April 15, 2003
Harder They Fall
news of the moment, especially the escalating rhetoric of certain
U.S. spokesmen on Syria, is fascinating and worthy of some tut-tutting
a bit later. But for me the most fascinating news of the past week
was almost taken for granted: the virtually instant crumbling of
Saddam Hussein's regime after decades of brutal totalitarian rule.
end of dictatorial rule in any country is grounds for rejoicing,
whether or not you approve of the means used to oust the regime.
And despite the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime posed no realistic
threat to the United States and little if any threat to its immediate
neighbors, Iraq and the world are probably better off for the regime
real indicator seemed to be the fact that the Iraqi information
minister, playfully dubbed "Baghdad Bob" by some of us
(and soon to be seen, if there is any justice in the world, on his
own show on the Comedy Channel) didn't show up for his daily exercise
in surreality. Journalists in Baghdad also noticed Wednesday that
their Iraqi government "minders" didn't come around the
Palestine Hotel for their daily duties. It all suggested that if
anyone was pulling levers in the command-and-control sectors, those
levers were no longer attached to anything real on the ground.
question is why the regime crumbled so quickly and what that phenomenon
implies for the future.
professional talking heads are always surprised, no matter how often
they witness it, when a brutal totalitarian regime collapses so
quickly as to raise doubts as to whether it was really there before.
Yet instability and vulnerability are built into totalitarian systems,
almost as if it were part of their DNA. That's one reason why totalitarian
rulers almost always go above and beyond what is really necessary
simply to get the job done when it comes to squashing dissent and
punishing deviationism. Like the homeowner who believes that if
three deadbolts is good five would be even better, those who rule
by fear come to believe that no exertion against real and imagined
dissidents is too extreme.
is not just a coincidence that totalitarian rulers eventually come
to be somewhat like Saddam – pathetic paranoids able to trust nobody,
confined to secure offices and residences if not actual bunkers
and served only by quivering yes-men. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's
great novel First
Circle again (or for the first time) for an arresting portrait
of Stalin in the later years of his rule in the Soviet Union. He
was confined to an apartment in the Kremlin, unable to move among
the people who officially adored the great leader, unable to trust
a single soul, constantly concerned about plots against him hatched
by people he used to trust.
total power exacts such a terrible price from those who wield it
that one wonders whether any sane person – moving us well beyond
the popular saying that anybody who wants political power is by
that very fact disqualified from holding it – would actually want
it. Of course, most leaders don't begin as complete paranoids who
can't trust anybody. And there's no question that those who are
misruled by such tyrants pay a considerably higher and usually more
concrete price than those doing the ruling. But sooner or later
these all-powerful rulers become, at least to some extent, trapped
by the very power they have wielded.
Perhaps it's true that the ring of power cannot be used for good.
UNSTABLE TO INCOMPETENT?
should also not be surprising that the worst of the tyrants and
totalitarians, whether through hubris or insulation, sooner or later
become so out of touch that they begin making really obvious and
stupid mistakes. In The London Daily Telegraph last week
British military historian John Keegan marveled
that "Saddam's war plan, if he had one, must be reckoned one
of the most inept ever designed."
a glancing acquaintance with standard military doctrine, Mr. Keegan
went on to explain, would have led Saddam "to group his best
forces in the south to oppose the Anglo-Americans as far from the
capital as possible, and then to conduct a fighting withdrawal up
the valleys of the great rivers."
U.S. military and most amateur observers declared themselves surprised
at the amount or kind of resistance they did meet, but Keegan believes
Saddam could have had a fighting chance at least to extend the war
for weeks or months, perhaps until the Americans and Brits got discouraged,
with such a plan. But Saddam's defense was so utterly incompetent
that Keegan calls it "not a real war" – although heaven
knows it was real enough to those on both sides who were killed
why might Saddam Hussein not have been in touch enough to conduct
a serious defense of Iraq? A couple of reasons, both related to
the nature of totalitarian rule, present themselves as hypotheses.
