Ten years ago, I was in Manchester during the run-up to the Iraq War. The rational seemed clear to me; forget WMDs, Saddam's very regime was a blight on the Earth and anything that helped to destroy it was a Good Thing.
It was not a view widely shared by the local student community, most of whom were anti-war and marched in protest against the invasion. I found their attitude repugnant; they had the freedoms of a democratic population and yet they chose to use them in support of one of the worst dictators in recent history. Even those who disliked Saddam were reluctant to support an outright invasion, pointing out that even in the best-case scenario the Iraqi people would bear the brunt of the war. Why, they asked, could Saddam not simply be removed?
I have heard that question on many occasions, both when discussing current politics and when exploring counter-factual versions of the past. Why not end the problems in Libya by killing Gaddafi? Why couldn't Adolf Hitler have been assassinated? Would the USSR have survived if some kindly soul had put a bullet in Stalin's head?
The problem is that the world doesn't work that way.
Humans have a tendency to personalise politics. American Presidents such as Obama or Bush are often seen as metaphorical figureheads; they bear the blame for their subordinates failings, even though they may not have been remotely involved in the affair. We speak of the Obama Administration rather than the American or even Democratic Administration. In the West, however, the elected leadership comes and goes, but the political party remains intact. The precedence of the party is upheld by the system.
This is not true, as a general rule, of unfree states.
There are basically two ways to rule in human society; the rule of law, such as the United States and much of the West, and the rule of the strong. For the former, as I said, the system supports the elected leadership and provides a procedure for their replacement by the next elected official. The latter, however … does not.
The successful Dictator – Saddam, Gaddafi, Hitler – succeeds by creating a social structure that supports his position and crushes all opposition. An alternate centre of power is a deadly threat to a dictator; in order to maintain control, the dictator must either bring it under his control or destroy it. A dictatorship might, therefore, look rather like a pyramid, with the dictator on top and lines of control running down to the very lowest levels. The upper levels will be filled with the dictator's cronies (family is a favourite choice) who will often have as much blood on their hands as the dictator himself, forcing them to support him – or risk being torn apart by outraged fellow countrymen.
If we look at Iraq as an example (I acknowledge in advance that I have simplified considerably) we see that Saddam promoted the interests of the Sunni Iraqis over the Shia and Kurdish Iraqis. This gave him a constituency that had a very strong motive to support him. By promoting their interests, he ensured that the Sunni knew that a lapse in his power would unleash civil war and ethnic cleansing when the Shia looked for revenge. (And he was right, as post-invasion events proved.) In effect, by ensuring that terror and oppression were not distributed equally, Saddam ensured that his position was fairly secure.
However, the process didn't stop there. Saddam created multiple military and security forces, each one charged with keeping a watchful eye on the other forces as well as preparing for its primary mission. Spies were spread through every military unit, ensuring that no senior commander dared risk showing even the slightest hint of disloyalty. Failing to ensure that all of the spies attended planning meetings, as one senior officer noted in the aftermath of the war, would almost certainly lead to arrest and detention; the spy, once excluded, would start reporting the 'secret' meeting to his superiors. And as those spies were meant to be unknown to the officers they were meant to watch, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Iraqi officers began to become neurotic.
Even ordinary citizens were not immune. Saddam's spies were everywhere. Failing to show the proper respect would have been disastrous. (The next time you see one of those great anti-American protests in a third-world country, ask yourself how many people were forced to attend, given flags to burn, etc …) Iraq became a republic of fear, governed by a man many hated, but none dared oppose openly. Western observers talked of the inevitability of revolt. The man on the street knew better.
For Iraq, the results were disastrous. Taking a decision – any decision – could prove fatal, forcing the officials to push more and more decisions up the chain to Saddam's more trusted officials and Saddam himself. Even if Saddam had been ultra-competent and experienced, it would still have been difficult to run a modern state. As Saddam was neither (his only competence was in securing his own power base) the results were pathetic. And, when war came, the reasoned judgements of senior officers in the military were pushed aside by Saddam, who insisted on imposing his own plan on the generals. It should have been possible for Iraq to slow the American invasion down, maybe even force a draw. Saddam ensured that wouldn't occur.
