Three hours before the first U.S. fighter jets left central Saudi Arabia for Baghdad, Kiren Chaudhry sighed and told the 99th reporter of the week what she had just told me: that the sanctions against Iraq were working. She’d been in Iraq a week and a half before, tagging along with an eclectic contingent of U.S. peace activists, including Vietnam veterans and Grandmothers for Peace. When she’d left Baghdad, the stores were still full, but a sack of flour was selling for 260 dinars–twice a soldier’s monthly wages. There was no bread.
“What that means,” she tells the reporter with a trace of asperity, “is that Iraq can’t hold out much longer. The sanctions are working.”
“Just what the mainstream media doesn’t want to hear,” she says, hanging up the phone.
Chaudhry’s been doing a lot of talking to the media, mainstream and otherwise, since Iraq invaded Kuwait last year. In the last six months she has been on CBS Morning News, NBC Nightly News, and NPR and in the New York Times. Heady stuff for a young professor and, she says, completely unexpected. As a graduate student, she had a hard time finding anyone interested in reading her papers. Now she gets several calls a day, saying “Oh, I’d love to see your paper on Iraqi economic reforms.”
The daughter of a Pakistani father and a Swedish American mother, Chaudhry grew up in a Punjabi village in Pakistan. She speaks Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, and Arabic. Her background, she says, makes for good media fodder, but she resents being looked at as “a queer cultural artifact.”
The 31-year-old Chaudhry got her PhD from Harvard last March and landed at the University of California at Berkeley as an assistant professor of political science in September. A former Fulbright scholar, she’s a specialist in the political economy of the Middle East and has spent the last five years doing research in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. In the fall of 1989 she lived in Iraq, doing fieldwork on Iraq’s economic reform and privatization program.
Her office is white, neat, and subdued, decorated with posters from Eastern Europe and color snapshots from Iraq: a marketplace scene, a smiling, dark-eyed girl peeking out from the shelter of her sister’s chador. Chaudhry is a small, compact woman with neat dark hair and cool, wary eyes. She is tense today and rarely smiles. When she does, it’s a rueful, crooked smile that vanishes in a flash.
When I first arrive, Chaudhry shows me several Iranian and Iraqi propaganda posters from her last visit. In one, three giant black bats hang upside down against a crimson sky; in another, what looks like a swirling river of blood and light encircles and threatens to engulf the holy Kaaba at Mecca. She has thought about putting them up but doesn’t want anyone to misconstrue their meaning and think she supports Hussein or the legacy of Khomeini. She doesn’t. What appeals to her about the posters is how clearly they depict the almost primeval forces at work in the gulf–the rage, the intense xenophobia, the religious and nationalist ferocity. It is this fury more than anything else that Chaudhry has tried to illuminate in her critique of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, and it is this fury that the gray-suited men in the nation’s capital have once again failed to comprehend. Chaudhry has no doubt that the United States can win a military victory against Iraq, but she fears the fruit of that victory will be more bitter than we can begin to imagine.
Laura Hagar: You were in Iraq ten days before the U.S. attack. What was the mood of the people in Baghdad when you were there?
Kiren Chaudhry: I think the first and most striking thing was the fear, and along with that, a sense of disbelief–a sense that the Americans couldn’t possibly attack Baghdad itself. I think this comes out of the fact that even though Iraqis have gone through this period of xenophobia and anti-Western, anti-American propaganda for a long time, they still admire a great deal about the United States and they still somehow feel–perhaps because of the repression of their own regime–that the United States has something to offer them in terms of an abstract political alternative, in terms of helping them get out of their current situation. But I don’t think they ever imagined or ever wanted the United States to try to do this through war.
LH: Are you saying that a significant portion of the Iraqi population does not support Saddam Hussein?
KC: To give you an idea of how one gleans these things in a police state that’s so repressive–where saying something directly to a Westerner could result in not just your death but the death of your whole family or your whole clan–let me describe two different experiences I had at a very famous and very old Baghdadi restaurant. When I was in Iraq at the end of 1989, I went there several times. The restaurant regularly features singers who, interspersed with other songs, sing eulogies to Saddam which are manufactured by the government on a daily basis. Now last year when I was there, when these would come on, people would go out of their way to demonstrate how much they were enjoying it. They would clap, get up on the tables sometimes, dance, sing along. This time, after these songs would end, there was no applause at all. While we were in this restaurant, two different fistfights broke out among large groups of people–it’s an enormous place.
