November 23, 2002
WHAT SADDAM WASTED:Iraq (Claudia Wright, April 1979, The Atlantic Monthly)
The country was for a long time regarded as a pariah in international politics, was forced to travel to other Arab capitals to plead its cause and was rarely listened to. But the summit meeting of Arab leaders in Baghdad last November was carried off by the Iraqis in a confident new style. It marked not only the first time that President Assad of Syria and the leaders of Iraq had agreed to meet since 1972 but the first time since 1976 that the PLO leader Yasir Arafat had met with Iraqi officials. (Twelve months of bloody feuding between the Arafat-led Fatah group and Iraqi-supported factions of the PLO preceded the meeting.)
The Baghdad summit was also the first major set of Middle Eastern talks initiated and carried through by the Iraqis. Whether in the Palestinian showdown with King Hussein in 1970, the Iranian arms buildup in the Gulf, the oil embargo, or the wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973, the record shows that Iraq has been generally reluctant to collaborate in joint Arab initiatives, and other Arab nations have been reluctant to join with Iraq.
The American view of these events has lulled policy-makers into an easy disregard for the Iraqi regime-an attitude compounded by ignorance, lack of contact, and a noticeable scorn among State Department veterans. (The two countries have had no formal diplomatic links since the Iraqis broke off relations in 1967.) By contrast with the once prosperous and confident embassy in Tehran across the border, Baghdad has been a backwater and a hardship post.
To foreign visitors, Baghdad may still evoke the intense security-consciousness and secrecy associated with Iraq since 1958, when the British-installed monarchy was overthrown by a nationalist coup, and certainly since 1968, when the present military-led Baathist regime took power from a civilian coalition.
The Palace Road quarter of Baghdad contains the kind of expansive, palm-lined avenues that British colonial engineers built all over their empire. This is where Baath party President Hassan al-Bakr and Vice President Saddam Hussein live, along with other leading party and government officials. In this section tanks can suddenly appear, take up a position for an hour or two around prominent official buildings, and then disappear. Heavily armed soldiers can be seen from time to time on the roofs surrounding the television and radio broadcasting studios, and photographs of these and other government buildings are not permitted. Although uniformed police are less obvious in Baghdad than in New York or Washington, random checks of cars are not uncommon.
Many years ago Munif al-Razzazz, now in his sixties, collaborated with Michel Aflaq in creating the pan-Arab Baath party. Razzazz is assistant secretary general of the National Command of the party, which nominally covers both the Iraqi and the Syrian Regional Commands.
I asked Razzazz about his life as a member of the party. Pale-skinned, impeccable, and resembling Basil Rathbone, Razzazz sat in his office at the modern national party headquarters. He told me that he regretted the long time he had spent away from his home and family but, he emphasized, he did not regret the solitary confinement and the many years he had spent in jail as an advocate of the party: "I've seen our revolution grow from ideas we all had in jail cells."
Not an Iraqi by birth, he acknowledges the volatility of Iraqi and Baathist politics, but he says that the course of the revolution has depended on it. Without sharp and fairly continuous change, he insists, the Iraqi regime would not have achieved the success he believes it has today.
Others who neither share the Baath vision nor would normally be comfortable with Razzazz's rhetoric now grudgingly accept his verdict. Neighboring Arabs, the French-who are replacing the conventional nuclear reactor Iraq obtained from the Russians with a sophisticated plutonium breeder plant-and the Japanese-who are trading oil for vast investment credits, consider that the Iraqi regime has all but shrugged off the instability of the past, and that it is about to assume major regional and international status. In a recent interview in Washington, Hisham Sharabi, president of the National Association of Arab-Americans, linked this position to the Camp David accords: "If Egypt signs a separate bilateral agreement with Israel and is thereby isolated, the role of Iraq would be the potential leader in the Eastern Arab world."
Iraq's emergence is the result of three things: oil, military strength, and internal development. Superficially, Iraq is not overwhelmingly endowed in any one respect. Saudi Arabia has more oil. Israel and Iran are stronger militarily in the region. By any measure of industrialization, agricultural productivity, literacy, and manpower skills, Israel is much more developed. However, the combination of these three factors has led to Iraq's new status and to the recognition, everywhere else if not in the United States, of its extraordinary potential for pre-eminence in the Middle East.
It's interesting to read today what a mainstream publication was saying about Iraq twenty years ago. It goes a long way to explaining why we initially engaged with Saddam. Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2002 3:11 PM