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Where's Saddam now you need him?

Finally, President Bush has stumbled across a winning political-military strategy for containing Iran. Of course, it's too bad that Saddam Hussein, a leading proponent of that strategy, is no longer around to help carry it out.

Published on August 13, 2007

But Saddam's anti-Iranian spirit lives on, embodied in the Bush administration's new approach: selling advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes that fear and loathe Iran.

Unfortunately, the United States came to this position the hard way, after having made just about every possible mistake over the past five years. The biggest mistake was thinking that American troops could be effective in a protracted ground war/occupation. In this post-colonial era, it's simply not possible for a "white" European army to invade a Third World country and make enduring friendships with the locals. If the Westerners get in and get out quickly - to be replaced in power by indigenous folks who share colour, language and religion with the population - that's often do-able.

But a prolonged stay? Fuhgeddaboutit. No matter how generous and well-meaning the invaders might be, the friction of mutual misunderstanding soon starts rubbing everyone the wrong way. After a while, the local zealots (or patriots, depending on one's point of view) will start agitating against the invaders - and then they'll start shooting.

That's what happened to the Israelis in the Palestinian territories and to the Americans in Iraq, and that's what's happening to Nato forces in Afghanistan, where nearly six years of Christians interfacing with Muslims is not working out.

Back to Iraq, and the surge. Sure, General David Petraeus is a big improvement over his predecessors. How could he not be better than, say, General Tommy Franks, who made a point of visibly yawning every time the subject of post-war Iraq came up?

So while there was much buzz about an op-ed in The New York Times headlined "A war we just might win", the optimism, while welcome, misses the point.

Aside from the fact that the two authors, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, have predicted triumph many times in the past, the blunt reality is that victory can be declared, down the road, only by some set of yet-to-be-determined victorious Iraqis. But they won't be able to assert political legitimacy among their homeboys until after the American soldiers have left. Then and only then will we know if our blood purchased any gratitude.

And there's a further problem: the majority in Iraq are Shia Muslims, closely allied, theologically, with the Shia in non-Arab Iran - and against the bulk of the Arab population, which is Sunni Muslim. Especially after four years of sectarian bombing and killing, the Shia and the Sunni are blood rivals for Allah's favour, not brother Muslims. Which is to say, any Iraqi state that reflects its population will be controlled by pro-Iranian Shia, and hostile to the surrounding Sunni Arab states.

The Bush administration did not understand this intra-religious dynamic in 2003, when it launched a war that has made Iran stronger, not weaker.

Perhaps the United States was too eager to depose and hang Saddam, a Sunni who ruled the Shia majority in his country through traditional Sunni means - force and terror.

Saddam hated the Shia Iranians so much that he fought an eight-year war against them in the 1980s, during which shrewd American leaders, eager to check the ever-present Iranian threat, were happy to help him.

Now, of course, America is considering its own war against Iran, but we won't have Iraq's help. That was poor "strategery" on the current president's part.

Thus we get a new Bush Doctrine: build up the arsenals of other Sunni Arab governments, beyond Iraq, to contain Iran. And, chastened by the Iraq experience, we won't care any more, of course, if "our" Arabs respect human rights and majority rule.

Too bad about Saddam Hussein - he would have loved to have helped us in our latest anti-Iranian alliance.

James P Pinkerton


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