I came away with the sense that the Iraqis are simply fed up. If you look at what Iraq has gone through in the past decade you can see why. They had eight years of war with Iran, a war which was very divisive internally because a large proportion of Iraqis are Shiites and many of them actually favored Khomeini and the new system in Iran. About 60 percent of the Iraqi population is Shiite. The other 40 percent is Sunni, but within that there’s another division: in that, approximately 50 percent is Sunni and approximately 50 percent is Sunni Kurdish–so politically these two groups often are at loggerheads because of the ethnic difference.
Besides the war with Iran, Iraq also went through a period of economic liberalization in which the government tried to promote the private sector and made all kinds of reforms, including the privatization of industry. They dissolved the labor unions. Wages dropped. There was unemployment. There were all the kinds of stresses that we see in Eastern Europe right now, that same kind of economic instability and collapse. All this was going on from October 1988 until the initiation of this new military venture. So Iraqis, I think, are generally fed up. They don’t understand why it is that they have to bear the burden of the Arab cause time and time again. They thought that’s what was going on with the Iran-Iraq war, and now they’re doing it again.
LH: What do you mean by the “burden of the Arab cause”?
KC: Well, each one of these conflicts for the Iraqis and the Arabs has been framed in terms of opposing an external non-Arab entity. The Iran-Iraq war of course was about opposing the Persians and particularly the Iranian revolution. And that’s why all the Arab countries supported Iraq in this war–Kuwait and Saudi Arabia loaned Iraq billions of dollars to fight the war against Iran. The current conflict, which started out as a financial disagreement with Kuwait, has now been posed in terms of first, a conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis, and now, a broader conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, or Arabs and the West. So in that sense it’s very abstract for most Iraqis. They can’t quite understand why basic goals that they have–such as getting a better standard of living, having their children educated abroad, living the kind of life that other people in oil-exporting countries live–have been shelved once again for these abstract ideological causes.
LH: So how did Iraq get in this position? I mean, these things always seem like they come out of the blue, but of course they don’t. There’s always a history.
KC: A lot of the Middle East’s current problems come from the colonial period. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire the borders of Iraq were drawn deliberately to prevent Iraq from having an easy access to the gulf. So Iraq has this persistent problem of not having an outlet to this main waterway. And of course once it became a major oil exporter, this became a huge problem.
Another thing is that all of these borders were drawn somewhat arbitrarily. When Britain and France carved up this area, they did not pay very much attention to the ethnic and religious composition of these countries or to the economic resources that they had. I’m not suggesting that there was a deliberate negative agenda, but there certainly wasn’t careful attention given to what these countries were going to look like afterwards. Under the Ottoman Empire, Kuwait was part of a province that was actually administered from Basra, which is a city in Iraq. So that whole historical dimension of the unity between the two countries is actually there. There are a lot of older ties as well. A lot of tribes that you can find in southern Iraq will have kinsmen in Kuwait, there are a lot of trade ties, and so on. I’m not suggesting in any way that therefore the historical claim that the Iraqis are making is valid. I’m just saying that Iraq’s claims didn’t appear out of nowhere. They came right out of the colonial period and affected what happened later.
This isn’t the first time that Iraq has tried to press its claim to Kuwait. Under Abdul Kareem Kassem, a populist who came into power immediately after the revolution of ’58, the Iraqis did try to take Kuwait after the British moved out in 1961. The British had maintained a base at Aden, which is in the Arabian peninsula in the south. When the British moved out, Abdul Kareem Kassem moved his troops in and captured part of Kuwait. The response at this point from all the Arab states was extremely forceful even though the Arab world at the time was tremendously divided. Remember, this was the heyday of Nasser, and the Arab world was divided between the monarchies and the republicans, and there was a tremendous amount of conflict. Still, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia–all these countries sent troops to the area. And then the British began to send troops, and Abdul Kareem Kassem then moved the Iraqis back out.
LH: When did the Ba’th Party and Saddam Hussein get into the picture?
