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Re: The Horror of Life Under Saddam Hussein

Hi Alan,

Thank you very much for your posting.  I must say that it is something of
a pleasure to hear you describe the tendency of list members to 

> invariably preface their denunciation of the sanctions and their
> consequences with a condemnation of Saddam Hussein. 

As you know, official proponents of the economic sanctions on Iraq often
claim that their opponents are naive about the behaviour of the Iraqi
leadership.  To the extent that this charge sticks, it is a damaging
accusation.  Furthermore, I do think that this is a real danger: I
personally became concerned about the situation in Iraq when I heard about
the effects of the policy that we were supporting nationally.  This means
that my concern with the harm done by others, in this case the Iraqi
leadership, has been of secondary interest.  As a result, I recognise that
I risk overlooking this aspect unless I am careful.

I am more worried about your observation that we then tend to

> move on to a re-telling of the far greater brutality of the
> Clinton-Blair-Albright cabal.

I am certainly in no position to judge the relative "brutality" of
Clinton, Blair, Albright or Saddam.  I am not concerned about our Iraq
policy because I believe that any of the former are more brutal than the
latter, but simply because I do not believe that our brutality towards the
Iraqi people is justified, however brutal the latter.  I think that this
is sufficient to justify our concern: I do not think that we need to
attempt to characterise Clinton and friends as more brutal than Saddam;
furthermore, we risk getting into an argument that we may lose if we make
this claim. 

As to your question:

> how did a dictator as depraved and as brutal as Saddam was supposed to
> be from mid summer 1990 permit his country to provide those elevated
> levels of well-being noted above? 

my understanding is built on two elements, one concerned with the actual
policies of the Iraqi government, the second concerned with the
presentation of those policies by the US and UK governments.

As to the first: the Iraqi government, like any other government, has had
to offer some form of social contract, a deal whereby it gives something
to its populace in return for the right to rule over them.  As a
dictatorship, it has had certain "advantages" that a democracy does not
have: a democracy organises a "revolution" every so many years, in which
the population is given an opportunity, more or less fair, to remove the
government. Because dictatorships do not tend to hold such events, they
face fewer challenges to the contract that they offer.

The social contract offered by the Iraqi government runs something as
follows: it provides economic and social opportunities to its population
(the carrots); in return, it provides fewer political and civil
opportunities than those to which we are accustomed - i.e. it will
tolerate no challenges to its rule (the stick).  The free education,
health care, investment in infrastructure and the like mentioned fit this
model.  There is one political "carrot" that is often overlooked, namely
political stability:

        For the first time in modern Iraqi history, a government - albeit
        at times a ruthless one, had thus achieved some success in forging
        a national community out of the country's disparate social
        elements. [Iraq: a country study, US Library of Congress' Federal 
        Research Division, 1990. p. 62]

There is, of course, a separate question of how impressive a social
contract this is: Iraq's government is able to pay carrots out of the
world's second largest oil reserves; could another government have avoided
the incredibly costly war with Iran? 

In any case, since the 1991 war and under sanctions, the Iraqi government
has had fewer carrots to offer.  This has perhaps required it to rely more
on sticks to maintain its power.  It is therefore possible that the Iraqi
government of the 1990s is, due to circumstances rather than innate
character (if such a thing exists in the absence of circumstance), more
"depraved and brutal" than it was in the 1980s.

The second element of my understanding of the Iraqi goverment centres on
its portrayal by the US and UK governments.  The above quotation is
interesting to me as it's taken from a book commissioned by a branch of
the US government [available online; there is a link to it from our "info
sources" page on CASI's website]. Its research was completed in 1998,
after the Halabja gassings and the Iraqi jet attack on the USS Stark
(killing 37) and at the height of the Anfal campaign; it is published in
1990, the year of Kuwait's invasion. Nevertheless, the tentative sympathy
expressed above is not atypical. 

