Wednesday, January 03, 2007

So, Saddam Is Dead . . .

January 2, 2007

Now that they have hanged Saddam Hussein, perhaps we can begin to appreciate the irony and the lessons of his demise.

Any nation is, at heart, an idea. Once people started organizing themselves in groups larger than their own blood lines, they had to invent reasons for considering themselves part of something bigger -- tribes, city states, feudal kingdoms, nations, empires. Language, customs, religion, ideology and geographic proximity have all served. The idea of a state that accepts as equal citizens people from all corners of the globe, a nation founded on abstract principles, is a relative newcomer. We have been trying to get the people inhabiting a large swath of land between and on both sides of the Tigris and Euphrates to embrace the concept. It is an ongoing struggle with less-than-encouraging results.

One of our better allies in promoting this idea was none other than Saddam, who may have died the last true believer in a multiethnic, nonsectarian Iraq. He made his idea of Iraq real by ruthlessly suppressing dissent, particularly with the Shiite majority, by enforcing obedience from Sunnis and the Kurds, and by resisting (or co-opting) the vision of Islamist radicals. American leaders wrestling with Moqtada al-Sadr and his ilk have doubtlessly found themselves admiring the dictator's success, if not his methods.

The old tyrant had long been out of touch with his country, locked behind the high walls of his palaces, protected by body doubles and flattering liars, moving from secret bed to secret bed. The hand-written letter he purportedly released from prison last week, when it became apparent he was to be executed, showed once more how disconnected he was. He addressed the Iraqi people as one, and encouraged them to rise up against the American occupiers. "Do not trust those who speak of Shias and Sunnis," he wrote. Except for the part about attacking Americans, it might have been written by one of the Pentagon's propaganda contractors.

In fact, no one who cares about the idea of Iraq is rooting for the U.S. to depart any time soon. Saddam could be excused, perhaps, because he had lived in a fantasy world for years. Those who advocate it here are transparently heedless of its consequences in Iraq, the operative notion being to avoid shedding more American blood for a cause deemed hopeless or unworthy or both. Unless something dramatic happens soon to alter the sorry trends, it will eventually be the policy of our country.

Saddam had long since ceased to be the beloved figure he believed himself to be. In this stubborn insurgency there has been little evidence of him as a rallying point. His death did not provoke violent recriminations or even much angry rhetoric. Once he was toppled, once deprived of his vicious state apparatus, he ceased to be relevant. Just as the resistance never stopped or even slowed after his capture, the deaths of his sons or the arrests or killings of the other leading Baathist figures on the notorious U.S. military deck of cards, it will not be affected by his death. Saddam was bigger than the bloody divisions that now preoccupy his people. None of the various murderous factions are fighting for his vision of a greater Iraq. The Sunnis are fighting to resist Shiite domination, the Shiites to rid themselves of Sunni oppression, and the Islamists just to frustrate the democratic vision of the U.S.

We Americans consistently underestimate the deep hatreds that divide people. Our political system is designed to wrestle peacefully with the divisions of race, class, ethnicity, religion and competing ideological or geographical interests, and has generally worked as intended -- the Civil War being the one glaring exception. Generations have struggled to live up to ideals of tolerance and diversity. When we look out at the world, we tend to see millions longing to get past the blood feuds, to be, in short, more like us. George Bush and the neocon intellectuals who led us into Iraq are just the latest in a long line of evangelical Americanists. No matter how many times history slaps us in the face, the dream persists.

Nine years ago, in the epilogue to "Black Hawk Down," I quoted an unnamed State Department official (he was Michael Sheehan, ambassador for counter-terrorism) as follows: "The idea used to be that terrible countries were terrible because good, decent, innocent people were being oppressed by evil, thuggish leaders. Somalia changed that. Here you have a country where just about everybody is caught up in the fighting. You stop an old lady on the street and ask her if she wants peace, and she will say, 'Yes, of course, I pray for it daily.' All the things you would expect her to say. Then ask her if she would be willing for her clan to share power with another to have that peace, and she'll say, 'With those murderers and thieves? I'd die first.' People in these countries . . . don't want peace. They want victory. They want power. Men, women, old, and young. Somalia was the experience that taught us that people in these places bear much of the responsibility for things being the way they are. The hatred and killing continues because they want it to. Or because they don't want peace enough to stop it."

The statement is too harsh, as Mr. Sheehan himself agrees (he was at that point a veteran of Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia). Any effort to characterize millions with the expression "these people" is unfair and wrong. But there is a principle here struggling to emerge: Before a state can exist where there are deep-rooted, competing interests, there must be some broadly accepted concept of a nation strong enough to at least compete with parochial interests. There must be some generally accepted idea of a nation.

Mr. Sheehan was wrong about one thing. Somalia didn't change anything. Substitute Iraq for Somalia in the quote, and the observation is as accurate today as then. Maybe we need to better appreciate that our nation remains an exception. I believe that in the long run people on this planet will embrace democracy and diversity, but we are not there yet. I still nurse hope that Iraqis will abandon blood feuds for compromise and a democratic future, but it appears to be a longer shot today than three years ago, and it was a bad bet then. Mr. Bush has staked his legacy on it.

So, the tyrant is dead. We may have facilitated his bad end, but, sadly, violence, oppression and fear remain the time-tested ways of forging a nation state out of disparate parts. Until Mr. Sheehan's doctrine is no longer true, the way of the world will remain Saddam's.

Mr. Bowden is the author, inter alia, of "Black Hawk Down" (Atlantic, 1999).

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