KC: The Ba’thists took over in a number of subsequent coups. In 1963 there was a Ba’thist coup, which was extremely bloody and resulted in all kinds of social dislocations and violence. The first Ba’thist regime only lasted a year. Then you had a coalition government move in, followed by coups and countercoups and just a great deal of instability–until the coup in 1968 which brought a man named [Ahmad] Hassan al-Bakr into power. And Saddam Hussein was his number-two man. Between 1968 and 1979 Saddam Hussein managed to weed out members of the Ba’th that he either didn’t trust or who weren’t his own personal supporters. He basically forced Bakr to resign and assumed the presidency of the Revolutionary Command Council and a variety of other titles. Saddam’s list of titles just keeps growing and growing.
Iraq has a tremendously bloody political history. This is reflected in the coups and the countercoups and the bloodshed that accompanied them. The bloodshed that accompanied the 1958 revolution was truly phenomenal. The prime minister at that time, Nuri al-Said, who had been prime minister on and off for 20 years or so, was hung and then dragged through the streets of Baghdad for days. That kind of frustration and violence is actually a hallmark of Iraqi politics.
LH: That’s also the kind of thing that makes Americans throw up their hands and say, “See, all Arabs are crazy!”
KC: I’m very disturbed by people who attribute this violence to the Arab mentality or to cultural traits of the Arabs. It’s not a racial trait–it’s the result of political circumstances. Iraq is a deeply divided society. Those divisions are not just economic, but geographical, sectarian, ethnic–Sunni, Shiite, Kurd and non-Kurd, and so on. Combine this with the fact that on each side Iraq is surrounded by hostile powers: Turkey, with its own Kurdish population–there was a story of murder and gore if ever there was one–and Iran. There’ve been hostilities and water disputes with Turkey all along. In the southeast you have Iran, where, particularly after the Iranian revolution, there was a real threat to the national integrity of Iraq because of the strong allegiance of Iraq’s Shiite population to postrevolutionary Iran.
And then of course you have the persistent problem of the Kurds and the civil war that’s persisted in Iraq on and off since its inception. So at some level a government that could hold these different communities together would almost have to be strong handed in some ways, unless they wanted to simply allow various parts of the country to section off. As we can see from the Soviet Union, governments are very, very reluctant to let this happen. This process of national integration is extremely painful and brutal and violent–and it always has been. I think to understand this, all Westerners have to do is look at the process of state formation in early modern Europe. France, for instance, was not born as France. It was united from all these different communities that had their own language, their own dialect, and so on. It was a long and bloody process. So at some level you can see what’s happening in Iraq in those terms.
LH: Yes, but France actually did turn into a stable nation-state. It doesn’t look like Iraq is going to make the transition.
KC: France coalesced after centuries. Iraq’s only been at this 30 years or so. And remember, in Europe you had a core government that was expanding outwards, conquering territories and then uniting them administratively. In Iraq you had these essentially arbitrarily defined borders given to them by the British, who then said, “OK, deal with it.” Suddenly there was this huge territory that needed to be controlled. That’s very different from the piecemeal way that Europe’s nation-states emerged.
So I think it’s unfair to cast this situation in terms of the Arabs’ “violent nature.” Most less-developed countries growing out of a colonial legacy have these sorts of problems that erupt into violence. As Americans, we simply can’t understand the scarcity of resources that exists in the third world, the inequalities that exist there. These conditions can push people into acts of violence that are beyond our understanding. I heard on NPR that since August, 2,600 blacks have died in South Africa, 300 people in El Salvador, 711 in Lebanon, 40 Israelis, 150 Palestinians, 7,000 Liberians, 7,000 people in India, 3,000 in Sri Lanka, and 1,500 in Somalia–all in political violence. From the perspective of somebody who studies developing countries, President Bush’s new world order looks much more like the new world disorder to me.
I think your point is well-taken, though, about the image that Americans have of Arabs. I’m both fascinated and horrified at this. I think that racial hatred against Arabs is the only remaining socially acceptable racism in the United States today. And I think it comes from what began as a romantic notion of what Arabs were, which was grounded in the tradition of orientalism, where Arabs were a projection of what we wanted them to be–Lawrence of Arabia kinds of images. And then when it turned out that these quaint colonials controlled the oil, it turned into a real confrontation. Since the OPEC oil crisis in 1973, through 1979 and the Iranian revolution, right up to now, it’s not a coincidence that our bogeymen have all been Muslim or Arab. We had the Ayatollah, then we had Gadhafi, until we bombed Libya, and now we have Saddam Hussein. And who knows who will be next? The way the media grabs onto these images really alarms me.
