“New Rome doesn’t listen” and is badly misreading the situation in Iraq and the Arab world, according to Culture Minister Ghassan Salameh.
Determined armed resistance to the US-led military offensive in Iraq is no surprise to Salameh, who said he expected the current war, with its confused, multiple goals, to breed more conflict.
In an interview with The Daily Star, the minister said that simple numbers should have convinced American war planners that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein would not go quietly.
“There are 3 million people in the (Iraqi Baath) party, and if 10 percent not even 50 percent, but 10 percent fight to defend the regime, that’s 300,000 people,” Salameh said, arguing that American decision-makers were “unwilling” to listen to this argument in the build-up to war.
The combined number of US, British and Australian forces deployed in the Iraqi theater stands at about 300,000 the coalition camp had talked of the likelihood of seeing Hussein toppled quickly from within, with his police state built on shaky sectarian and political foundations.
But Salameh argued that any effort by Washington to end the Iraqi regime by force and effect democratic change in the region was a seriously flawed policy, based on several misreadings.
“It was difficult for the Americans to make their case for the war. They were basically the only ones to have believed their own propaganda. As far as Iraq is concerned, I’m not surprised at all about the course of the war,” Salameh insisted, saying he expected “successive wars” after the end of the Iraqi regime.
“Basically, those in the US administration who have been preparing for this war, some of whom I know, have accepted too easily the idea that the country is made up of three different groups Kurds, the Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs,” Salameh said, calling it a simplistic, “anthropological” approach.
He said he had unsuccessfully countered these arguments by reminding colleagues in academia that the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war had demonstrated the patriotism by, for example, Shiite Iraqis, who formed the bulk of the army, in a long, destructive fight with their co-religionists.
The concept of the Hussein regime’s Sunni base existing alongside restless Kurds and Shiites, he said, was a false one.
“A lot of us were disputing this point in the past few years … with my American colleagues. I know of no regime that can last for 30 years with only one single man and his tribe.”
During the post-Gulf War rebellion of 1991, Salameh argued, people who were not part of the regime participated nonetheless in the suppression of uprisings against the state.
“It might not be politically correct (to say so), but everyone who knows what happened in southern Iraq in 1991 knows perfectly well that it was not only the regime that fought back against the rebellion, so we have a precedent.”
Patriotism and nationalist feeling are showing themselves to be far more important factors than previously thought, he continued, meaning that hatred of a foreign occupier will “naturally” outweigh hatred of one’s own police state, “or at least compete very strongly with it.”
“But all this has been on the table for the past five or six years with colleagues and friends across the Atlantic and nobody was willing to listen. New Rome is characterized by its inability to listen,” the minister said.
But Iraqis are apparently listening quite carefully Salameh recounted American neoconservative Richard Perle’s written message to Saudi Arabian officials a few months ago that “whatever happens to Saddam Hussein, occupation is coming.”
“And when this was repeated a week ago (by White House spokesman) Ari Fleischer if you were an Iraqi, you start asking yourself, ‘if these guys want to come to Iraq, whatever happens to the regime and even if Saddam resigns, there is something beyond regime change.
“I believe this played a quite substantial role in determining the role of some people,” he said.
The minister listed several significant contrasts to the last Western-led offensive against Iraq. In 1991, Salameh argued, the clear target of liberating Kuwait was easier to build a coalition around. This time, there is a “multitude of objectives, depending on the hour of the day.”
“At breakfast you are told it’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and when lunchtime comes it’s ‘regime change.’ In the evening, (Secretary of State Colin) Powell tells you that ‘we’re going to re-engineer the entire Middle East according to our interests and later on (UK Prime Minister Tony) Blair will tell you ‘no, no, no, we want to secure an Arab-Israeli settlement’,” Salameh said.
“When the objective is clear and single, you can build a coalition … when your objective is moving and shallow and not clear, that’s why the coalition wasn’t built. This is basically a single-handed American attack, with two countries (the UK and Australia) participating,” he said.
“The first time around, it involved massive force and clear objectives amass your troops, crush the resistance and leave.”
Even if the US achieves its military objective, the complications of the post-war period appear formidable, and likely to backfire, he continued.
Salameh poured cold water on the assumptions of America’s pro-war camp, saying that officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz were pursuing a misguided strategy of democratization, faultily based on the post-Cold War collapse of Eastern Bloc regimes.
“Iraq is not the Berlin Wall … And democracy won’t be brought in on the back of Rumsfeld’s tanks,” Salameh said, disputing the idea that other Arab regimes would be gradually transformed into free and open systems due to the shock waves of the Iraqi regime’s defeat.
“In Eastern Europe, the regimes were anti-US while their peoples were covertly pro-American, secretly listening to Voice of America broadcasts and such things,” he said, suggesting that Arab states presented a nearly opposite situation anti-American publics and regimes depending on the US for political and other types of support.
“If there is somebody who thinks the Iraqis are ready to accept occupation, wait until the regime collapses and see what will happen.”