A dump Saddam movement must begin at home, not abroad

November 19, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Of the serious problems associated with ''doing something'' about Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, the first is that those measures currently feasible won't work.

President Saddam has more than sufficiently demonstrated that neither sanctions, which have gravely harmed Iraq's people, nor bombings and missile attacks, will make him yield.

A survivor

He has survived two devastating wars. The conflict with Iran was one of the most terrible of the 20th century, and the Persian Gulf War with the United States and its allies did his power no lasting harm. He has since crushed American-sponsored or supported opposition groups and decapitated military conspiracies.

Whatever the U.S. government may say about Iraq, Congress has no stomach for another real war with that country. New bombing or missile attacks from a distance, meant to kill him and destroy his military installations, as demanded by amateur strategists in Washington and New York, offer no serious prospect of changing Iraq's policy for the better.

Mr. Saddam is driven by ambition, survival or megalomania, but his policies have roots in Iraqi history and nationalism, as well as in paranoia and ignorance. The ignorance should not be underestimated. French diplomatic sources are quoted as saying recently that President Saddam ''understands nothing. He knows nothing of the outside world. Even in the Arab world, he only knows Baghdad and his native city, Tikrit.''

Some in the Washington and New York policy communities still think the United States able to arrange a ''revolution'' in Iraq, despite its demonstrated inability to do so anywhere else. Such is the recommendation of David Wurmser, who heads the Middle East program at the American Enterprise Institute.

Two former Defense Department officials, Paul Wolfowitz and Zalmay Khalilzad, propose an international campaign to ''delegitimize'' Saddam Hussein by obtaining international recognition for an Iraqi government in exile, seizing Iraq's foreign assets and handing them over to this government, enlisting other Arab states, European allies and Turkey in this program (while avoiding creation of a Kurdish state), all the while supporting this government with ''sustained but discriminating military action'' -- and as Lewis Carroll's Alice might have said, doing six other impossible things before breakfast.

People do not automatically get the governments they deserve, but the governments they do get are the product of their societies, political condition, geopolitical position and their history.

And in the end, people are responsible for the governments which they get -- or which they tolerate.

Certainly Iraq is a police state, but no foreign nation has imposed that police regime upon the Iraqi people, and they have thus far failed to demonstrate a willingness to pay a serious cost to get rid of it. Washington cannot change that.

If an end is to be put to Saddam Hussein's reign, the Iraqis will have to do it. In the postwar period, Cubans, Vietnamese, Egyptians, Algerians, Hungarians, Czechs and Poles have all managed to forcibly divest themselves of oppressive governments (even if the Hungarian and Czech outcomes were reversed by Soviet invasion). If the Iraqis don't like their government, they can rise against it. They can have a real revolution, not Mr. Wurmser's fancied one.

Arab nationalism

In fact, the present state of affairs has been tolerated by Iraqis, more or less, since Iraq became fully independent. The monarchy that existed under the British from 1921 to 1958 was not a bad government by contemporary standards, but it was not a tolerant one, and it failed to survive the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s.

It was toppled by a military coup in 1958, the monarch, crown prince and prime minister all murdered, and the British expelled from the country. The deposed government had shortly before been a founding member of the American-sponsored anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact alliance.

The military government, which took the monarchy's place, was overturned in 1963 by another coup d'etat, its leader in turn murdered. Other coups succeeded in 1966 and 1968, the latter bringing to power the Ba'ath party. In the Ba'ath government, Saddam Hussein was first the vice president, and then, in 1979, by a peaceful transition, the president.

Through these years the crucial factors at work were anti-colonialism, the rivalry with or threat from Iran, the struggle with Iraqi Kurds seeking an independent state and the quarrel over Kuwait's sovereignty -- which the 1958 government had disputed, the 1963 government conceded and Saddam Hussein's government attempted to crush by invading Kuwait in 1990.

No solution to the problem of Iraq is possible without taking all of this into account.

Saddam Hussein is a problem to the international community, but not a very big one. The strategic importance of his country is only moderate. He wants his weapons of mass destruction to deter attack. His neighbors fear him. The international community detests him.

His country is rich with oil, but he still has to sell it. There is no utility in withholding it from the market. His life expectancy is problematical, to judge from the experience of his predecessors. But all of that is the affair of his countrymen, and so is what happens to Iraq when he is gone. The United States is an irrelevance; and Iraq, fundamentally, is irrelevant to the United States.

William Pfaff, a syndicated columnist, will address the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, Dec. 9.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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