LH: We talked some about Iraq’s historical ties with Kuwait. What are their current grievances with Kuwait that led to the actual invasion? To Americans it looks like they just went in and took over a country that didn’t belong to them. Does it look like something else to the Iraqis?
KC: I think it does. To give you some background on this, let me just tell you about what was happening in Iraq between October 1988, when they signed the cease-fire with Iran, and the invasion of Kuwait. After the cease-fire Iraq started a very substantial and far-reaching economic reorganization, which included the liberalization of trade and the privatization of agriculture, industry, and services. The Iraqi government implemented their plans in a way that hasn’t been done anywhere in the world. The Egyptians have been trying to privatize their industry for 15 years–they’ve managed to sell two factories to the private sector. The Poles have been struggling with this and so has the rest of Eastern Europe. In Iraq, since policy was dictated by fiat, the reforms were sudden and produced a real jolt to the economy and people. There was instability in prices, inflation, unemployment–just a large number of economic disruptions.
Despite the economic problems, the Iraqi government refused to stop its military spending. The government believed it had to become strong enough so that no neighboring country would threaten them. This meant that there were other needs in the areas of infrastructure, postwar reconstruction, private-sector credits, investments in agriculture, and so on that were not being met. Continued military spending created an enormous foreign-exchange shortage. In some sense you can trace the immediate chronology that led to this crisis as Iraq’s search for foreign exchange.
The first thing that the Iraqis tried to do was to have the rich Arab countries like Kuwait, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and so on invest in Iraq itself. The Iraqi government decreed a very favorable foreign investment law which applied only to Arabs and not to Western investors, who were clamoring to get into Iraq. But nobody in the Arab world responded. Nobody wanted to invest in Iraq. The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the capital-surplus countries had very strong ties with Western banks and investment houses, and they continued to invest in the West.
So the second thing that the Iraqis tried in their quest for foreign exchange was to try to raise the world price of oil and to prevent countries that were violating their oil quota from doing that anymore. This took place in the July [OPEC] meetings in Geneva, when Iraq proposed that oil prices be raised to $21 a barrel, up from, I believe, $18 at the time. Also, they pressed other OPEC countries to stop violating their quotas. The main violator of the oil quota, as far as we know, was Kuwait. Kuwait was overproducing its quota by about 80 percent. It was not just overproducing–it was extracting oil from an oil field that is largely in Iraq but with a little segment in a disputed territory on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. There was a disputed border between Kuwait and Iraq that the colonial powers had never bothered to draw.
LH: So there are spots where there’s no border?
KC: That’s right. Kuwait and Iraq aren’t the only countries like this. There’s an undrawn border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia too, under which there is an enormous oil field. There were clashes over that area in 1987. So this is yet another colonial legacy. The British and the French drew the borders so arbitrarily. Who knows? Maybe they just got tired and didn’t finish the job.
So anyway, Iraq tried to raise oil prices. And in July the OPEC countries agreed on a $21-per-barrel price. Then there were remaining disputes, remaining problems in foreign exchange that Iraq felt it could solve by negotiation. They asked the Saudis and Kuwaitis–remember, these are the main countries that, for reasons of their own political stability, funded Iraq’s war effort against Iran–to cancel Iraq’s war debt, forgive it completely. Iraq also asked them to define their borders and to sign nonaggression treaties with Iraq, because Iraq rightly suspected that, with all the changes going on in the globe, the United States would feel that it had to have some sort of a military presence in the area. If you go back and look at the media, you can see that the U.S. was participating in a lot of naval demonstrations and military exercises in the gulf prior to the invasion of Kuwait. The Iraqis felt very threatened by this and made several public statements to that effect.