Up until that invasion, though, Iraq was a US and UK ally.  John Kinahan's
posting to this list on 8 August (available at reminded us that the
British Council's representative in Iraq at the time ordered its employees
to, "present the correct positive line about the regime of Saddam
Hussein".  On 12 February 1998, Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent,
recalled riding in a train back from the front with Iranian troops; they
had been gassed:

        No sooner had I filed a series of reports to London on this new
        and terrible war crime of Saddam Hussein than a British diplomat,
        lunching with one of my editors in London, remarked that "Bob
        doesn't seem to understand the situation." True, he said, gas was
        a terrible weapon. But Saddam was fighting the West's war against
        Iranian fundamentalism - a danger which might set the whole Middle
        East ablaze and which could threaten the entire world. Wasn't The
        Times - the paper for which I then worked - putting a little too
        much emphasis on Saddam's sins? 

Since the invasion of Kuwait, though, this image has been reversed. 
George Bush Sr presented the US' involvement in the Gulf War as a personal
vendetta: this man, Saddam, had betrayed us.  It is therefore certainly
the case that the depravity and brutality of the Iraqi government is much
more widely publicised by the US and UK than it was prior to 1990.

You also ask:

> And would he today, if sanctions were ended and Iraq were permitted to
> live as, say, Greece or Morocco are permitted to live, apply the screws
> to the people out of some innate brutality? 

I don't understand the reference to "Greece or Morocco" - I take these to
be references to two "normal" countries, and your question to therefore be
about what would happen if Iraq's economy was again allowed to develop

First, an obvious point: questions about the future involve prediction,
which is imperfect.  Therefore no one has certain answers to these
questions.  The formation of good guesses, though, is both the best that
any of us can do, and a responsibility if we are concerned with our
current policies - as I think that we should be.

My own guesses about this stem largely from my previous remarks on the
social contract.  Under sanctions, the Iraqi government has a very good
excuse for the absence of carrots: the sanctions prevent them.  This
reduces the popular pressure on the Iraqi government to perform.

We saw a variant on this theme during the 1980s war with Iran.  In spite
of possibly diminished popular expectations, the Iraqi government
apparently borrowed heavily, not just to finance the war, but to finance
consumer imports, to cushion ordinary Iraqis from the war's impact. When
the war ended, the government did face a series of crises, including
regular assassination attempts (see Freedman and Karsh's The Gulf
Conflict), in part related to the public desire for an answer to the
question of, "where has eight years of war left us?"  Ironically, one of
the reasons for invading Kuwait (again see Freedman and Karsh), may have
been to offer Kuwait's oil wealth as an answer to that question. 

One question, then, is whether post-sanctions Iraq would again find itself
in a situation where the government had to work very hard to satisfy
popular expectations.  The 1991 civil war showed, I think, the
considerable level of anger among Iraqis about the government's invasion
of Kuwait, and its consequences.  This anger cannot all have dissipated
and any evidence that the government was not working hard to fulfill its
side of the social contract would be, I think, rapidly seized upon.

Incidentally, these observations about perception also hold in the wider
Arab world as Saddam does cast himself as a pan-Arab leader: the wider
Arab world currently does seem to regard him as resisting US imperialism.
If, once sanctions lift, he "applies the screws" then all of this
political capital that he has gained will be squandered.

> Forgive my naiveté, but I don't get the change in character. If an end
> of sanctions would do nothing to ameliorate the plight of the Iraqi
> people, then we should all sign on to a Get Saddam campaign. 

In conclusion: I'm not a close enough "Saddam watcher" to know how his
character has changed over the decade.  It will have - a decade is a long
time - but I think that the chief reason for our change in perceptions has
been the end of our alliance.  It seems highly unlikely that lifting
sanctions would not ameliorate the situation in Iraq: economic sanctions
are designed to damage economies, and therefore well-being; for the
reasons outlined above, I do not think that removing them would lead to a
perverse effect whereby the Iraqi government would seek to cast itself as
the oppressor of Iraqis.  It will almost certainly be the case that the
Iraqi government will continue to be politically repressive: from their
point of view, this will be more "necessary" than ever, given heightened

Thank you again, Alan, for your questions.  I do hope that this goes some
way towards answering them.  Please do let me know whether this raises any
further questions.

Best wishes,

Colin Rowat

Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq               fax 0870 063 5022
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