Give Peace a Chance

The biggest unknown of the Gulf War II has become what to expect when it is over. Will it have been worth it in the end?

A range of costs under various circumstances are easy enough to estimate. Potential benefits are much harder to gauge. It is not easy to put a credible price tag on what the US hopes to win with its war effort — or even to state clearly its aims.

But one thing at least is certain. Western-style democracy is no better than a distant second on the list. The Bush Administration’s hopes don’t depend on developing an Arab taste for political freedom. They rest instead on the belief that, after nearly a quarter century of bitter war, citizens of Iraq will prefer a lengthy peace.

It is hard to fathom what Iraqis have been through in the years since Saddam seized power altogether in 1979 and ordered the execution of hundreds of his close (and not so close) rivals. In 1980 came the first battles of the disastrous eight-year war with Iran — with 120,000 dead, 300,000 wounded, 65,000 captured.

Next, in 1990, the invasion of Kuwait led to another devastating war, this time with a global coalition led by the Americans. Rebellions by the Kurds in the north and the Shiite Muslims were vengefully crushed in the course of the next ten years. All the while the poorest Iraqis suffered greatly the consequences of a twelve-year international boycott that was ineffectually aimed at the nation’s leaders.

Saddam Hussein was able to operate his country in this fashion thanks to two vital struts — the Baath Party and a government oil monopoly. The US has said that it intends to demolish both

The Baath Party was dreamt up during the 1930s by expatriate Arab students in Paris who were longing for national mobilization against the colonial powers, as Hugh Pope of the Wall Street Journal reported last week. They decided that a German-style national socialism would be worth a try, and self-consciously modeled their organization on the Nazi Party.

Baathists organized in Damascus in 1947 and came to power finally in Syria and Iraq in the 1960s. By the time Saddam Hussein took control of the party in 1979, its 1.5 million members ran the country as tightly as any Communist Party. With sole control of the country’s oil revenues, he was able to buy weapons, build palaces, reward friends and party members. Those he didn’t trust, he killed.

What to expect a year from now? Five years from now?

For one thing, the US-led Coalition authorities plan an ambitious “de-Baathification” program, modeled on the effort in Germany after World War II. There will be war crime tribunals for the party’s top leadership; a massive re-indoctrination and close watch for the rest, accompanied by a steady dilution of their power. At first, however, the country cannot be run without the Baathists.

For another, they also plan an extensive auction of the rights to produce oil from Iraq’s existing fields and to search for more. American, British, Russian and other companies will submit their bids. At least at first, the Iraqi government will reap an enormous windfall from these sales.

Chances are that some way will be found in due course to privatize its state-owned oil company, much as the nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union found mechanisms to transfer ownership of their productive apparatus to private hands — with varying degrees of fairness.

So what of Iraqi democracy in all this? Haven’t forty years of dictatorship robbed its citizens of all whatever habits of civic cooperation that they possessed? Hadn’t the dominion of the British and Ottoman empire enfeebled them long before that? Won’t the many factions soon be at each others’ throats? Without a strongman at the top, mustn’t the nation quickly descend into chaos?


Perhaps there will be civil war. Yugoslavia turned to killing not long after Tito died. But then the young Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians hadn’t been recklessly spilling each others’ blood for 25 years already, the way the Iraqis have.

On the other hand, perhaps there will be peace. It would be an uneasy peace at first, to be sure. But before long, it might begin to spread. Peace in the region is the real goal of US policy in the Mideast — not democracy, not equality, not fraternity. Just peace — the absence of war.

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The most remarkable American newsman of his generation was killed last week, in Iraq, while embedded with the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. Michael Kelly was 46 when he died, apparently in a Humvee accident, possibly fleeing an ambush.

Kelly was a fierce advocate of the Gulf War II. He covered the Gulf War I in 1991 for the New Republic and The Boston Globe. Martyrs’ Day: Chronicle of a Small War, the book he wrote afterwards is a classic, reminiscent of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. He wrote a political column for the Washington Post and, for a time, edited and reinvigorated The Atlantic Monthly.

“I am certainly now a hawk,” he wrote at one point, “and during the Vietnam years I was certainly a dove. What changed me was in fact experience of war — but not as a soldier. I covered the Gulf War as a reporter, and it was this experience, later compounded by what I saw reporting in Bosnia, that convinced me of the moral imperative, sometimes, for war.”

There will be an avalanche of Kelly appreciations now. That’s appropriate. He was one of a kind. But how much better if he had lived!