Saudi Arabia immediately agreed to all of Iraq’s demands. It canceled the war debt; it defined its undefined northern border and signed a nonaggression treaty with the Iraqis. Iraq’s differences with the Kuwaitis were much larger because they involved the Rumayla oil field and Iraq’s attempts to buy or lease the Bubiyan and al-Warbah islands. The Iraqi-Kuwaiti negotiations broke down, and there are conflicting reports about how they broke down. The Kuwaitis claim that the negotiations didn’t break down, that Iraq just suddenly attacked out of nowhere. But this is, I think, not true. The negotiations broke down on August 1, and it was the next morning that the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. The Iraqi army had been massing on the border for a long time, threatening Kuwait–because Saddam was trying to use a military threat to get Kuwait, which is small and powerless and so on, to conform to his economic territorial demands. Essentially, the Kuwaitis refused.
There’s a couple of other things I think I should point out that generated a general feeling of animosity between the two countries immediately prior to the invasion. First, the Iraqi currency was being circulated in a black market that went through Kuwait City. Kuwaitis were getting Iraqi dinars at a very cheap rate, and they were using them to come to Iraq for lavish vacations in Iraq’s luxury hotels. There were a lot of Iraqi prostitutes, women who had lost their brothers, husbands, and sons in the war with Iran, who were essentially making a living through prostitution. As Iraqis were suffering and facing a declining standard of living, they would see the Kuwaitis in their beautiful white dishdashas and their Rolex watches and gold jewelry, driving around in Mercedeses. So there was this sort of growing resentment among the Iraqis that was directed not just against their own government but also against the Kuwaitis. I don’t think that that means that the Iraqis wanted to go in and invade Kuwait and loot and pillage in general, but there was this sort of resentment going against the rich gulf states.
LH: Do you think Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is part of a growing animosity between rich and poor states in the Middle East?
KC: Definitely. And this divide between rich and poor is something that can explain the alliances that you have now in the Arab world. The richer countries formed the Gulf Cooperative Council, which is essentially a club of rich countries that denied Iraq and Yemen entry, even though Iraq is a major oil producer. And so, in response to the GCC, Iraq led a movement to form the Arab Cooperative Council, which includes Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen. So there’s a division between countries that export oil and have capital surpluses and countries that export labor and have labor surpluses with capital shortages. It’s a growing division within the region.
LH: What was Iraq’s goal in taking over Kuwait?
KC: I don’t actually think that Iraq intended to keep Kuwait. I think it intended to go in to loot. In other words, teach the rulers a lesson and then withdraw, taking the islands and taking the Rumayla oil field. Once the Americans deployed half a million people, Saddam raised the stakes and brought in the Palestinian issue and changed the whole equation. But you don’t destroy a country that you intend to keep. Think about it. It doesn’t make sense. They went, they completely desecrated all the buildings, they looted and brought things back to Iraq. They didn’t go there and move into Kuwait. They have not behaved as though they wanted to keep Kuwait. Why would you go and destroy a country that you want to keep?
LH: I find the idea of one country taking over another just to loot it a little old-fashioned, don’t you? Not wholly believable. I’m trying to think of a precedent over the last 300 years where that’s happened, but I can’t. Once a country moves in, it usually plans to stay.
KC: I can’t think of a precedent either. But then there’re very few Kuwaits in the world. There are very few little pockets of unimaginable opulence like that in the world. Kuwait was pretty unique that way–except for the United Arab Emirates, which is even more wealthy. The point is, there were these financial reasons behind the invasion itself.
LH: Let’s go on to Saddam himself. What do you make of him and the way President Bush and the American media have depicted him as another Hitler or Stalin?
KC: Well, Saddam Hussein is probably one of the more violent modern leaders, just in terms of the recorded and well-known instances of brutality and so on. Not just the Kurdish thing, but personal acts of violence that he himself has committed. But he is not unique in this regard. Syria’s Assad, who’s now an ally of the United States, in one attack killed 20,000 unarmed civilians in the town of Hamah in 1982. I don’t think there’s a comparable instance in Iraq of that many people being killed by their own government.
I think that President Bush has personalized this whole conflict. He’s said he has no quarrel with the Iraqi people, but only with Saddam Hussein. And Saddam Hussein does so dominate the political landscape of Iraq that it is to some extent him and his regime and not so much the Iraqi people that are confronting the Americans in this conflict. But this sort of characterization of the problem is very dangerous. By focusing so much on Saddam Hussein, you dehumanize the Iraqi people. You run the risk of forgetting that it’s the civilians that are going to pay the highest cost for this conflict–and have already paid a tremendous cost for having Saddam Hussein as their leader. When you focus so much on this one personality, you get away from what the horror of war really is and what it’s going to mean. While I was there, citizens were forbidden to leave Baghdad. They weren’t even being allowed to evacuate the city.
