[lit-ideas] The death of American Realpolitik

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 19 May 2008 17:16:42 -0700

Irene might be interested in the current issue of the U.S. News & World
Report.  The lead story is "Endangered Places, How Humans are threatening
the existence of the world's most precious destinations."  I was more
interested in something else.  This is the "75th Anniversary Issue," and
they picture one of the issues from almost every year.  1952, for example
has a picture of Joseph McCarthy and gives the title of the lead story as
"What's McCarthyism?"    1968 has a picture of a smiling Richard Nixon and
the title, "What Nixon Will do as President."  


But the issue I was most interested in was June 4, 1990.  It pictured a
glowering Saddam Hussein and showed the lead story to be "The Most Dangerous
Man in the World."  We are provided with an outline, or perhaps the meat of
the story:  "Like most good stories, this one started with a hunch.  Lief,
who speaks fluent Arabic, had followed Saddam's eight-year war with Iran and
was alarmed by his continuing military buildup and aggressive troop
deployments along the Kuwaiti border.  She also took his escalating rhetoric
against Kuwait, Israel, and others quite seriously.  'The context was this
was a guy who had a very warped understanding of the outside world and his
own judgment,' says John Walcott, who was U.S. News's foreign editor.  'You
could tell he was heading for trouble.'


"Separately, some of the magazine's reporters were tracking a pattern of
Iraqi weapons purchases, many with the involvement of western governments
and companies.  Over nearly a decade Iraq had systematically been gathering
technology and ingredients needed for chemical, biological, and nuclear
weapons.  'Everywhere we turned, it appeared that some of the most dangerous
material being procured illegally around the world, and in some cases inside
the United states, was being shipped to Iraq,'  recalls Peter Cary, who was
covering the Pentagon.  'All roads were leading in the same direction - to


"Even many in the U.S. government had failed to piece together the full
extent of the threat - perhaps, in part, because of their occasional
complicity.  When Brian Duffy, then the magazine's intelligence reporter
informed a top U.S. intelligence official that U.S. News was about to label
Saddam Hussein 'the world's most dangerous man,' the official simply said,
'Oh, Saddam's not going to like that.'"




Some of the "complicity" referred to undoubtedly pertained to the playing
off of Saddam against the Ayatollah during the Iraq/Iran war.  Realpolitik
was in full bloom during that period.  But the flower withered and almost
died after the fall of the Soviet Union.    During the Cold War we "did
whatever was in our best interest" which often meant cozying up to some
pretty unsavory dictators like Saddam.   The man in the street may not have
approved of Realpolitik as a permanent principle, but he understood it when
it was applied to the Soviet Union.  We were in a life-and-death struggle
with the Soviet Union, or so we believed, so if we needed to pretend to like
some brutal dictators to keep them from going over to the Dark Side, then
we'd better do it.   Iran had gone over to the dark side (was getting arms
from the Soviet Union) and so we supported Saddam, but the Soviet Union fell
in 1989, and in the same year the Ayatollah died.  Yeah, lots of people
thought the Ayatollah was "the Most dangerous man in the World," but by 1990
he was dead.


Which meant that we didn't really need to do Realpolitik any longer - at
least we didn't think we did.   Saddam left a very bad taste in our mouths
and whatever leverage he had over us, Realpolitik-wise, died when the
Ayatollah did.  But as the writer said, Saddam "had a very warped
understanding of the outside world and his own judgment."  


I picked up Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War, Explaining World War I, the
other day to see if I could read a few more pages and couldn't.  But I
recalled that Ferguson loved to play with "counterfactuals."  What would the
world be like today if we had let this June 4, 1990 "most dangerous man in
the world," have his Kuwait and his head?  His ambition was to create an
Arab Ummah that would be the equal of the U.S., Europe, or China.  What
would the world be like if we'd let him do it - even encouraged it?  Yeah,
he was a brutal dictator, but we'd been dealing with those in the Soviet
Union for years.  Yeah he killed a bunch of his own people, but so have the
Chinese.  Irene likes to insist that Ahmadinejad is really a reasonable
rational person, why couldn't we insist the same thing about Saddam?  I'm
not being ironic here, I'm really considering the idea.


As soon as I wrote that, I realized I wouldn't be believed.  Certain people
will insist on believing I'm being ironic even while saying I'm not, but if
we'd allowed Saddam to go ahead and do his thing, we wouldn't be worrying
quite so much about Iran today.   In fact, Saddam probably wouldn't have
been as long suffering and patient as the UN & US have been about Iran's
nuclear build up.  He would have already knocked their nuclear facilities


And what would we have to worry about from him directly?   Irene would be
telling us that he is really a reasonable and rationale person and wouldn't
actually bomb anyone, and maybe he wouldn't actually do that because we
could then threaten to bomb Baghdad as soon as he bombed Israel.  Would that
be enough for Israel?  Maybe.


One of the pretexts for Osama bin Laden was American soldiers in the Islamic
Holy Land, but the only reason those soldiers were there was that Saudi
Arabia was afraid they were the next domino Saddam was interested in
knocking over, and that was probably true, but so what?  As long as we're
doing a counterfactual, let's let Saddam have Saudi Arabia as well.  Now he
has enormous wealth and we have to deal with him forever, or until the oil
runs out, but Saddam wants a lot of things and has to sell his oil.  Maybe
that would work out.


Maybe if there had been no First Gulf War, and Bush hadn't mistakenly
counted on his popularity after giving Saddam his comeuppance, he would have
realized "it's the economy, stupid," and done what was necessary to get
elected to a second term.  


Is what we have now better than what we would have had if we'd allowed
Saddam to dominate the Arab World?  I don't know.


Lawrence Helm

San Jacinto

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