Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

The Republic of Fear: 20 Years After

In his picaresque novel “Twenty Years After”, a sequel to “Three Musketeers”, French novelist Alexandre Dumas muses on the theme of “the benevolent despot” as a rampart against unbridled change that could lead to savage turbulences.

In Arabic folklore 20 years represents a generation, a marking point for reviewing the past in the hope of drawing lessons for the future. The first day of the next spring, 20 March, the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war provides an opportunity for the kind of flashback that Athos, one of Duma’s characters in the novel, uses for judging past events.

Well, without beating around the bush, no pun intended, let’s see if today we see the war that toppled Saddam Hussein the same way we did two decades ago. I must remind you that in 2003 I firmly believed that without removing Saddam from power, Iraq would remain stuck in the cul-de-sac created by almost half a century of rule by a small elite of security-military figures of which Saddam was the most prominent and the last avatar.

I first met and interviewed Saddam in 1975 when he invited me to lunch at his residence in Baghdad. The residence was a modest villa and nothing like the sumptuous palaces that he later built for himself. But Saddam himself was anything but modest.

He talked of the “great things” that Iraq was supposed to do just as “our glorious Babylonian and Arab ancestors” had done. Mesopotamia had been the birthplace of civilization and the first chunk of the earth to develop urban life. In the 7th century, Arabs counted for under a million souls and yet succeeded in defeating the two great empires of the time. What was remarkable in his narrative was that while he spoke of “ancestors who did great things” he seemed to have a low opinion of the here-and-now Iraqis and Arabs in general. The subtext was that it was he and he alone who would have to do all those great things that he talked about. In subsequent meetings with him including time spent with him and his entourage in Tehran and Mashhad I learned that he held his closest aides with utter contempt. He and he alone was the providential man, the knight in shining armor riding his white horse beyond glorious horizons.

At the time I saw him as something of a romantic struck by acute narcissism. It was after his demise that I learned that he had been a failed novelist just Stalin had been a failed priest, Hitler a failed painter, Mao Zedong a failed poet, and Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini a failed theologian.

On the eve of the US-led invasion in 2003, there was much talk of imposing democracy on Iraq by force. At the time in several articles, I questioned that assertion.

However, I believed that force could be used to remove hurdles to democracy. After all, the use of force had opened the path for Germany to democracy and Italy. Another Vietnam military intervention had saved Cambodia from further atrocities by Khmer Rouge while the Tanzanian army had ended Idi Amin’s reign of terror in Uganda.

By the time the US-led invasion had come, Saddam had already invaded Kuwait in a massacre-and-loot style never known in the Middle East since medieval times. He had also gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the martyred town of Halabcheh and used chemical weapons against raw recruits dispatched to war by his partner in crime Ayatollah Khomeini.

But, enough of this litany of woes against the dead despot. Twenty years later, is Iraq a better place than it was under Saddam Hussein?

Well, it may not be a better place but is certainly less bad than it was 20 years ago over the past 20 years some four million Iraqis who had fled the country as refugees have returned home. Today ranks number 14O in the list of countries producing migrants and refugees. Under Saddam Hussein, it ranked among the top 10. Even then, most of those leaving Iraq today are from the Kurdish autonomous area, often young men seeking a better economic future in Europe. At the same time, Iraq shelters many Syrian refugees.

Neighboring Iran is facing a bigger outflow of refugees, especially highly educated people, than Iraq.

In the past 20 years life expectancy in Iraq has risen from 67 years in 2002 to over 75 in 2021. Iraq has also done better, or less bad, in economic terms with the gross domestic product per head rising to $10,000 from a paltry $2100 in 2002.

The national currency, the dinar, has increased fourfold in value compared to a basket of major currencies. In the neighboring Islamic Republic, however, the Iranian currency, the rial, compared to the US$ has fallen to 500,000 for one $1 compared to 70 in 1978.

Despite the increasing shortage of water due to massive dams built in Turkiye, Iraqi agriculture which had almost died under the fallen despot has made a timid comeback. In 2021 Iraq was no longer among the countries regarded as “vulnerable” in terms of food shortages and famine. In terms of political and social freedoms Iraq also doing better than such neighbors as the Islamic Republic in Iran and the parts of Syria controlled by the Assad regime.

Facing such deadly challenges as the emergence of ISIS and the attempted Kurdish secession, post-Saddam Iraq has manifested a degree of resilience more than few might have expected.

It has also succeeded in frustrating attempts by the Islamic Republic in Tehran to stall the emergence of an Iraqi national army and the imposition of a militia state.

The US made many mistakes in Iraq, including the disbanding of the army, the banning of all Ba’ath Party members, and childish attempts at imposing a market economy in a highly centralized system.
The pumping of massive quantities of US dollars into Iraq also led to corruption on a gargantuan scale. Many individual Americans and companies won tickets on that gravy train while branding Iraqis as genetically prone to corruption.

Today, Iraq is among the top countries where corruption has become a way of life rather than an exception to the rules of probity. But even then things were worse under Saddam when corruption benefited small segments of society. Today, however, corruption is used as a tool of patronage offering a meal ticket to larger segments of society clustered around individual politicians or ethnic and religious groups.

The war didn’t turn Iraq into a model of democracy. But, as an Iraqi friend put it the other day, it ended what Kanan Makiyah had called “The Republic of Fear.”