LH: I guess that’s why a lot of military advisers thought this would be a quick war. Just a few well-placed missiles.
KC: They’re not even thinking about the casualties. It’s horrible. I think part of it has to do with modern weaponry. This is something that at some perverse level people are excited about. We have never tried these weapons–finally we get to see what they work like. The Defense Department is delighted because finally all these strange and very expensive weapons systems get to be tested and we get to see if they work or don’t work. The whole question of who they’re working against has been moved off the agenda. I was horrified the other day listening to an interview with a pilot from one of these extremely sophisticated new bombers. A reporter asked him, “Have you seen the enemy yet?” And he said, “I don’t want to see the enemy. To me, the enemy is a blip on my radar screen, and all I want is to make that blip go away. I don’t want to know my enemy.” It’s horrifying.
By framing the conflict in terms of defeating Saddam Hussein, Bush has simply removed the whole question of civilian casualties off the agenda.
LH: That’s not the only thing he’s managed to move off the agenda.
KC: Yes. Remember sanctions? By moving all these troops over there in such rapid measure, Bush managed to take sanctions or any other alternatives off the agenda. Every single expert that testified to the Senate and to the House said that the sanctions were working–that they were biting very, very deeply. And I found that myself when I was in Iraq. That whole debate, Senator Nunn’s valiant defense of sanctions versus war, has all been swept away.
LH: When we started moving massive amounts of troops in and war became a very serious possibility, I asked myself, is there any way we could possibly do this and come out the winner in this situation?
KC: There isn’t. There’s a frenzy of anti-Western feeling in the whole third world, particularly in the Muslim world. These sentiments are going to focus on this event. None of the rhetoric about the international coalition and about the fact that this is being done under the United Nations’ auspices will make sense to these people. The Arabs have seen international laws applied inconsistently for decades. People outside the United States are incredibly politically sophisticated. They know the kinds of political and economic deals that the U.S. cut with each and every country that’s been supporting it in this whole initiative, except maybe Britain and the European countries. China, for instance. For backing us in the gulf, the Chinese have now been forgiven for Tiananmen Square. They’re back in the fold. No more economic sanctions. The Egyptians have had their entire military debt forgiven by the United States. The Syrians are getting arms–they got the green light from the U.S. to move all the way into Lebanon. This is costing us billions of dollars, not just in terms of the troops that are deployed, but all the money that we’ve committed to different countries. As far as I know, at this point the American taxpayer is still responsible for about 70 percent of these expenses.
LH: When this all started I thought, if we go through with this, the Arabs will never, ever forgive us and we will be entangled there in the worst way for the foreseeable future. That was my fear.
KC: That’s absolutely true. And this argument cuts into the second part of the answer, which is our oil interests. How are we going to maintain our oil interests or even keep a steady flow of oil coming out of the region if Israel gets involved and this becomes a regional war, or if the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Syria and Egypt topple and become anti-American, or if you have a condition where it doesn’t really matter what the governments are saying because the people are doing something else–and that is very possible. In Pakistan, for instance, which has troops in Saudi Arabia ostensibly to protect the holy places, Muslim fundamentalists have started recruiting their own private army to fight on the side of Saddam Hussein. Jordan is technically neutral, but how long can it remain so if its Palestinians, which make up 60 percent of the country, go off to fight for Saddam? I wouldn’t make any bets on what the Syrians and the Egyptians are really thinking and feeling at this point.
LH: Saddam seems to have scored a great political coup in making Palestine a central issue, despite American objections that it has nothing to do with the invasion of Kuwait.
