Monday, July 12, 2004

Saddam Hussein & comparative fascism

[From an exchange with a friend, which began with his response to Christopher Hitchens's article "Saddam Invulnerable?" (7/2/2004). --Jeff Weintraub]

Hi X,
Well, Jeff, all the horrible truth about that monster and his horrific deeds do not address the question whether this war was--is?--politically correct. Did the US fight Germany in WW II because the Nazis were evil, the Cold War because Stalin was wicked, and seek to contain China because Mao killed millions?
The short answer is ... well, of course not. Have I ever once suggested, implied, or even insinuated that the "wickedness" of Saddam Hussein was a sufficient reason to justify US war against him & his regime? (Let alone that this is what actually motivated the Bush administration to go to war.)

The longer answer is ... a little more complicated. If we step back from the simple moralism suggested by the way you frame the issue above (i.e., "all the horrible truth about that monster and his horrific deeds"), the nature of the Iraqi Ba'ath regime & of Saddam Hussein's leadership style were, in combination with other key factors, quite relevant to the question of whether the war was necessary & justified--not least because they helped to frame the nature of the problem, even in strictly prudential and "realist" terms (and any analysis which attempted to ignore them was going to be superficial and beside the point).

=> The Ba'ath regime in Iraq was not just another ordinary gangster regime, or simply "bad" the way lots of other dictatorships are bad. It was something more rare and dangerous--a classic, full-blown fascist regime (and I use the word "fascist" here in a serious sense, not casually), buttressed by a massive police-state apparatus consciously modeled on the high-Stalinist prototype, with a proven record of genocidal mass murder and repeated catastrophic military adventurism. Thus, quite aside from the suffering it inflicted on its own population, it posed unusual external risks as well (especially given where Iraq happens to be located).

Also, as I have mentioned in the past, trying to prevent another (highly likely and totally predictable) genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan was one concern that weighed fairly heavily on my own thinking--though, as I have said repeatedly, I fully recognize that this factor would never have been enough, by itself, to get any country to fight a major war. Nevertheless, this was one more reason (on top of a lot of others) why, from my point of view, the accelerating collapse of "containment" was likely to have catastrophic consequences.

=> Anyway, quite aside from the question of the war, the nature and dynamics of the Iraqi Ba'ath regime have their own intrinsic interest in terms of the comparative political sociology of fascist movements and regimes. (We have very few full-blown historical examples to work with, after all.) And in this context, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime is unique in one important respect. In the 1930s, as you know, fascism (and various imitative, semi-fascist, and wannabe-fascist variants) looked like a very promising model, possibly even the wave of the future, to a lot of people in Europe, South America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The factor that decisively discredited the fascist option in Germany & Italy, and in western societies more generally, was total, catastrophic military defeat (an outcome brought about, in no small part, by the tendency toward military adventurism that was a prominent feature of these regimes).

I think it is clear in retrospect that the fascist option in Arab politics, represented above all by Ba'athist Iraq, was decisively discredited by Saddam Hussein's catastrophic defeat in 1991--not just defeat, but (in a way that genuinely shocked Arab public opinion) total, catastrophic, humiliating defeat. (I predicted back in 1991 that, in the short to medium run, the main immediate beneficiaries would be Islamic-fundamentalist political tendencies--which shows that I am actually a predictive social scientist.) However, unlike the German and Italian cases, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime (and Saddam Hussein's personal dictatorship) survived this catastrophic defeat and carried on for over another decade (though it was never quite the same). This opens up a lot of intriguing and potentially illuminating avenues for inquiry & reflection.

Jeff Weintraub