The Magazine

Why Iraq Is a Hard Place

The special difficulties--and urgency--of freedom for a tyrannized people.

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By TOD LINDBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FROM THE CEASELESS and often disgraceful efforts to tease meaning out of the first two weeks of the Iraq war, two serious lessons stand out. The first is a reacquaintance with the contours of modern tyranny. Saddam Hussein is not merely a dictator; he is the head of a police state administered by an elite cadre whose principal means of control from the top down is terror. The second is a reminder of the difficulty of the larger project of which the war in Iraq is a part: the liberalization of the Middle East and the integration of Islamic society there into the modern world.

No, Saddam did not fall instantly, his military forces and his regime collapsing into shambles. Nor were United States and British forces initially greeted as liberators by smiling Iraqis waving American flags. Iraqi resistance was stiffer than anticipated, with fighters in some skirmishes holding out to the last man despite superior U.S. firepower. Irregular resistance took the form of suicide bombing attacks and fake surrenders. And more U.S. forces had to be deployed in preparation for the assault on Baghdad.

The gloom that attended these developments and the unseemly glee with which they were seized upon by the Bush administration's opponents are clear indications that somewhere along the line, the hope of a swift Iraqi collapse--which one might expect to be fairly widely shared among all those not actually rooting for Saddam--did indeed become an expectation of swift collapse. We need to take a serious look at what gave rise to that expectation and why it was wrong.

Saddam Hussein ran a thoroughly modern police state. Yet much of the prewar discussion described him as a tyrant in an almost classical mode. Of such characters, we know much, from Xenophon's description of Hiero of Syracuse to Shakespeare's Richard III. There is a radical disjunction between the one man who is the ruler and the people who are ruled. Tyrants are hated by their people. "Every tyrant knows full well," muses Hiero, "they are all his enemies, every man of them, who are despotically ruled by him."

Modern tyranny is more complicated. There remains, of course, a supreme ruler. But he presides over a network of repression consisting of functionaries in all government positions and an elaborate secret police. This extended cadre has reason to fear the leader, insofar as he may suspect the people around him of plotting against him, but it also profits from its association with him; it is vested in him. He is not alone. The people, meanwhile, are terrorized by this group. That has two main effects. First, people are cautious because they are afraid. Second, members of the repressive apparatus as a whole understand that they are all potentially in the position of Hiero--hated and safe only insofar as they preserve themselves in power.

The first blow of the war was an attempt to cut off the head of the regime by killing Saddam. This may or may not have been successful. It was surely a shot worth taking on the assumption that doing so would not unduly disrupt the war plan. But the death of Saddam and even of those closest to him in the bunker, including his sons, would not have meant the demise of the cadre that served him and benefited from his rule. On the contrary, that group would remain organized as well as exposed, and the most likely outcome under such conditions would be a swift and perhaps violent struggle that established a new leader followed by the continuation of repression as usual.

This would remain true even in extremis, with U.S. bombs falling. To put it another way, we were expecting surrender from someone who has risked his life to seize and hold power in an apparatus of repression in which he has long been complicit. Yet why would such a one surrender? What would be in store for him if he did? As Hiero notes of "despotic power,"

it is not possible . . . to be quit of it. How could the life of any single tyrant suffice to square the account? How should he pay in full to the last farthing all the moneys of all whom he has robbed? with what chains laid upon him make requital to all those he has thrust into felons' quarters? how proffer lives enough to die in compensation of the dead men he has slain? how die a thousand deaths?

And of course, in the modern context, what was true of Hiero is true of the whole Baathist apparatus of repression.