Julius Caesar knew how to announce the capture an enemy leader. In 52 BC, his Roman soldiers defeated the tribes of Gaul, and captured the Gallic leader Vercingetorix. The “barbarian” chief was paraded through Rome in chains, and executed after six years in captivity. In The Gallic Wars, Caesar justified his invasion and occupation of Gaul by writing that Vercingetorix “terrorized waverers with the rigors of an iron discipline. Serious cases of disaffection were punished by torture and death at the stake, and even for a minor fault he would cut off a man’s ears or gouge out one of his eyes, that they may be an example to the rest, and frighten others.”
Caesar described the Gallic defense and ultimate surrender: “To the extraordinary valor of our soldiers, devices of every sort were opposed by the Gauls….I ordered that their weapons should be surrendered and their tribal chiefs brought before me. I took my place on the fortifications in front of the camp and the chiefs were brought to me there. Vercingetorix was surrendered, and the weapons were laid down before me….A thanksgiving of twenty days is decreed…”
In 2003 AD, George W. Bush also announced the capture of an enemy leader, using much the same language as his Roman predecessor: “The world is better off without you, Mr. Saddam Hussein….Our brave troops, combined with good intelligence, found you….He stayed in power by fear, by ruling through fear….He’s a liar. He’s a torturer. He’s a murderer…. He’s a person that was willing to destroy his country and to kill a lot of his fellow citizens. He’s a person who used weapons of mass destruction against citizens in his own country.”
President Bush had no weapons of mass destruction laid down before him. He nevertheless justified his invasion and occupation of Iraq as an occasion for thanksgiving: “Saturday, when we captured Saddam, it was a day where America is more secure as a result of his capture…And so I told my dad, I said, it’s a great day for America…”
The Worst Possible News for Bush
Bush may be no Caesar, just as Saddam is no Vercingetorix, but the dynamics of empire have changed little. Caesar’s capture of the Gallic leader marked a high point in his reign, but his reign dramatically ended only two years after the execution of the Gallic chief (who ultimately became a French national hero). Bush’s capture of the Iraqi leader also has marked a high point in his Administration, with his ministers and colonial governor barely able to conceal their giddiness. But as they promote the trial and execution of Saddam, they are also exhibiting an overconfidence in their imperial reach.
In the short term, the capture of Saddam is the best possible news for the Occupation. The capture could begin to reduce Baathist attacks against U.S. troops, and public opposition to the continuing war. Yet in the long term, the capture could also end up being the worst possible news for the Occupation. Without Saddam as a looming threat, Bush has lost his most powerful argument for keeping troops in Iraq, and may end up stimulating more Iraqi resistance.
Most Americans see only two sides in a war. We have been brought up in a two-party electoral system, and have been instilled with a “good-vs.-evil” religious ethic. But a complex multifaceted conflict, like the war in Iraq, never has just two sides. Saddam’s capture will certainly not end the fears of his Sunni Arab minority that it will be shut out of power, one of the factors fueling the guerrilla insurgency in central Iraq. It will not matter much to Sunni Islamists, who view both Saddam and Bush as their secular enemies.
The Shi’ite Resistance
The capture will matter the most to the group that feared and hated Saddam the most: the Shi’ite Arabs of southern Iraq and eastern Baghdad. But their reaction will be the opposite of the one anticipated by Bush and his colonial governor Paul Bremer. Instead of lauding the capture as a reason to cooperate with the Americans, the Shi’ites will resolve to more quickly end the Occupation. Saddam’s capture may end up being the worst possible news for Bush, because it could easily heighten resistance among the key majority group in the country.
Shi’ite leaders have strongly opposed the Occupation, but they been reluctant to direct their powerful militia groups to join the insurgency. They did not want to be perceived as fighting on the same side as Saddam’s Baathists, or Sunni Islamists. They also did not want to contribute to even the slightest possibility that the dictator could return to power and again take vengeance on their community. But now those disincentives have disappeared overnight. Shi’ite clerics can argue that since the Americans have caught the guy, their job is finished in Iraq, and their mission is over. The Americans can go home now, with the emphasis on “now.”
The single most important reaction to Saddam’s capture will be from the Shi’ite Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He has recently been at odds with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council over their plans to hold only limited elections next Fall. Sistani has called for a fully democratic vote next Summer for a national government that would restore sovereignty to Iraq. The Shi’ites view anything less than full democracy as a slap in the face, because they would be denied their rightful place as the Iraqi majority.
Iraqi Shi’ites would have preferred that they had been allowed to overthrow and capture their own dictator. They remember the U.S. support for Saddam, first in the name of fighting Communism, then of fighting the Shi’ite revolution in Iran. Washington inaccurately viewed Iraqi Shi’ite resisters as merely pawns of Iran. The Shi’ites remember when U.S. forces sat outside Basra as Saddam slaughtered them in 1991, much as the Soviet Army waited outside Warsaw as the Nazis crushed the Polish Resistance. And like Eastern Europeans, they welcomed their liberation from tyranny, but resisted when the so-called “liberators” decided to stay.
A permanent presence?
And stay they will. Although the Occupation authorities discuss turning power over to Iraqi authorities sometime in 2004, they never discuss the possible withdrawal of their troops. The CPA has already decided in advance that a new sovereign Iraqi government will invite U.S. and British forces to remain in the country. Bremer claims that these forces will be necessary for “security,” although many Iraqis assume the troops will stay to control Iraqi oil fields. The Pentagon has leaked proposals for four permanent U.S. military bases, to join the string of new bases left behind by other recent interventions, creating a new U.S. sphere of influence in the region.