And when Saddam lost his grip, the Iraqi state imploded with a violence that surprised everyone.
This should not have been a surprise. Saddam had achieved a far greater level of control – his agents penetrated all parts of society – than many outside observers understood. Iraqi society crashed back to the tribal, racial, ethnic and religious divisions that Saddam had deliberately chosen to strengthen to help underline his power. In the absence of a strong power willing and able to say no, Sunni, Shia and Kurd found themselves fighting for survival, with Coalition troops caught in the middle.
It is a curious fact that distance lends enchantment. By any reasonable standard, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Saddam's Iraq and all of the other dictatorships on Earth (past and present) were truly awful places to live. They have been described, aptly, as prison camps above ground and mass graves below. And yet many truly decent people seem to believe that things are not as bad as they seem in the dictatorships … and rant and rail against the West's far smaller flaws. The protesters who marched through Manchester prior to the war would not have been allowed to hold their protests in a dictatorship. Those who doubt that might want to look at just what the Iranian Regime was prepared to do to those who marched against it. It was not a pleasant sight.
Why is that the case?
My personal theory is that it is simply a lack of experience. Those who have grown up in a democratic society find it hard to grasp the fear that pervades every level of a dictatorship, or just how heavily the media can be controlled overseas. A democracy allows a substantial level of press freedom, where the media can criticize to its heart’s content; a dictatorship, by contrast, only allows news it considers acceptable to be printed and distributed. Someone unprepared for the Pravda approach to news will not recognise that it has been censored, if it wasn't blatant lies from the start. (Part of the reason Al Jazeera is even less popular among the governments of the Middle East than the West is because it was largely uncensored by their standards.)
The West is not perfect, but its flaws are far more noticeable to the average Western citizen. This tends to lead to a problem where people react to what they can see, rather than what is. For example, there is no moral equality between the limited torture, used in desperation, by the West after 9/11 and the torture routinely handed out to political prisoners in dictatorships. Yet many on the Left will choose to ignore the dictatorships and focus entirely on the West’s flaws. Worse, perhaps, many on the Left chose to support the USSR, even though it was one of the worst regimes in human history. They saw the little flaws of the West (in comparison to the USSR) and failed to see the major flaws that would eventually bring down the Soviet Empire.
Many of them told themselves (and others) that they were being politically neutral. That is, quite frankly, nonsense. Neutrality implies nothing more than refusing to take a side. But tell me; if one person has £1000 and the other has £100, should I be ‘neutral’ and regard them as equals or acknowledge that the first person is richer than the other? Avoiding the question is a meaningless act; at the end, one is still richer than the other.
To call yourself neutral when contemplating the differences between the West and its enemies is an act of pointless moral cowardice. How can anyone look at the facts and remain ‘neutral’?
Consider this; if you happen to be homosexual, there are places in the West where you cannot ‘marry.’ Terrible. But if you live quietly, you are generally allowed to live your life as it pleases you. What if you’d been born in the Middle East? You would be arrested, perhaps killed, just for loving your own sex.
Or ... if you’re a woman in the West, you are often faced with mass sexualisation; porn can be found everywhere. And there are businesses where there is a glass ceiling. Terrible, right? But what if you’d been born in Saudi Arabia or Taliban Afghanistan? You would be, to a very great extent, property. Your male relatives would rule your life, chose your husband and insist that you wore an all-enveloping garment when you went out of doors. Being born a woman would make you an automatic second-class citizen.
You want to be neutral when such evil exists? Please!
I shall close this essay with an observation. Every so often, there are political protests in the West, some of which get out of hand. The police move in, arrest a few dozen people and then ... well, generally they get released. And yet there are people who admire the protesters, who say that they are brave. Maybe they are.
But it’s easy to protest when your life isn’t in real danger. Those who protest in a dictatorship, on the other hand, are very likely to end up dead. They are the ones who show true bravery.
And yet their sacrifice is often ignored.
Christopher G. Nuttall
Kuala Lumpur, 2013