Why Saddam and Milosevic are immune to sanctions

IT WAS nine years ago today that Iraq invaded Kuwait. Ever since, the United States has been seeking to bring about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It seems that you can defeat him in battle, you can encourage rebellion, you can apply sanctions, you can dismantle his weapons systems, you can patrol no-fly zones, yet still Saddam rules over Iraq. How has he managed to survive? Could Slobodan Milosevic prove equally durable as the absolute master of Serbia?

The West has great difficulty in understanding the dynamics of dictatorship. Soon after the Gulf war had ended, in the spring of 1991, when Saddam faced brush fire revolts in the Shia Muslim lands of Southern Iraq and in the Kurdish provinces on the Northern border, analysts in the US State Department and in the CIA, in the British Foreign office and in MI6, were unanimous that the brutal dictator must fall.

What was it that these experts were overlooking?

An examination of the failed rebellions of 1991 shows that the Shia uprising was spontaneous, but that it had no leadership in the cities. Former army officers tried to provide direction but could not impose their will. Support from Iranian religious leaders was counter- productive. Nobody else in Iraq, whether Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Christians, secular Iraqis or anyone associated with the ruling Baathist party wanted the fundamentalism of the Iranian ayatollahs to take root. In any case the rebels were confident of American support - but none was forthcoming.

Such analysis, however, misses important features. This is where a new book, Out of the Ashes; the Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (by Patrick Cockburn, the Jerusalem correspondent of The Independent, and his brother Andrew) is extremely useful. It's been published in the US, but HarperCollins has no plans to release it in this country. Never mind, those readers with Internet access will have no difficulty in obtaining a copy.

Economic sanctions have had numerous perverse results. It is not just that ordinary Iraqis have blamed the US, rather then their rulers, for their economic ruin. This is a familiar pattern, well exemplified by a similar sentiment in Serbia; people there reserve their anger for the Nato allies rather than for their strong man, Milosevic. In the case of Iraq, the consequences have stretched much further.

The agonies of ill-health and malnutrition which Iraqis have undergone, with infant mortality rising sharply, have moved public opinion in neighbouring Arab states. While the Arab rulers still fear Saddam, their peoples are full of sympathy. As a result, the US can no longer attract support from the rest of the Gulf.

Moreover within Iraq, sanctions have actually helped Saddam maintain his power. The government had to introduce a system of rationing. It is equitable and, in the judgement of some experts, provides a strikingly efficient system of distribution. From Saddam's point of view it represents an additional system of state control.

The food shortages also have had the effect of reversing the movement of poor people from the countryside to the big cities. Nowadays some 40 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture, three times the number before the invasion of Kuwait.

Lacking vital pesticides, fertilisers, animal feed and spare parts for irrigation machinery, Iraqis have gone back to the farming methods of their forefathers. But this dispersal of city dwellers also reduces the likelihood of opposition movements gathering strength.

More seriously still, from the perspective of the proponents of the policy, sanctions have destroyed the middle classes. They have broken the people most likely to provide the nucleus of opposition movements. Sanctions started by extinguishing middle-class jobs, whether in commerce, in the professions or in state service. These positions depended, directly or indirectly, on Iraq's former oil wealth. Even if nominal salaries were maintained, purchasing power declined rapidly as severe inflation took hold. The middle classes started to sell - watches, carpets, furniture, gold, silverware, cameras, videos, cars - to obtain cash for food. Very soon the middle classes were not middle class any longer, except in education and old habits.

A further perverse result of the application of economic sanctions has been the strengthening of fundamentalism. This could have been foreseen, because the result of economic distress is often a resort to uncompromising faiths or extreme political creeds. Until the 1990s, Iraq had been a mainly secular society. But under pressure, Iraq's dispossessed salary- earners have increasingly taken refuge in religion. At the same time, young people have been growing up in a narrow, restrictive setting. They are likely to be relatively intolerant. They can certainly be stirred up to take to the streets. But the sentiments they express may not be what Western governments would like to hear.

Before reading Out of the Ashes I would have advocated the dismantling of sanctions, on the grounds that dictators need external threats if they are to unify their people behind them and that, when the pressure comes off, the autocrat may appear redundant. But Andrew and Patrick Cockburn give no support to this line of thinking. As they point out, Iraq's pre- war standard of living was good.

The possession of immense oil wealth, which Iraq would once again secure, strengthens authoritarian government. This is not just because the lucky tyrants can spend more on repression - as they do - but because oil wealth, when it is sizeable enough in relation to the population, allows the state to become independent of society. Such countries can provide all the excellent medical care, education, clean water and other amenities that are needed free of charge, without having to tax its citizens heavily or seek foreign subsidies.

The historic foundation of Western democracy, no taxation without representation, lacks resonance in such a setting.

Of course Saddam can make his own mistakes and fall from power. He has been the ruthless master of the violent politics of his country for 30 years. Peaceful retirement seems unlikely. But, however he goes, neither Western forces nor the machinations of Western agencies will have had much to do with it.

The West can interfere, but it cannot bring about a decisive result. It might as well go back to the status quo ante bellum.

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