The U.S. bases left behind in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War were also justified as “security” against Saddam. They instead stimulated resentment to an armed non-Muslim presence in the Islamic holy land, leading directly to the formation of Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. It is no coincidence that most U.S. bases were quickly withdrawn from Saudi Arabia after the conquest of Iraq provided a strategic substitute.
But the U.S. forces are jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Instead of being stationed in the country with the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina, they are now stationed in the country with the Shi’ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Massive demonstrations have shook cities such as Hillah, where peaceful Shi’ite protesters recently ousted the U.S.-appointed regional governor. They have been joined by independent trade unionists, angry that the CPA is using Saddam’s anti-labor laws to repress their movement.
Every time the CPA seeks to exude an image of stability in Iraq, it ends up exposing the unstable situation in the country. Bush’s surprise visit to Baghdad was meant to boost troop morale. But Iraqi citizens could see that Bush was afraid to leave the safety of the airport to press the flesh with them. Bush’s secretive visit bore little resemblance to the open visits of Eisenhower to Korea, or of LBJ and Nixon to Vietnam, during much more intense wars.
The U.S. promotion of Saddam’s execution is similarly meant to communicate stability to Iraqis, who understandably want to eliminate their former tyrant. Yet it may also be perceived as a way to silence Saddam, so in future years he cannot grant interviews about the aid he received from Western governments and corporations.
The Bush Administration foreign policy has become the world’s largest generator of self-fulfilling prophecies. By invading countries that “might” have weapons of mass destruction, it has driven some states to speed up their nuclear programs as a deterrent against invasion. By invading Iraq because it “might” have links to Islamist terrorists, it has enabled Al Qaeda to step up recruitment, and possibly send cadre to Iraq that were not there before the war. By vowing to “stay the course” for stability in Iraq, U.S. forces will instead stimulate more “blowback” among ordinary Iraqis, and the vicious circle continues.
Preventing Civil War?
Perhaps the most dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy is that U.S. troops need to stay in Iraq in order to “prevent civil war.” This is an argument even accepted by some liberals who opposed the invasion of Iraq, but defend the Occupation now that the troops are there. Perhaps they have internalized the image of Muslims as uncontrollable savages out to slit throats.
The fact is that many of the ethnic and religious divisions in the Middle East have been widened, not narrowed, by colonial rule. Outsiders tend to worsen internal differences, not improve them. Continued outside interference can actually exacerbate internal tensions and in the process actually cause a civil war.
Colonial rulers have always tended to side with one faction against another. They need native leadership to help them carry out indirect rule, and often offer advantages to leadership from a particular ethnic or religious group. Belgian colonial rule over Rwanda constructed the resentment of Tutsis by Hutus, much as British colonial rule over Indian exacerbated tensions between Hindus and Muslims.
The American tendency to select “good guys” to fight “bad guys” in internal conflicts strongly resembles this colonial history. The U.S. entered Somalia as a “peacekeeping” force to keep warring clan militias apart, but took sides against one warlord, and paid the consequences. In former Yugoslavia, U.S. interventions opposed Serbian nationalists, but sided with Croatian and Albanian nationalists. The massive expulsion of Kosovar Albanians started after NATO began bombing the Serbs, and was followed by a reverse expulsion of the Serbs. Outside intervention in brought a “peace” based only on successful “ethnic cleansing.”
It is simply not inevitable that in the absence of Western troops, Iraqis will naturally want to slit each others’ throats. Despite their ethnic and religious diversity, Iraqis have a set of common experiences that have helped construct a state identity over the past century. Iraqis’ resistance to Turkish and British colonial forces, and the overthrow of their pro-Western monarch, were only the beginning. In recent decades, Iraqis have also together faced Saddam’s harsh repression, a brutal border war with Iran, and bombing, sanctions, and occupation by the Americans and British. Iraqis have far more in common with each other than with foreign rulers or exiles.
Iraqis appear to be tired of war and indignities, and tend to support a new government that incorporates Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites. Yet the CPA’s Iraqi Governing Council, dominated by elite exiles, does not fit the bill. Many Iraqis resent the exiles’ collaboration with the Americans, increasing the risk of a real civil war. The CPA has set up an advantage whether the Council succeeds or fails. If the Council succeeds, it will be compliant to U.S. wishes. If the Council is weakened or torn apart by its ethnic, religious or political divisions, the U.S. can justify a continued troop presence to “stabilize” the country and its oil supply.
The suggestion that full sovereignty should be delayed due to the risk of civil war is not one we would make to ourselves. Americans fought for their independence even though they were torn by internal differences. No Americans advocated in 1861 that the British should back send the redcoats to prevent our own bloody civil war. Contradictions in a sovereign state sometimes lead to a civil war, but denying full sovereignty is not a solution. Frustrated by outside control they cannot change, Iraqis may take their frustrations out on each other.
Bush is repeating the mistakes of the Roman emperors, justifying the extension of an empire by claiming the “barbarians” are not capable of ruling themselves. Our continued military presence in Iraq may not prevent a civil war, but instead guarantee one. The only way it may ultimately prevent a civil war is to turn Iraqis, regardless of their own differences, to turn against us.
Dr. Zoltan Grossman is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His peace writings can be seen at www.uwec.edu/grossmzc/peace.html, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org