By Chris Doyle
3 July 2014
What Iraq needs is a strong man, a man who can keep a violent, bloodthirsty argumentative Iraqi population all under total control. Iraq has always been violent, that’s how Iraqis are. You have to show an iron fist. They are not ready for democracy. Iraq must have a dictator to survive.
So many Arabs, even Iraqis, have bombarded me with such sentiments over the last few weeks. Westerners often echo this – including former ambassadors and elected politicians. The notorious Daniel Pipes has advanced the notion of a “democratically-minded Iraqi strongman,” sadly not the reverse, a strong-minded democrat. It is the most moronic of oxymorons.
These arguments develop further even to the extent that Iraq was actually better under Saddam Hussein. He at least, the thinking goes, understood Iraq and how to deal with Iraqis. “He kept a lid on it” a Lebanese friend tells me. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, therefore has only been following this tradition and if anything, say some, he has been too weak.
They all point to Iraq’s undoubted violent history to back up their case. Much of this is admirably recounted in Justin Marozzi’s new book, “Baghdad: City of peace, City of Blood.”
Yet pick through the details and it is clear that the lion’s share of these centuries of blood-soaked horror stories originate from foreign invasions and rival regional powers ripping the country apart. The Umayyad governor of Iraq, Hajjaj, arriving from Syria declared in Kufa: “I see heads ripe for cutting.”
Baghdad’s Bloody History
Perhaps the most atrocious date in Baghdad’s history is 1258 when the Mongol leader, Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, raised the once great city to the ground. Hulagu personally boasted in a letter to Louis IX of France that he had massacred 200,000 in Baghdad although other estimates reach as high as 800,000. Tamerlane, the leader of the Tatars, was hardly less brutal in 1401 as he ransacked the city. Ottomans and Persians fought over Iraq, and later Britain played out its rivalry with other powers such as Germany and France in Iraq.
In the 21st century, the land between two rivers, Mesopotamia, has become the land of two extremes, dictatorship and Islamic extremism. It has been Iraq’s fate to be attractive to external conquest and interference seduced by its plentiful natural resources of water and oil.
So the notion that Iraqis are somehow just inherently more violent should be challenged at every stage. They deserve better than dictatorship. Proponents of, and apologists for, the 2003 Iraq war boasted at various times that post-war Iraq has been better than under Saddam. Can one concoct a lower yardstick by which success is measured? Even if one accepts this, can it be that a multi-trillion dollar war, and a six-figure body count, merely succeeded in bettering the record of Saddam Hussein?
What Is The Solution?
In an Iraq racked by division and under attack by extremists such as ISIS and vengeful Baathists, the solution is not a Saddam Hussein part II, an Iraqi Rambo. That Iraqi strong man kicked off a war where a million people died, used chemical weapons, invaded Kuwait and brought the country to its knees under sanctions.
Of course, what does “strong man” mean in this narrative? Its advocates say that it is somebody prepared to use all means necessary, show no mercy and various other tricks from the dictator’s toolkit. And herein lies the problem.
True strength and leadership does not lie in the ability to order an execution, a massacre or a bombing. That is a failure of leadership and demonstration of weakness. Nouri al-Maliki is bereft of any political strategy, an inept communicator and incapable of winning over any segment of Iraqi society save his own core support base who depend on him for their positions, security and jobs.
A genuine Iraqi strong man (why not a woman?) is one who can through strategic brilliance devise and implement a political solution to Iraq’s crisis. A great leader would win over those who do not naturally belong to his or her camp or constituency, a person who wins by persuasion not coercion, who inspires hope not fear.
Who Else Is There?
The retort is then, but who else is there? If not Maliki, who would you chose? This has been the refrain in Syria about whom to replace Bashar or in Egypt about whom to replace Mubarak. Alternative leadership candidates can only surface when the suffocating cloak of tyranny if lifted. Plenty of talented, educated potential leaders lie waiting for a system that would allow them to shine.
Tragically, the international community has for the last 50 years at least demonstrated a penchant for dictators from the “benign” to the “brutal” even when, as in the case of Saddam Hussein, they use chemical weapons. Life is simpler when there is only one man and his elite cronies to deal with. Democracies turn up nasty surprises. Ridding Iraq of ISIS is one thing but weaning major powers off their dictatorship addiction remains the other great challenge for Iraqis.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.