Saddam, a man who never actually served in the military, might have
finally surrounded himself with acquiescent yes-men in the military
who dared not question his orders even if they thought they were
stupid. After all, after the Iran-Iraq war Saddam purged most of
his best military people, as totalitarians are wont to do from time
to time – Stalin did it with his Great Purges in the 1930s, just
before some competent military people might have come in handy after
Hitler abrogated the Hitler-Stalin
other possibility is that Saddam, after all those years of moving
from one location to another every night, might have felt insecure
about ordering his best fighting forces to the south to put up a
good resistance. He might have been unsure whether they would obey
orders once they got far from Baghdad, or remain loyal. He might
have felt that it was best to keep the Republican Guards in Baghdad,
performing the all-important task of keeping the great leaders safe.
seems little question, whatever we might someday learn about the
details of the real reasons, that the isolation and insulation,
the inability to get sound, objective information about what is
actually going on in the world outside one's secure compound – all
typical of totalitarian leaders (and more often than we might like
to admit, of putatively democratic leaders as well) – played a large
role in the incompetence of the Iraqi military response.
ruler who rules by fear can never be certain of the loyalty of those
who have pledged loyalty to him. Thus the need to have checks and
back-ups on people, all of which serve to alienate those who might
have started genuinely loyal.
a totalitarian regime that relies more on fear than on love starts
to crumble, it can happen very quickly. Even a totalitarian regime
depends on at least implicit consent from the people to stay in
power, though that implicit consent is increasingly achieved through
fear. Once people start to believe that they have little to fear
from the leader or his henchmen, implicit consent only grudgingly
bestowed can melt away faster than a late Spring snowfall. After
a tipping-point or two is reached, the leader might as well be dead.
of this suggests that brutal totalitarian regimes, as we discovered
after the Berlin Wall fell, are more vulnerable than they seem –
a fact many regimes in the Middle East are feeling more than a little
insecure about just now. A few spokesmen have even wondered why,
since it turned out to be relatively easy to topple Saddam Hussein's
regime once the fear was less of a factor, they didn't do it themselves
rather than waiting for the Americans and Brits to do it for them.
this raises the question of whether outside force is really necessary
to topple regimes that turn out to be a lot more vulnerable than
the experts expect. We shouldn't be fooled by the example of Saddam.
The U.S.-British invasion and the eventual widespread recognition
of its military success was an important factor, perhaps the key
factor, in the crumbling-from-within of the regime. Without that
catalyst, who knows how much longer it might have taken for the
regime to crumble from within or for some indigenous forces to develop
a strong enough presence to offer a genuine challenge to the regime.
not by lies," Solzhenitsyn urged his Soviet compadres in the
1970s, and a regime built on lies would eventually come to an end.
But it took about 20 years after Solzhenitsyn so urged, an active
dissident movement that featured scores of people willing to serve
long prison terms, more economic failure – and to some extent, although
less so than the Reagan hagiographers would have us believe, a relatively
aggressive U.S. foreign policy that sharpened contradictions – for
the system to crumble remarkably quickly and thoroughly.
it surprised most of the so-called experts, who lamented that totalitarian
systems had a focus and intensity, a capacity to plan and execute
across decades, that gave them an inherent superiority over mere
democracies and free societies. Intellectuals even wrote books about
how democracies perish and defectors from communism were convinced
that they had come over to the losing side.
the 20th century should have taught us anything, however,
it should have been the apparent paradox that totalitarian systems
and tyrannies are more vulnerable than they seem, and that free
societies are more stable and resilient than they seem – not because
they are willing to go to war, but because they are constantly being
adjusted in response to real and apparent dissatisfactions and welcome
adjustment and adaptation rather than trying to force a unitary
vision on a society.
that mean it was foolish to go to war against Saddam Hussein's totalitarian
system, that it would have crumbled anyway, given a bit more time
and a bit more honesty and courage from the Iraqi people? It's worth
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