A Room Full Of Spiders: Shia militiamen training in Iraq. Living with dictators is never easy, but if events in the Middle East since 2003 have taught us anything, it’s that living without them is impossible. The curtailment of civil liberties that characterises dictatorial regimes has often been considered an acceptable trade-off for the peace and stability they bring with them. People living in these circumstances know that the alternative to dictatorship isn’t democracy – it’s chaos.
“SADDAM WAS A FAT BLACK SPIDER high up in the corner of the room. You knew where he was, and kept as far away from him as possible.” As a description of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, the metaphor was memorable enough, but what the young Iraqi woman said next was unforgettable. “Now that Saddam has gone the room is full of spiders. You can’t watch them all, and you can’t keep out of their way.”
Living with dictators is never easy, but if events in the Middle East since 2003 have taught us anything, it’s that living without them is impossible. There’s a simple reason for this. The conditions that give rise to dictatorship are generally so appalling that the curtailment of civil liberties that inevitably follows their establishment is considered an acceptable trade-off for the peace and stability they bring with them. People living in these circumstances know that the alternative to dictatorship isn’t democracy – it’s chaos.
Let us give the West the benefit of the doubt and say that its leaders failed to grasp this obvious truth. Let us assume that when Tony Blair declared Saddam a monster, and insisted the world would be a better place without him, he was being sincere. Let us accord the same honour to President George W. Bush, and assume that he, too, was speaking sincerely when he told the US Congress, in his 2007 State of the Union address: “The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity.” Where does it leave us?
It leaves us contemplating a number of brutal truths. The first, and the most brutal, being that, even allowing for Blair and Bush harbouring only the best of intentions, the answer to “the great question of our day” is that America and her allies cannot build free societies in the Middle East. And that the men and women living there will not be sharing the political rights of Westerners any time soon.
That being the case, the West’s choice is no longer between dictatorship and democracy; it is between dictatorship and chaos. And, given that chaos is the only thing the West’s intervention in the Middle East has created, there is really only one positive choice to be made, and that is to back those military/political leaders with the best chance of maintaining, and/or restoring, peace and stability.
In terms of the present security crises precipitated by the Islamic State, and the deadly chaos of Syria’s civil war (out of which the Islamic State emerged) this can only mean recognising what the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has understood from the very beginning; that the best hope of peace and stability in Syria, and eradicating Islamic State, resides with the Baathist government of President Bashar al-Assad.
It is what Emile Simpson, former British Army officer and author of War From the Ground-Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics, is calling the “cold realism” of the West’s diplomatic and military future. Writing for the conservative American magazine, Foreign Policy, Simpson predicts:
“The post-Paris war on terror will affirm the West’s commitment to fighting radical Islamic terrorism, but, in the process, it will reject the idiom of revolutionary, moralizing democratic change inherited from President Bush. Syria was the end of the line for that approach. This new phase will assume that terrorists are nonstate actors, and will take the view that if you have an international system built around strong sovereign states — no matter how brutal or unconcerned with human rights — life becomes much harder for nonstate armed groups, including terrorists. This is simply a reflection of the new realities we face, not a celebration of that shift.”
Democrats will stand aghast at this unapologetic re-emergence of Nineteenth Century realpolitik. They would, however, be wise to curb their outrage. The Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Assad family were, indisputably, ruthlessly oppressive in the context of political rights. When viewed from the perspective of the economic and social rights these secular Baathist regimes delivered, however, the picture changes. Modern systems of public education and health opened up the prospect of a more prosperous life for both men and women. Large-scale state interventions generated both jobs and, by Middle Eastern standards, prosperity. Most important, in both Iraq and Syria, the Baathists kept Islamic fanaticism under tight control.
All of which raises the worrying question: Was it really dictatorship that the West was determined to eradicate from the Middle East – including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States? Or was it Baathism? Were the men behind Blair and Bush actually betting that their long-term interests would be better served by “a room full of spiders?”
If so, then they lost the bet.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 November 2015.