Finding Saddam Hussein is “definitely the most important thing we have to do right now,” declared Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in the wake of the killing of Saddam’s sons on July 22.
But what should be worrying Wolfowitz is not how to find Saddam, but how to contain the disintegration of Iraq that looms even as U.S. forces try to track Hussein down and put a definitive end to his rule.
From the outset, the neoconservative theory of the Iraqi war promoted by Wolfowitz, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Adviser Richard Pearl, among others, was simplistic. It asserted that Saddam and his sons held the nation in a reign of terror and the removal of these terrible tyrants would be greeted with gratitude and cooperation among the Iraqi people and lead to an instant national solidarity and the rise of a democratic state.
This theory is not dead, as seen in the White House’s stated belief that eliminating Saddam once and for all is the key to peace and order in Iraq. However, as evil as he was, Saddam paradoxically unified rather than divided Iraq and provided order, albeit repressive.
Iraq was a misbegotten nation, cobbled together from three provinces of the Ottoman Empire with spit, bailing wire and the British Army after World War I. The Britons crowned as their puppet king the Hashemite son of the Sharif (chief religious official) of Mecca, who had aided Britain against the Turks. The royal house of Iraq lasted only for as long as the British Army was there to hold things together.
The king was ousted in a revolution in 1958. A succession of hard-line military rulers culminated with Saddam in 1978.
Saddam, being a member of the minority Sunni Arab community, found he could only rule effectively over the larger ethnic and confessional communities by terror. The unruly majority Shiites, the separatist Kurds and other ethnic groups threatened his rule at every turn. His response was ruthless suppression. Internal political conditions were horrendous, but the nation held together.
Like Louis XV, Saddam might well have said, “Apres moi, le deluge.”
Ironically, President Bush’s father, President George Herbert Walker Bush, knew that the United States was ill-prepared to deal with a post-Saddam regime. This was one of the main reasons he decided not to remove Saddam during the first Gulf War.
Now the United States has utterly obliterated the only force that held the nation together, with not a clue how to put it back together again. The Bush administration has done well to rid the world of a villain, but with no plan for the future, this act is a flirtation with complete chaos.
The downfall of Saddam Hussein and his family is like the shot of a starter pistol for a mad struggle over the soul of the nation. Large groups, like the Shiites, want to dominate. A countervailing pull for independence by the Kurds in the north threatens to split the country into fragments. This is met by an attempt on the part of the former ruling Sunnis to reassert political and military control.
Far from promoting unity, the United States’ dramatic efforts to prove that Saddam’s rule is over will only fuel fractionalization and competition between the ethnic and confessional groups. In short, the United States is setting Iraq on a path to civil war.
Worse yet, our forces on the ground are doing nothing to stop the disintegration of the nation. The American public is fed optimistic statements about the high morale of U.S. troops and the “progress” being made at reconstructing Iraq. But observers on the ground depict a different reality. Our soldiers are being shot every day. We have put corporate America in charge of reconstruction, but these oil-field construction companies are woefully unprepared. To fill the urgent demand for expert positions, Bechtel and other highly paid U.S. contractors have had to grab the first inexperienced people they could find to do the work of seasoned professionals.
Writer and Iraqi observer William Rivers Pitt notes that policemen from Atlanta, Ga., who speak no Arabic, are put in charge of rebuilding the police. Novice academics from religious colleges in the American South with no experience in the region or in working with Islamic societies are sent out to assess the political climate.
Meanwhile, the United States cannot turn on the electricity or provide drinking water after four months of occupation.
Obsession with “getting Saddam” is obviously getting in the way of the real “most important task” in Iraq: getting a grip on a nation that threatens to deteriorate physically and disintegrate politically. The cheers for the deaths of Uday and Qusay, and eventually Saddam, will continue for a day or two, but the horrendous, misbegotten mess of reconstruction will leave an eternal scar of shame on America’s history.
William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of “Language, Status and Power in Iran,” and two forthcoming books: “Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding," and "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation.”