Saddam Hussein: Mr. (Reasonably) Nice Guy?

Afghanistan and Iraq are in the U.S. news these days, partly because the locals are killing each other and partly because the locals are killing occupation forces (see “G.I.’s in Iraqi City Are Stalked by Faceless Enemies at Night” from today’s New York Times).  The problems in both countries seem to center around the inability of a central government to control the population.  In Afghanistan the Kabul government governs Kabul and the rest of the country is essentially independent (my summer 2002 trip report advocates splitting the place up into regions where everyone has something in common).  In Iraq there are so many problems that, in Europe at least, people were openly saying that the average Iraqi was better off under Saddam’s government.

If you flip on European TV you find that the post-invasion Iraqis have joined the Palestinians as the officially designated “most miserable people on the planet” in the media and their plight is an ever-present top story.  The British are donating money and sending care packages to help out Iraqis who are without reliable clean water and electricity.  .

Iraqis complain on TV: their neighbors are breaking into water mains, thus wrecking the water system; their neighbors are looting; Iraqis with guns who don’t like certain other Iraqis are shooting them; Iraqis love Allah and want an Islamic state; Iraqis love Allah but in a slightly different way and want a slightly different kind of Islamic state, which will necessitate the death and/or suppression of anyone who doesn’t love Allah their way; Iraqis hate Americans and Jews and want U.S. troops out of Iraq and the Jews out of Israel; etc., etc.

The executive summary seems to be the following: (1) Iraqis hate each other, they have lots of guns, and aren’t afraid to use them; (2) the U.S. and its allies deposed Saddam because he was unsuccessful in creating a quiet Swiss or Belgian-style bourgeois democracy; (3) the U.S. and its allies so far have failed to make any headway in getting Iraqis to adopt a Western bourgeois lifestyle and political outlook; (4) Saddam was able to restrict looting and killing to a handful of friends and family; (5) under U.S. occupation every Iraqi is free to get in touch with his Inner Looter and Inner Murderer.

By the standards of wealthy Western countries Saddam’s regime was harsh.  They tortured and/or killed political opponents.  They controlled the press, the mosques, and the schools.  If a town were restive they might kill its entire population or at least many hundreds of people from that town.  This would seem like gratuitous cruelty if done by the governments of Vermont, Dijon, or Bavaria.  But in the Arab world more or less every government employs the same tactics as Saddam’s Iraq.

In fairness to the defeated dare we ask whether Saddam’s regime wasn’t employing the minimum amount of violence necessary to maintain public order in Iraq?  It seems quite possible that Saddam did not enjoy terrorizing his subjects but did it because he understood the divisions within his arbitrarily drawn borders and thought keeping his subjects in fear was necessary.

It really seems to be tough to coerce people into doing following something other than their inclinations.  Death from AIDS is pretty terrifying and yet people still have sex.  Despite massive fines, automated ticket-issuing cameras, and license revocations, I didn’t see anyone in Britain obeying the 70 mph speed limit on the Motorway (I was so happy to get my Ford Mondeo out of Wales, whose principal highways bear an uncanny resemblance to a North Carolina plastic surgeon’s driveway (narrow and lined with stone walls), that I zipped along at 77 mph and was passed every minute by someone doing 90 in the fast lane).  If you’re caught with a small amount of drugs the U.S. government can take your house and your car, and put you in jail for the rest of your life, yet people still sell, buy, and use drugs (just ask George W. Bush, former coke-head).

We haven’t figured out what level of governmental coercion will result in an Iraqi society that is both orderly and submissive to a U.S. occupation or whatever American-friendly government follows. Saddam may yet go down in history as the kindest and gentlest 21st century leader of a unified and stable Iraq.

[Given the depths of poverty and lack of industry in Wales and the Northern UK it seemed odd at first that these folks would want to help out their defeated enemies before assisting unfortunates closer to home.  Or that they wouldn’t instead prefer to help the hundreds of millions of Indians who have never in their lives had clean water or electricity.  Berlin, The Downfall 1945 describes a similar phenomenon: “[German civilians] queued at Red Army field kitchens, which began to feed them on Berzarin’s orders.  The fact that there was a famine in Soviet Central Asia at that time, with families reduced to cannibalism, did not influence the new policy of attempting to win over the German people.”]

18 thoughts on “Saddam Hussein: Mr. (Reasonably) Nice Guy?

