many years in the West.

Finally, there’s the long-term problem, which I can’t even begin to deal with here. Suffice to say that the residue of even a defeated Stalinist party organization has a long half-life, especially if it’s been in power for thirty years. Westerners look on slack-jawed as portraits of old Joe himself are waved at marches in Russia. Surely those people don’t know what they’re doing, right? Don’t bet on it. And don’t bet on Iraqi liberal democracy until you can tell me why people won’t be doing the same thing with photos of Saddam ten or fifteen years from now.