| Material for myth
If Jesus Christ was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, it is no surprise that $25 million secured Saddam Hussein. The wonder is that it took impoverished and long-suffering Iraqis who are being killed like flies eight months to lead the Americans to the fallen dictator whom many may have good reason to curse.
Like many global issues, this, too, presents India with a dilemma. Should this country support what is right or what is in its interest' The two are not necessarily the same. American triumphalism in west Asia might serve New Delhi’s strategic and security aims, but that does not alter the fact that Saddam’s capture and imprisonment are blatantly illegal. That view comes from Richard Perle, chairman of the defence policy board of the United States of America and prominent among the neo-conservatives behind George W. Bush’s aggressive policy. Perle told Londoners during the Bush visit that the invasion of Iraq was legally wrong but, in his view, morally right. “I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing,” he said.
Bush’s defence is that the war, which he lauds as “noble and necessary”, was sanctioned by the United Nations resolutions setting a timetable for Saddam to disclose his weapons of mass destruction. Not so, said Perle. According to him, “International law … would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone.” An illegal invasion makes the occupation doubly so, especially since it is clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Iraqis will not quietly buckle under just because Saddam has been captured. Though Bush, Tony Blair and the rest warn of continuing violence against the occupiers, they are unable to bring themselves to admit why. The power of Asian nationalism is anathema to Westerners. It exists independently of the elite leadership in Iraq, which has known many rulers since 1921. That was when an exiled foreigner, the Hejazi Faisal, was foisted on Iraq as king. As Winston Churchill revealingly declared, Faisal was “the best and cheapest solution” to Britain’s problems in a politically turbulent land that it had seized from the disintegrating Ottoman empire as much because of its potential oil wealth as to secure the route to India.
The Iraqis rose against Faisal no less than 130 times until he died in 1933. Eventually, nationalism brought his dynasty to a bloody end 25 years later. No conqueror should ignore that rejection of foreign imposition as history grimly repeats itself.
There could be many reasons why the Americans didn’t get their man before. The delay could be a measure of the fear that Saddam evoked even in defeat. It could provide a clue to Iraqi hatred of America and all its works. It could — perish the thought — also indicate loyalty to a leader whose bombast guaranteed Iraq an independent niche in Middle East politics. Western commentators have touched on all these possibilities, and Bush and Blair are at pains to proclaim that there is no need any longer for fear. Saddam is not coming back, they reiterate, this is the end of the road.
True enough, but only in the limited sense that this particular dictator and his Baath party and Republican Guard will not be restored. But it is naïve to imagine that Iraq will be secured through a public relations blitz against Saddam’s image. A dishevelled and disoriented man who looks like a cross between an Old Testament prophet and the convict Jean Valjean in the film of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables may not inspire devotion as a heroic symbol of resistance. The shambling vagrant-like figure we saw being humiliatingly examined on television is certainly no Bonnie Prince Charlie to rouse the tribes to battle.
But even without this calculated American propaganda, Saddam in the flesh had ceased to be important. In the spirit, he is already moving into the world of myth and legend and is to be feared even more. Endless theories about the prisoner’s identity, about whether he really was skulking in a dirty hole, and about how and when he was caught nourish popular fantasy. Endless arguments about how he should be dealt with keep political controversy alive. Bush may want Saddam executed, but sharper minds know that his death will give Iraqis a hero against which the puppet governing council that the US has set up cannot possibly contend.
No leader is more than an instrument of national destiny. If one instrument is destroyed, nationalism hones another. In any case, leadership of the resistance does not appear to have been Saddam’s role since Baghdad fell on April 9. The absence of any communications equipment in his lair, even of a mobile telephone, suggests he was isolated from the violence that continues to erupt. Like the Palestinian intifada, the bombings and shootings, have a life of their own.
What helps the resistance — or anarchy — is the American decision to dismantle Iraq’s army, police and administration. Such institutions provide the foundations and superstructure of stability. Without this resilience, India’s transition in 1947 would have been far more chaotic. But the Americans chose to destroy everything and everyone that had served the previous regime; they packed every administrative level with nominees. The only qualification of these ministers, governors, mayors and civic and security officials is that they are turncoats. Recalling the 1958 purge when Britain’s monarchical nominee was overthrown, this is inviting a bloodbath on a massive scale the moment America’s protection is withdrawn. Iraqis give short shrift to collaborators.
In refusing to acknowledge the power of the nationalism that inspires resistance, the US is encouraged by experience in eastern Asia. Japan accepted an American presence after Hiroshima and Nagasaki with equanimity. Filipinos identify socially and culturally with the two colonial powers (Spain and the US) that ruled them. South Koreans do not object to 40,000 US troops. Even Vietnam, which fought such a bitter war against the US, is eager for closer cooperative ties. Far from repeating the wartime slogan, “Yankee go home but take me with you”, they are happy nowadays to let Yankees stay in their midst.
This pragmatism expresses what Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew calls Confucian values, though Filipinos are, of course, Catholic. But cultural uniformity ends at Myanmar’s western borders. A far more volatile Asia stretches from Bangladesh to the Mediterranean coast. This Asia is quick to revolt against any insult, real or perceived, to its national pride. The British, who joked that the sun never set on their empire because god would not trust it in the dark, understood imperial hazards.
The US still believes that lavish aid and technical expertise win all hearts and minds, forgetting that Marshall Plan generosity failed to do so even in western Europe. It puts down Iraqi truculence to foreign incitement. Again, this may be true but is not the whole truth. Osama bin Laden had no toehold in Iraq until the Americans intervened. If al Qaida has since been able to establish operational bases there and to recruit volunteers who are ready to sacrifice their lives and hold the occupying forces to perpetual ransom, it is because Iraqis themselves are deeply disaffected. Experts reckon that between 15 and 30 insurgent groups have no links, financial or strategic, with Saddam. They were — and are — fighting for self-determination, national honour and traditional institutions, not to restore a tyrant.
The conqueror will not admit this because it would mean acknowledging the illegitimacy of his authority. Unrest will continue until he does so and leaves Iraq to the Iraqis. The thorny question of how to deal with the captive only compounds the problem Americans, guardians of a new world order, have created through wanton disregard of international law and the civilized norms governing relations among states. The boost this might give to Bush’s re-election prospects can only prolong the danger to world peace.