ONE of the pop heroes of the Iraq war was undoubtedly Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, the unfortunate Iraqi information minister who, in his daily press conferences during the invasion, heroically denied even the most evident facts and stuck to the Iraqi line. Even with American tanks only a few hundred yards from his office, he continued to claim that the televised shots of tanks on the Baghdad streets were just Hollywood special effects.
In his very performance as an excessive caricature, Mr. Sahhaf thereby revealed the hidden truth of the “normal” reporting: there were no refined spins in his comments, just a plain denial. There was something refreshingly liberating about his interventions, which displayed a striving to be liberated from the hold of facts and thus of the need to spin away their unpleasant aspects: his stance was, “Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?”
Furthermore, sometimes, he even struck a strange truth — when confronted with claims that Americans were in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: “They are not in control of anything — they don’t even control themselves!”
What, exactly, do they not control? Back in 1979, in her essay “Dictatorship and Double Standards,” published in Commentary, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick elaborated the distinction between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes. This concept served as the justification of the American policy of collaborating with right-wing dictators while treating Communist regimes much more harshly: authoritarian dictators are pragmatic rulers who care about their power and wealth and are indifferent toward ideological issues, even if they pay lip service to some big cause; in contrast, totalitarian leaders are selfless fanatics who believe in their ideology and are ready to put everything at stake for their ideals.
Her point was that, while one can deal with authoritarian rulers who react rationally and predictably to material and military threats, totalitarian leaders are much more dangerous and have to be directly confronted.
The irony is that this distinction encapsulates perfectly what went wrong with the United States occupation of Iraq: Saddam Hussein was a corrupt authoritarian dictator striving to keep his hold on power and guided by brutal pragmatic considerations (which led him to collaborate with the United States in the 1980s). The ultimate proof of his regime’s secular nature is the fact that in the Iraqi elections of October 2002 — in which Saddam Hussein got a 100 percent endorsement, and thus overdid the best Stalinist results of 99.95 percent — the campaign song played again and again on all the state media was Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
One outcome of the American invasion is that it has generated a much more uncompromising “fundamentalist” politico-ideological constellation in Iraq. This has led to a predominance of the pro-Iranian political forces there — the intervention basically delivered Iraq to Iranian influence. One can imagine how, if President Bush were to be court-martialed by a Stalinist judge, he would be instantly condemned as an “Iranian agent.” The violent outbursts of the recent Bush politics are thus not exercises in power, but rather exercises in panic.
Recall the old story about the factory worker suspected of stealing: every evening, when he was leaving work, the wheelbarrow he rolled in front of him was carefully inspected, but the guards could not find anything, it was always empty. Finally, they got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheelbarrows themselves.
This is the trick being attempted by those who claim today, “But the world is nonetheless better off without Saddam!” They forget to factor into the account the effects of the very military intervention against him. Yes, the world is better without Saddam Hussein — but is it better if we include into the overall picture the ideological and political effects of this very occupation?
The United States as a global policeman — why not? The post-cold-war situation effectively called for some global power to fill the void. The problem resides elsewhere: recall the common perception of the United States as a new Roman Empire. The problem with today’s America is not that it is a new global empire, but that it is not one. That is, while pretending to be an empire, it continues to act like a nation-state, ruthlessly pursuing its interests. It is as if the guiding vision of recent American politics is a weird reversal of the well-known motto of the ecologists — act globally, think locally.
After 9/11, the United States was given the opportunity to realize what kind of world it was part of. It might have used the opportunity — but it did not, instead opting to reassert its traditional ideological commitments: out with the responsibility and guilt with respect to the impoverished third world — we are the victims now!
Apropos of the Hague tribunal, the British writer Timothy Garton Ash pathetically claimed: “No Führer or Duce, no Pinochet, Amin or Pol Pot, should ever again feel themselves protected from the reach of international law by the palace gates of sovereignty.” One should simply take note of what is missing in this series of names which, apart from the standard couple of Hitler and Mussolini, contains three third world dictators: where is at least one name from the major powers who might sleep a bit uneasily?
Or, closer to the standard list of the bad guys, why was there little talk of delivering Saddam Hussein or, say, Manuel Noriega to The Hague? Why was the only trial against Mr. Noriega for drug trafficking, rather than for his murderous abuses as a dictator? Was it because he would have disclosed his past ties with the C.I.A.?
In a similar way, Saddam Hussein’s regime was an abominable authoritarian state, guilty of many crimes, mostly toward its own people. However, one should note the strange but key fact that, when the United States representatives and the Iraqi prosecutors were enumerating his evil deeds, they systematically omitted what was undoubtedly his greatest crime in terms of human suffering and of violating international justice: his invasion of Iran. Why? Because the United States and the majority of foreign states were actively helping Iraq in this aggression.
And now the United States is continuing, through other means, this greatest crime of Saddam Hussein: his never-ending attempt to topple the Iranian government. This is the price you have to pay when the struggle against the enemies is the struggle against the evil ghosts in your own closet: you don’t even control yourself.