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What Does History Have To Say About The Persian Gulf?
What the past tells of America’s role in the current crisis is sometimes contradictory—but always worth listening to
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
We tried to break the will of the North Vietnamese political leadership through bombardment, with scant success, unless one interprets generously the results of the Christmas bombings of 1972. The German terror bombing of Britain was an absolute failure, while British terror bombing of Nazi Germany and our attempt to destroy her industry achieved its effects slowly and indirectly, through forcing the reallocation of resources from armor and infantry weapons to air defense. Had we been able to damage German resolve through terror rather than strengthen it, that outcome would not have much mattered; there were Nazi people’s courts to execute summarily anyone thought to have slacked or shirked, and these instruments of terror close at hand on the ground were at least as efficient as four-engine bombers overhead.
This is not to rehearse once again pieties about the war-hardened Iraqis. It is not true that Iraqi civilians are inured to massive aerial bombardment and the sundry horrors of war; the Iranian capacity to bombard Iraq was marginal, and the Iraqi home front was stuffed with imported food and other consumer goods to solace it during the war with Iran. Passive acquiescence to Baathist rule is sustained, like German military discipline in 1945, by generous doses of state terror, in this case administered by a secret-police apparatus said to exceed old Eastern bloc norms on a per capita basis. The “Indomitable Will of the Iraqi People” neither exists nor, unfortunately, is necessarily relevant to Saddam Hussein’s tenacity.
We are banking heavily on the possibility of the Iraqis’ developing a political community larger than the one comprised by Saddam Hussein. President Bush hopes that the Iraqi officer corps will do our work for us, and maybe it will, but historical analogies may be misleading. Both Baathist regimes—Iraq’s and Syria’s—have a history of successive coups, but it is not a recent history; Saddam Hussein and Hafez alAssad are both more vicious and more durable despots than the sequences of regimes they overthrew. Maybe we’ll get lucky, but it’s scarcely a sure thing. The Cuban people, whom we had persuaded ourselves were eager to save us the trouble of invading, didn’t rise up to help our protégés at the Bay of Pigs, and the July plotters against Hitler were few and late. And people have been known to get xenophobic when foreigners come along to help them overthrow their own governments. Iraq’s situation right now looks a good deal brighter than Germany’s in 1944, and it would be unwise to assume that the invasion of Kuwait has made Saddam Hussein less popular with his countrymen.
The true character of a closed absolutist or despotic regime is difficult to discover until invading armies have plundered its police archives and historians have spent a few decades poring over their contents. By 1975 or so Nazi political rule looked more anarchic and chaotic than anyone had suspected, and Hitler’s authority over the rest of German political society seems to have reached its zenith far later in the twelve-year Reich than most people believed. No one ever conquered the Stalinist Soviet Union; for a long time we knew of Stalin’s terror only from the archives the Germans had seized in Smolensk, which the U.S. Army eventually seized in its turn. Sporadic defector testimony is notoriously difficult to assess properly; if democracy triumphs and Gorbachev or a successor opens up the secret-police files, we may someday know a great deal more. In recent years the zenith of Stalin’s absolute authority over the party has been pushed forward a bit. The argument that the trials following the murder of his aide Sergei Kirov in 1934 indicated continuing serious opposition was for many years entertained only by dissident Leninists; now it is being looked at with less skepticism. If someone conquers Iraq and publishes the reports of the Baathist security forces, we may have a useful idea about the size of the Iraqi political community. The owl of Minerva, as they say in the trade, takes wing only at dusk; history too often yields up its lessons when it’s too late for them to do any good.
Does this mean that history is mute on the instability of Iraqi politics? Not quite. It tells us that we have a long history of overestimating our adversaries’ physical strength and underestimating their cohesion and solidarity. George McClellan would have been right at home assessing the missile gap or the capabilities of the MIG-25, and the fellows who knew how badly the Filipinos wanted to be annexed by us would have fit in well with the crowd gauging the political sympathies of Vietnamese peasants and Iranian slum dwellers. The present instance is a bit of an innovation; we are probably overestimating Iraqi morale while simultaneously double counting the country’s material strength.