This foolish illusion that things used to be better - no matter how bad they were

Societies that move swiftly from authoritarian control to freedom are giddy, exhilarating and frequently scary places
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Returning to South Africa over the past few years I have heard it asserted by white citizens that "things were better in the old days". This statement is usually followed by a tirade about the crime levels. To a member of a privileged minority things were undoubtedly better, that is if you could turn a blind eye to apartheid. In Russia one meets the same attitude among some of the older people who pine for the days of Stalin, or in Ireland those who dream of the old republic with its dominant clergy and drum-beating nationalism. It is all nonsense, but seductive just the same.

It was better under apartheid? Really? So much better that the overwhelming majority of the population were disenfranchised on the basis of their skin colour, brutalised by cruelty and robbed of their birthright, a country built on lies which was a hair's breadth away from a terrifying bloodbath. That's how much better it was. Or what about the golden days of Comrade Stalin during which millions vanished into Gulags or torture chambers. Let us dream of such wonderful times when every home feared the midnight knock on the door. Or in Ireland, do we for a moment believe that life was better when Church and state were fist in glove?

But dramatic change nearly always produces such longings. Societies that move swiftly from authoritarian control to freedom are giddy, exhilarating and frequently scary places. It is not always just the revanchists or those who were beneficiaries of the old regimes who are scared by altered realities. I remember a strange conversation, for me at any rate, with a black domestic worker who said that the crime in her township made her long for the 1960s when "the police had criminals by the throat".

The woman had direct experience of violence. Her boyfriend had been shot by two men outside a shebeen in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg. Joanna's emotional reaction was to wish for the age of certainty; the era to which she referred was one of mass repression as Hendrik Verwoerd accelerated the programme of grand apartheid. But seen from the vantage point of the violent 1990s, it looked, to this elderly woman, a much safer place.

Just a few weeks back, in Basra, I was interviewing a leader of the Badr Corps, the military wing of a Shia faction that suffered appalling repression under Saddam Hussein. After the interview one of the man's bodyguards was showing us to the door. "You know for people the life now is bad," he said. "At least under Saddam we had the electricity." I looked at him. Could he really be serious? Life better when Saddam was rounding up the Shia and murdering them in their thousands? One of the Shia spiritual leaders had been murdered by having his beard set alight and nails driven through his head. This after he had been forced to watch his sister being sexually assaulted.

It is not unusual to hear Iraqis, even those who suffered most under the regime, say that at least life was safer under Saddam. Just like the old South African woman they have a point, a very personal one. If you live on a street where bandits are running wild, or if work and hospitals and schools are no longer safe places, then it is understandable if the old terrors are hardly pre-eminent in your thoughts.

But for those of us who report on or analyse Iraq, a little more perspective is called for. Six months after the statue of Saddam was toppled we are all asking what has been achieved. But the question is too often asked with reference only to the present. The other Iraq, with its torture chambers and mass graves, rarely informs our thinking. In the age of 24-hour media the long view is obscured by the latest US casualties in Baghdad or the most recent suicide bombing. The picture received at this end is one of unremitting chaos and bloodshed.

There are two things to be said about this. First, there is certainly a lot of bloodshed. There is chaos in parts of the country. But compared to the average death toll under Saddam the current mess simply doesn't compare. But the second point flows directly from this: if I were an Iraqi living in Baghdad or Basra now I would be scared. I would not be inclined to indulge in retrospective comparison. The present is the country I live in. Which makes the most recent opinion poll all the more fascinating. It shows a clear two-thirds majority of respondents who believe that in spite of the suffering they have experienced it was worth it to get rid of Saddam.

This doesn't let the coalition off the hook of course. Popular dissatisfaction with the occupation is acute. The first few weeks were a terrible lost opportunity. Undermanned and unprepared, governed by the arrogance of supreme military power, the US forces flailed around them. They flailed and failed, most critically in the eyes of the Iraqis, whose political astuteness is the most highly developed in the Arab world.

The weeks of looting were followed by the removal of Jay Garner, which in turn led to Paul Bremer's arrival and the chaotic attempt to de-Baath Iraq's structures of government. Throughout, the persistent use of heavy-handed tactics by the US forces has alienated Iraqis who should be supporters of the coalition effort. And the hardest thing for anybody to accept is that the ambushes, the suicide bombings, the crime wave, the unemployment, the failing services - they are not going to get dramatically better any time soon. Incremental change is the reality.

But there is surely some significance in the fact that most of the violence is concentrated in a specific swath of territory. When Mr Bremer insists that the majority of Iraqis don't want violence he is telling the truth. What he will not say, however, is that they don't particularly want the coalition either. There is grudging tolerance of the foreign forces, but it is dependent on the word of the imams and tribal sheikhs.

In the past, the Western powers treated Iraq with deplorable cynicism. The British encouraged the rise of client regimes, and later they and the Americans supported the brutal Saddam. Now that these powers declare themselves motivated by idealism we can hardly expect Iraqis to be other than suspicious.

Yet I believe it is possible to get Iraq to a point, reasonably soon, where Iraqis run Iraq. This means at least another 12 months to frame a constitution, with it then put to the vote in a referendum. There must also be a timetable for elections that no amount of bloodshed is allowed to derail.

The coalition cannot withdraw immediately and hand over to the governing council without disaster. The pressure in this regard will likely come from American public opinion. Which is why the greatest threat to Iraq is the danger of "spectacular" attacks on American forces with hundreds of casualties. If this happens, expect George Bush's ratings to plummet and the search for a way out to speed up. I fervently hope it does not. For the sake of America and Iraq.

The price of Western abandonment could prove far greater than the legacy of colonial meddling and manipulation. The only way out of this mess is through it.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent

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