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It is clear that the Saddam Hussein regime has breathed its last, although there is undoubtedly enough pulse left along the fringes to delay the business of pacification and consolidation a bit longer. As we move to this concluding phase, an interesting question arises. It pertains to the frequently voiced assertion that even the achievement of an overwhelming military triumph in Iraq will over the long run prove to be a Pyrrhic Victory. This because, it is claimed, the rage in the streets throughout the Islamic world will have been exponentially increased by what we have done. Osama bin Laden’s recruiting offices will be doing a land-office business.
Thomas Friedman (NYT, April 15) has defined the challenge: Calling it “Saddamism,” he says it is “an entrenched Arab mind-set, born of years of colonialism and humiliation, that insists that upholding Arab dignity and nationalism by defying the West is more important than freedom, democracy and democratization.”
This may turn out to be true, of course. But it may also be an oversimplification. The question is, how long will jingoized Arab nationalism last in the new political-economic environment that may be dawning. One can look back at the history of previous wars which open societies have waged against totalitarian regimes that were driven by doctrinal extremism and come away with different conclusions. We have the examples of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Bushido Japan, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and Ho Chih Min’s Vietnam. The claim is that in all such instances, the ideological modus operandi of the state was essentially the same–viz., “brain-washing” their populations into ideologically programed automatons
Pessimists predicted that such pervasive indoctrination would have ineradicable effects on the collective mind-sets of their victims. Not only would it make them fanatical zealots on the battlefield. It would as well render them socially unredeemable and thus ungovernable after hostilities ended.
Perceptions of Japan from the end of the Meiji Period to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a type-case of what the Allies expected to face after World War II. The Japanese people were allegedly so psychologically inundated by Emperor worship and Bushido militarism that not only would they fight to the last soldier while the war lasted, but afterward would resist rehabilitation to the last civillian.
The opposite turned out to be the case. Japan’s defeat, the demise of the warlords, and the de-fanging of Emperor Hirohito almost overnight broke the ideological spell which had held the Japanese populace in thrall for more than a generation. So much so, in fact, that Japan became the first modern state to enshrine the renunciation of war in its democratic constitution. Today, Japan is one of the most secular, materialistic, middle-class, peace-loving societies on earth.
Germany underwent a similar metamorphosis from one of the most vicious, racist, totalitarian political regimes in human history. The most poignant proof of this, apart from its thriving civil society, and pioneering role in creating NATO and the European Union (EU), has been its dogged refusal to join America’s crusade against Iraq.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Marxist-Leninist ideological chorus faded into oblivion overnight, from East Berlin to Vladivostok, from the Arctic Circle to Tajikistan. The post-Cold War problem now facing the successor Russian state and its former satellites has been how to satiate the peoples’ hunger for consumer goods, free-enterprise and participation in the global economy.
The people of Post-Mao China have become so obsessed with making money and following the capitalist road that they seem destined to eventually outdo the Americans in their addiction to crass materialism. This despite the lingering Confucian commissars who are still desperately trying to maintain the veneer of Communist orthodoxy.
The Fascist minions of Benito Mussolini’s day, who sang of returning Italy to the grandeur of Imperial Rome, faded away even before World War II ended! The present generation of life-loving Italians would be hard pressed even to remember that their strutting, comic opera dictator ever existed.
Within a few years after Ho Chih Minh’s triumph over American power in Southeast Asia, the US and the famous Vietnam “domino” were doing business with each other, and the first American ambassador to Ho Chih Minh City was Pete Peterson, one of the most famous guests of the Hanoi Hilton.
This tells us that the human spirit is far more resilient than dictators, and even democrats, imagine. You may for a time be able to slap a lid on personal freedom with an Orwellian state apparatus that endeavors to control every move a person makes and seemingly every thought he thinks. But the examples given show that the moment the totalitarian lid is lifted, the yearning for freedom and individuality immediately comes bubbling to the surface.
This is what the US and the free world have going for them if they are smart enough to seize the moment. Everyone today is dead certain that Islamic rage is such an implacable force that nothing the West can do will succeed in defanging it. I am prepared to adopt the devil’s advocate position and suggest that no more than a few fundamental measures are now capable of turning off that rage and launching Muslims on a course leading to civic constructionism and pervasive social reforms. As Friedman puts it, if only we are successful in creating a healthy Iraqi middle-class, the same has a chance of taking hold elsewhere in West Asia.
To turn the tide, the United States must adopt a mind-set of its own that will make things work to the advantage not only of US strategic preoccupations but of the international community as a whole. This does indeed mean pursuing the economic and political measures that will lay the foundation for a free, secular, democratic, prosperous Iraq that will demonstrate to the Arab street that minus their current retrograde, feudal ruling elites, civil society and lamb-shank on every table are attainable goals for the Muslim common man.
I have suggested elsewhere (Counterpunch, April 17) that India’s non-western style pluralistic democracy is a model for nation-building in Iraq. India learned how to create a political system that could formulate consensus from pluralism of continental proportions. Iraq needs a version of that, and not what was done in Latvia or Lithuania.
The Marshall Plan and NATO did the job for post-World War II Europe. General MacArthur’s insertion of himself into Emperor Hirohito’s shoes enabled him to employ the prestige of that office and his charismatic skills to lead the Japanese people toward democracy. In both instances, what this implied was the massive commitment of political wisdom, economic resources and administrative flexibility to the tasks at hand. In a comparatively short time, the Orwellian nightmare that everybody said was an incurable political malady became a thing of the past.
This could be the case in the Arab world if the United States, Great Britain, and the other European states who currently are engaged in petty political bickering would turn their attention and their considerable material and intellectual resources to creating new, revitalizing institutions in Iraq along Indian lines whose example would radiate outward to Damascus, Teheran, Riadd, Cairo and Islamabad. Everyone pledges that this will be done, but the past record of achievement does not speak well for the future, especially when it is must be led by an American government that is already swimming in massive public debt and haunted by deep-seated isolationist propensities.
Concomitantly, the new dispensation must extend to the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum. In the end this will be the determining factor in whether any reformist political models will work anywhere in the Middleast. The United States will have to play the decisive role here. Ironically, in fact, Mr Bush’s Operation Freedom in Iraq probably has little chance of ultimate success unless a way can be found to achieve genuine political freedom for the Palestinians. Nobody but the US has the power and influence to bring this about. Doing so will require a Bush administration, currently strongly allied with Christian fundamentalists, and themselves laden with neo-con hardliners brimming with hegemonic dreams, to fundamentally alter the way the United States deals with Israel. It will have to do more than rhetorically criticize the political intractability of Mr Sharon, Yasir Arafat and their respective radical wings. It will require direct action. This means sanctions for failing to withdraw the settlers from Arab lands, restraints on military assistance to the IDF, aggressive pressure on the Palestinian Authority to neutralize the terrorists, and unequivocal support for the immediate establishment of a completely free and independent Palestinian state. If you were a betting man, what odds would you give that this can ever happen? However, if mature statecraft should succeed in turning the political tide, one can be confident that Arab rage and anti-Semitism will eventually melt away as surely as did the Orwellian ideological choruses of the World War II and Cold War eras.
HAROLD A. GOULD is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia.