The news of the moment, especially the escalating rhetoric of certain U.S. spokesmen on Syria, is fascinating and worthy of some tut-tutting a bit later. But for me the most fascinating news of the past week was almost taken for granted: the virtually instant crumbling of Saddam Hussein’s regime after decades of brutal totalitarian rule.
The end of dictatorial rule in any country is grounds for rejoicing, whether or not you approve of the means used to oust the regime. And despite the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed no realistic threat to the United States and little if any threat to its immediate neighbors, Iraq and the world are probably better off for the regime being gone.
The real indicator seemed to be the fact that the Iraqi information minister, playfully dubbed "Baghdad Bob" by some of us (and soon to be seen, if there is any justice in the world, on his own show on the Comedy Channel) didn’t show up for his daily exercise in surreality. Journalists in Baghdad also noticed Wednesday that their Iraqi government "minders" didn’t come around the Palestine Hotel for their daily duties. It all suggested that if anyone was pulling levers in the command-and-control sectors, those levers were no longer attached to anything real on the ground.
The question is why the regime crumbled so quickly and what that phenomenon implies for the future.
Our professional talking heads are always surprised, no matter how often they witness it, when a brutal totalitarian regime collapses so quickly as to raise doubts as to whether it was really there before. Yet instability and vulnerability are built into totalitarian systems, almost as if it were part of their DNA. That’s one reason why totalitarian rulers almost always go above and beyond what is really necessary simply to get the job done when it comes to squashing dissent and punishing deviationism. Like the homeowner who believes that if three deadbolts is good five would be even better, those who rule by fear come to believe that no exertion against real and imagined dissidents is too extreme.
It is not just a coincidence that totalitarian rulers eventually come to be somewhat like Saddam pathetic paranoids able to trust nobody, confined to secure offices and residences if not actual bunkers and served only by quivering yes-men. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s great novel First Circle again (or for the first time) for an arresting portrait of Stalin in the later years of his rule in the Soviet Union. He was confined to an apartment in the Kremlin, unable to move among the people who officially adored the great leader, unable to trust a single soul, constantly concerned about plots against him hatched by people he used to trust.
Holding total power exacts such a terrible price from those who wield it that one wonders whether any sane person moving us well beyond the popular saying that anybody who wants political power is by that very fact disqualified from holding it would actually want it. Of course, most leaders don’t begin as complete paranoids who can’t trust anybody. And there’s no question that those who are misruled by such tyrants pay a considerably higher and usually more concrete price than those doing the ruling. But sooner or later these all-powerful rulers become, at least to some extent, trapped by the very power they have wielded.
Hmmm. Perhaps it’s true that the ring of power cannot be used for good.
FROM UNSTABLE TO INCOMPETENT?
It should also not be surprising that the worst of the tyrants and totalitarians, whether through hubris or insulation, sooner or later become so out of touch that they begin making really obvious and stupid mistakes. In The London Daily Telegraph last week British military historian John Keegan marveled that "Saddam’s war plan, if he had one, must be reckoned one of the most inept ever designed."
Even a glancing acquaintance with standard military doctrine, Mr. Keegan went on to explain, would have led Saddam "to group his best forces in the south to oppose the Anglo-Americans as far from the capital as possible, and then to conduct a fighting withdrawal up the valleys of the great rivers."
The U.S. military and most amateur observers declared themselves surprised at the amount or kind of resistance they did meet, but Keegan believes Saddam could have had a fighting chance at least to extend the war for weeks or months, perhaps until the Americans and Brits got discouraged, with such a plan. But Saddam’s defense was so utterly incompetent that Keegan calls it "not a real war" although heaven knows it was real enough to those on both sides who were killed or wounded.
But why might Saddam Hussein not have been in touch enough to conduct a serious defense of Iraq? A couple of reasons, both related to the nature of totalitarian rule, present themselves as hypotheses. Saddam, a man who never actually served in the military, might have finally surrounded himself with acquiescent yes-men in the military who dared not question his orders even if they thought they were stupid. After all, after the Iran-Iraq war Saddam purged most of his best military people, as totalitarians are wont to do from time to time Stalin did it with his Great Purges in the 1930s, just before some competent military people might have come in handy after Hitler abrogated the Hitler-Stalin Pact.
The other possibility is that Saddam, after all those years of moving from one location to another every night, might have felt insecure about ordering his best fighting forces to the south to put up a good resistance. He might have been unsure whether they would obey orders once they got far from Baghdad, or remain loyal. He might have felt that it was best to keep the Republican Guards in Baghdad, performing the all-important task of keeping the great leaders safe.
There seems little question, whatever we might someday learn about the details of the real reasons, that the isolation and insulation, the inability to get sound, objective information about what is actually going on in the world outside one’s secure compound all typical of totalitarian leaders (and more often than we might like to admit, of putatively democratic leaders as well) played a large role in the incompetence of the Iraqi military response.
A ruler who rules by fear can never be certain of the loyalty of those who have pledged loyalty to him. Thus the need to have checks and back-ups on people, all of which serve to alienate those who might have started genuinely loyal.
Once a totalitarian regime that relies more on fear than on love starts to crumble, it can happen very quickly. Even a totalitarian regime depends on at least implicit consent from the people to stay in power, though that implicit consent is increasingly achieved through fear. Once people start to believe that they have little to fear from the leader or his henchmen, implicit consent only grudgingly bestowed can melt away faster than a late Spring snowfall. After a tipping-point or two is reached, the leader might as well be dead.
All of this suggests that brutal totalitarian regimes, as we discovered after the Berlin Wall fell, are more vulnerable than they seem a fact many regimes in the Middle East are feeling more than a little insecure about just now. A few spokesmen have even wondered why, since it turned out to be relatively easy to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime once the fear was less of a factor, they didn’t do it themselves rather than waiting for the Americans and Brits to do it for them.
OUTSIDE FORCE NECESSARY?
All this raises the question of whether outside force is really necessary to topple regimes that turn out to be a lot more vulnerable than the experts expect. We shouldn’t be fooled by the example of Saddam. The U.S.-British invasion and the eventual widespread recognition of its military success was an important factor, perhaps the key factor, in the crumbling-from-within of the regime. Without that catalyst, who knows how much longer it might have taken for the regime to crumble from within or for some indigenous forces to develop a strong enough presence to offer a genuine challenge to the regime.
"Live not by lies," Solzhenitsyn urged his Soviet compadres in the 1970s, and a regime built on lies would eventually come to an end. But it took about 20 years after Solzhenitsyn so urged, an active dissident movement that featured scores of people willing to serve long prison terms, more economic failure and to some extent, although less so than the Reagan hagiographers would have us believe, a relatively aggressive U.S. foreign policy that sharpened contradictions for the system to crumble remarkably quickly and thoroughly.
Again, it surprised most of the so-called experts, who lamented that totalitarian systems had a focus and intensity, a capacity to plan and execute across decades, that gave them an inherent superiority over mere democracies and free societies. Intellectuals even wrote books about how democracies perish and defectors from communism were convinced that they had come over to the losing side.
If the 20th century should have taught us anything, however, it should have been the apparent paradox that totalitarian systems and tyrannies are more vulnerable than they seem, and that free societies are more stable and resilient than they seem not because they are willing to go to war, but because they are constantly being adjusted in response to real and apparent dissatisfactions and welcome adjustment and adaptation rather than trying to force a unitary vision on a society.
Does that mean it was foolish to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian system, that it would have crumbled anyway, given a bit more time and a bit more honesty and courage from the Iraqi people? It’s worth thinking about.