  1. It seems quite possible that Saddam did not enjoy terrorizing his subjects but did it because he understood the divisions within his arbitrarily drawn borders and thought keeping his subjects in fear was necessary.

    Have you seen the footage of Saddam laughing/crying/etc as he had half of his parliament taken outside and shot?

  2. John, Have you seen the footage of a smiling George Bush II landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier after he invaded a third-world country against the wishes of the international community?

  3. My Dream mind takes me back to 1933, when a Corporal took charge of a country. The World watched as his power and might grew. They talked discussed and did nothing. When the Fires and Smoke had cleared the World was some 43 Million people smaller. In that mix my people were killed to nearly extinction. Wherever their is Evil, good must fight to extingush it. Trying to make peace with the Devil is like trying to fly without wings.

  4. It’s an amusing thought, but the nature of the killing prevents me from entertaining it. Feeding people into shredders feet-first and throwing them in acid is a far cry from just mass-executions at gun point. If he was after just keeping the peace without gaining joy from punishment, he chose some of the most inefficient ways to go about it. And if he was after psychological implications of the torture, why would he have kept so many of the methods private? I truly believe he thought he was doing what was best for Iraqi culture in the long run. But that doesn’t make him a nice guy, nor does it mean he didn’t enjoy bringing pain to others.

  5. John, Have you seen the footage of a smiling George Bush II landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier after he invaded a third-world country against the wishes of the international community?

    And what does that have to do with the subject of the post, which was Saddam’s (possible lack of) evilness?

    Oh, sorry, I forgot the 1st axiom of the right-thinking people nowadays: anyone who is against Bush and the U.S. is automatically doubleplusgood.

  6. PaulJ: I was responding to John’s post, not the original article. My point being that both leaders seem to find their respective methods perfectly acceptable. Apparently it’s OK till kill brown people if we think they might attack us. Or even if they might not attack us. At least they’re not white, and now they’re dead, so who cares?

  7. Conversely Jon, according to your ethic, brown people can kill all the brown people they want; and according to Philip’s ethic, it’s just how these savages govern each other. Izzat right?

  8. Attempting to give yourself moral authority by saying people who disagree with you devalue “brown people” is an old and tired trick that nobody falls for any more. If you honestly can’t understand the differences in the sources of joy that brought a smile to Hussein as opposed to Bush, then you’ve fallen so far into the ugly side of the liberal intelligentsia, that I don’t know what to tell you.

  9. Phil makes a good point: protecting your territorial integrity from ‘traitors’ and ‘secessionists’ is what you’d expect from a strong leader…

    (did you lot not fight a civil war ’bout that?)

    and when Saddam took to chemical extremes, your USA government was right behind him… ‘our Sunni man in Baghdad’…

    To be a rogue, you must once, by definition, have belonged…

    judgement will be forthcoming, but perhaps not in our lifetimes!

  10. Can we all just agree that both Mr Bush and Mr Husein are of poor moral character and be done with?

    I think Iraq under the USA occupation is shaping up much worse than under Husein, and could easily become another Afghanistan. The idea that evil should always be fought is simply stupid. People often say that you can’t measure suffering and death, but there’s an obvious unit of measurement that is pretty damn good – a single human life. And by this measure, invasion of Iraq is also simply stupid, the act of a madman who has difficulty in dealing with objective reality. There are worse places in the world that could be invaded, and even more direct threats (eg North Korea), and by the obvious unit of measurement it would be far better to spend $100 billion dollars on vaccines, food aid, education, etc anyway.

    Saddam Husein, while engaging in the usual disgusting habits of a monarch, had also put together a state that was above par for the Middle East — good seperation of church and state, women high up in the government, the violent fringe groups pretty much under control. His nominated successor was the better and saner of his two sons. He would compare favourably with some of the kings that, say, England has had in its past.

    He is also obviously not a stupid man, unlike Bush. One has to wonder if the current problems the USA is experiencing in Iraq were planned, i.e. that he realized that conventional warfare would be futile and always planned on fighting a guerilla war.

    I think what upsets me the most at the moment is that USA citizens don’t seem to care that the reason for war (WMD) turned out to be a lie. As long as they keep treating the world like some Hollywood movie, we’re all going straight to hell. Ignorance is no excuse, nor wishful thinking. In the end, objective reality can’t be denied.

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