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Rebuilding Iraq

AP Photo / Kevin Frayer

The twilight of tyrants

And the promise of liberal revolution

By Paul Berman, 4/13/03

THE TUMBLING STATUE of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad last Wednesday did look like something out of the revolutions of 1989, and this resemblance ought to plunge us into thought. A thousand experts have told us that, by fighting in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, America has thrown itself into the clash of civilizations, and that reality in the Muslim world bears very little in common with reality in the West. Even so, that falling statue looked exactly like one of those colossal statues of Lenin and the other Communist leaders that used to stand guard in public plazas all over Eastern Europe.

There is a reason for this. Saddam's Ba'ath Party has always claimed to be restoring the ancient national glory of the Arab people, from the glory days of the Caliphate of the seventh century, when the Arab Empire was on the march. But the Ba'ath is not, in fact, an ancient Arab institution. The party was founded in Damascus in 1943 on the basis of doctrines from the 1920s and `30s, which were subsequently updated to include a number of doctrines from later times, as well. These ideas were pretty much Mussolini's and those of the extreme right in Europe, mixed with a few ideas from the Stalin era of Soviet communism and given a distinctly Arab varnish. The iconography of Saddam's Ba'ath looks like the iconography of modern Western totalitarianism because that is, in fact, exactly what it is.

The modern age has been the age of totalitarianism, but it has also been the age of totalitarianism's demise. In one country after another, totalitarianism's overthrow has led to scenes of statue-toppling and dancing crowds-scenes of revolution. And so, it is natural to wonder if revolution is the scene before our eyes in Baghdad, too-if we are

observing not just the superficial fact of a tyrant's fall or what is cynically called "regime change," but the deeper reality of a growth in human freedom, the beginning of a revolution for the liberal values of individual and minority rights, the rule of law, tolerance, and justice.

This is a question for the long haul, not just for today. And a glance at Europe will help us not at all in predicting the ultimate outcome. Totalitarianism has been defeated in every European country, but afterward each country has tilted in its own direction, revolutionary and otherwise. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and other countries appear to be leaning ever farther into the zones of liberal democracy-Yugoslavia's transition turned out to be, in its first years, a disaster unto genocide.

But no deep and predictable factors can explain the success of some and the failure of others. Yugoslavia's experience of communism was the best in all of Europe-arguably the freest, most rational, most productive communism anywhere on Earth. And yet the best communism led to the worst post-communism. Poland, by way of contrast, has enjoyed over the centuries only the most fragile and fitful experiences of national independence, let alone democracy. Even so, Poland has ended up one of the more attractive Eastern European countries.

Nothing in Poland's relative success or Yugoslavia's absolute failure was preordained or unavoidable. What mattered instead was the quality of the national leaders at the moment of crisis, and the policies of the great powers. Poland managed to produce capable national leaders at the crucial moment, and the Poles received proper support from the United States, West Germany, and other countries. Yugoslavia's leaders at the time of communism's demise turned out to be the worst of the worst. The United States, Germany, and other countries made the fatal error of acquiescing to Yugoslavia's dissolution, then did nothing for several years to stop the carnage.

Iraq at its present moment of supreme crisis does seem to be hobbled by every possible disadvantage. The Kurdish region in the north, under British protection, has worked up at least a few aspects of a liberal society during the past dozen years. But the rest of the country has never had even that much experience. Thirty-five years of Ba'ath dictatorship eliminated all other political parties, except for a number of front groups. Today the country, outside of the Kurdish provinces, can boast of no liberal leaders who are widely known to the Iraqis themselves, nor even any well-known persecuted liberal dissidents.

Iraq will have to produce its own liberal leaders from out of thin air. This might seem impossible-except that Afghanistan, in the face of similar disadvantages, did manage to find a capable, liberal leader in Hamid Karzai, an exile who successfully became the new president. At moments of revolution, impossibilities are perfectly possible.

Iraq suffers from another potential disadvantage in the form of its foreign occupiers. The Americans and the British conquered part of Germany in World War II and went on to oversee West Germany's transition to liberal democracy brilliantly-a completely successful exercise. But in Iraq, those same occupiers may end up putting in a smaller effort, or one that is less well-designed. The domestic pressure on both the American and the British governments to do as little as possible in Iraq is great-a pressure that comes sometimes from the right and sometimes from the left, enhancing its influence stereophonically. And so, the American and British governments and the rest of the coalition may end up spending less money and bringing the troops home sooner than they would if the nation-building effort enjoyed a bit more public support.

Some people have worried about something even more dangerous-that a renewed hubris might take hold of the leaders in Washington, a further twist on the arrogance that drove away some of America's potential allies in the months before the war. In the wake of military victory, the US government could succumb to the wildest fantasies of omnipotence, a trigger-happy impulse to fight wars on a thousand fronts or an imperial disdain for the newly freed Iraqis. These worries strike me as entirely realistic.

Let us fear, then. But let us also remember that, at moments like this, every possibility is still in play-the worst, but also the best: the road that leads to Yugoslavia, as well as the road to Poland. Iraq could go either way right now. So let us hope, too. Let us press for greater American involvement, a more generous budget, an all-is-forgiven attitude that welcomes and even requests support from the rest of the world-a big campaign of reconstruction and not a small one.

Building a society of greater freedom than ever before in Iraq, a safer society for its own people and its neighbors and (not least) for us in far-away America-this possibility does exist, even if not in a fairyland version. There is a two-word name for this possibility: liberal revolution. If falling statues of tyrants are a familiar symbol to us, that is because, in modern times, more-or-less successful revolutions have also become familiar. And now let us get ready for the long haul.

Paul Berman is the author of "Terror and Liberalism" (Norton), which has just been published.

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