KC: Despite the fact that each of the Arab countries has at some point or another massacred Palestinians or treated them very, very badly, Arab governments can’t afford to be on the wrong side of the Palestinian issue. Simply because of popular sentiment. Linking the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza is the only political card Saddam Hussein has. But that’s not really what’s at stake. What’s at stake is the stability of regimes throughout the region. When [Iraq’s foreign minister] Tariq Aziz said “Yes, absolutely” when asked if Iraq would attack Israel, that wasn’t meant for Israeli ears. It wasn’t for American ears. Israelis are as ready as they’ll ever be, and the Americans know what the dimensions of this conflict would be if Israel got involved. It was a threat to the other Arab leaders who are allied with the West. It was a direct challenge: “What are they going to do then?”
LH: In other words, Iraq is trying to pull down the whole house of cards.
KC: Absolutely. They’re playing for enormously high stakes in the whole region. The monarchies know this. We hear all this talk about restoring the legitimate government of Kuwait, but there’s no Kuwaiti that I’ve spoken to that wants the al-Sabah back. There are negotiations going on right now in which the Kuwaitis are coming out and saying to their government, “If you’re going to be back in power, we want a parliament, we want representation,” and so on. They blame their government for what’s happened. They know there was no reason that the [government] should have behaved the way that they did in negotiations with Iraq. And now they’re on the wrong side of the Palestinian issue too.
LH: I find Saddam Hussein’s adoption of the Islamic fundamentalist line pretty amazing, given that he’s supposed to be a godless socialist.
KC: Saddam Hussein has no religious credentials. The core of Ba’thist ideology is secularism. It’s not just tangential to Ba’thism–it is the very base of it. It’s not a coincidence that Ba’thism arose in Syria, a country just riddled with sectarian differences. It was an ideology that gave a vision of how a state with so much diversity could be set up.
LH: But Saddam Hussein seems to have been very successful at making the connection in the minds of Arabs between his cause and the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. Credentials or no, it seems to have worked.
KC: The response of the Muslim world and Islamic fundamentalists–from Iran to Pakistan to North Africa–is not a reflection of how valid they think his claims to leading the Islamic world are. It’s a reflection of a very deep-seated hatred and mistrust of the West. Anybody who comes out confronting the West is going to be a hero in that region, and at some level we have to ask ourselves why that is.
LH: So if you think we’ve been pursuing the wrong policy concerning Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, what would you think was the right one?
KC: Our first mistake was sending the troops over there without letting the Arab League pass a resolution against the invasion. If that resolution had preceded our troop deployment, we would simply be there helping the Arab leaders implement their policy. In other words, we’d be just technicians. As it turned out, we assumed the vanguard. That was our first mistake, and from then on it just deteriorated.
LH: Is there any chance that Saddam could win this?
KC: No. A political victory is very, very possible, but not a military one. If Saddam Hussein survives, he’ll emerge, probably, as a hero. Not perhaps in Iraq, but in the Arab world and the broader region–because he stood up to the West. It’s somewhat similar to the Suez crisis, where Nasser confronted the French and the British and took them on. He lost, but he emerged as the preeminent Arab leader simply for not backing down against the superior military power that the Western countries had at that time. So Hussein can have a military defeat but a phenomenal political victory.
LH: So what happens if we destroy Iraq? I mean, besides a lot of people dying. What happens to the political balance of power in the area? Iran or Syria’s Assad–not great choices.
KC: If Assad manages to survive this politically, or even if he doesn’t, Syria will emerge as the short-term winner. And certainly Iran will emerge as the long-term winner, because Iran is one of the countries in that region that has human resources as well as other resources.
LH: And if we manage to kill Hussein and rout his regime, what is left in Iraq?
KC: That’s the question that no one in the Bush administration seems to be asking. One of the things that the Ba’th Party under Saddam Hussein has managed to do is destroy every civil institution in Iraqi society. There is nothing to fill the vacuum except the organizations of the al-Da’wa, which is the Shiite fundamentalist party based in the south. Even its members have been pretty much routed out. Iraq will, without a doubt, descend into a civil war. There’s a lot of pent-up violence in that society. There are vendettas that people want to settle. Saddam Hussein, by his repressive apparatus, has kept a lid on all of these forces.
How long is it going to take to put Iraq back together again? There’s no vision of what Iraq should look like after the war. We have no medium- and long-term goals in this. We’re working day to day. And that is very dangerous in this region. I heard someone say that what’s going to happen in Iraq after you remove Saddam Hussein is going to make Lebanon look like a picnic. And I agree with that. How equipped are we to deal with something like that?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chris Duffey.