Saturday, January 26, 2008

What Saddam was too culturally blind to see

From an Associated Press article that appeared today:

"Saddam Hussein allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction to deter rival Iran and did not think the United States would stage a major invasion, according to an FBI interrogator who questioned the Iraqi leader after his capture."

“He told me he initially miscalculated ... President Bush’s intentions,” said Piro. “He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 ... a four-day aerial attack.”

I find this very intriguing and requiring some sort of cultural explanation. How can it be that the head of a government, who had been a close ally of the US for more than 10 years, couldn't see what was obvious to everyone else, to wit, that with or without justification, Bush was the kind of "cultural being" -- a certain style of AmerIcan, imbued with a certain form of AmerIcan values -- who was going to "just do it", Nike style?

Was there a single person in the US -- whether for or against Bush -- that doubted his intentions at any time in the year preceding the invasion? I don't think I knew any. So what led Saddam so far astray that he couldn't see or even learn from others what was so patently obvious?

The article doesn't answer this question, but I think the interculturalist community can help to do so. The article does provide a few clues, history a few more and psychoanalysis yet another!

Time and patterns of behaviour would be the first one. Almost all political entities, especially democratic ones, remain relatively stable and predictable in spite of changing parties or clans in power. Call it the illusion of democracy (the idea that the people can change things through elections, whereas elections merely serve to ensure continuity) or rather the rock solid logic of representative democracy. The more politicians replace each other, the more their policies remain consistent if not identical, which is the very spirit of "representation", since it's the mob or, to be polite, the "wisdom of crowds" that founds and defends not only general policies but also permanent styles of relationship with other cultures and peoples. There is always leeway for debate, which can on occasion become acrimonious, but the attitudes, within the accepted range, tend to remain stable. (A good example of the dynamics between stability and instability is the current status -- nearing a peak of instability -- of the US attitude concerning Mexicans both as a people and a cultural force. Since no society is capable of defining cultural issues with any sense of rationality - i.e. distance -, the range of emotions is wide during periods of instability, but the policy, in spite of numerous "democratic" initiatives, will inevitably tend towards some middle ground).

The difference between Reagan's, Bush the Elder's and Clinton's foreign policy with regard to Iraq and indeed everything else, was minimal. From Saddam's point of view, US policy was solidly based on Iran being seen as what might be called the "hub of evil", that is before Bush the Younger stretched it into an "axis" that included Iraq and North Korea (quite a geographical spread and, consequently, a clear tip-off to the culturally savvy that something was up). It was impossible for Saddam to think that his well-established strategic role in containing Iran would ever make him vulnerable to anything other than annoying skirmishes. The three previous presidents had used variants of a consistent strategy: Reagan by encouraging Iraq to attack Iran and directly supporting a brutal and aggressive war, Bush I by establishing a "New World Order" that humiliated Iraq for a moment but was careful to show deep respect for Saddam's regime by allowing it to stay in place and refusing to create the inevitable chaos that would come of giving power to a Shiite majority. Clinton predictably "managed" the ensuing state of relative equilibrium, engaging in the occasional skirmish and showing a certain level of satisfaction in the virtual control of Iraq ensured by the policy of US dominated no-fly zones. Although the ongoing role of Iraq as the antidote to Iran made no sense in terms of political or moral principles, it was a totally rational system created by Reagan, given formal definition by a man named Bush and ultimately inherited by the same Bush's son. Since the "clan" was back in power 20 years on, for Saddam nothing was likely to change radically. Such, in any case, was the likely reasoning of a man hailing from a clan culture. Saddam clearly didn't understand the individualism at the heart of US culture... nor the implications of the Oedipal tradition (which, by the way, everyone in the West still seems to consider universal, following Freud, but whose universalism Lacan -- Freud's most adamant orthodox defender -- called into question after spending some time in Japan, where he claimed the Oedipus complex simply didn't exist. For all his "parisianisme", Lacan was a true interculturalist). Is Oedipus -- the man who killed his father and married his mother -- a purely Western icon? And is Oedipus's self-inflicted blindness the emblem of our own cultural blindness?

On Saddam's perception of the political situation, here is what the article says: "Piro said Saddam also said that he wanted to keep up the illusion that he had the [WMD] program in part because he thought it would deter a likely Iranian invasion."

Clearly part of Saddam's problem was that he didn't have access to the writings of the neo-cons who had invaded the White House. Or perhaps like the rest of us, he considered those "thinkers" to be an academic lunatic fringe, a kind of sect that everyone tolerates but no one takes seriously. In all cases, he underestimated the possible effects of US individualism, the kind that allows certain personalities to rise to positions of unassailable power, control and a sense of manipulative mission, without relying on well-established social structures to get to their summit. Examples abound in business (Bill Gates, Donald Trump), religion (Jerry Falwell, Ron L Hubbard, Jim Jones, etc. ad inifinitum) and political bureaucracy (J. Edgar Hoover), but public policy had traditionally benefited from the Constitutional checks and balances that prevented similar "achievers" from attaining discretionary power capable of overturning the sense of existing institutions.

Over a 20 year period, however, something actually had changed in US politics, its clearest starting point being the election of Reagan in 1980 accompanied by the slogan "America's back". Pure patriotic emotion and media amplification rather than morally based reasoning and diplomatic tact were becoming the new "norm" for political action. But Reagan's own exploitation of it was more electoral than anything else. Hardly a brilliant man or an original thinker, Reagan actually made a point -- perhaps for reasons of personal pride -- of maintaining a tradition of "responsible political reflection" accompanied by a sense of RealPolitik that kept itself at a certain distance from the otherwise useful electoral illusions. Looking back at the new millennium, it may have required a Banana Republic style presidential election (2000) to provide the catalyst for a shift towards the definitive adoption of emotion and media amplification as the central source of policy. But other phenomena indicate that the time had perhaps come for pure emotion and the media to play their role in a world where the patterns of the recent past had produced another "grande illusion": the idea, confirmed in the Clinton years, of a permanently expanding economy fueled by stock markets and purely financial management (this in spite of the 2000 dotcom crash, which curiously -- because of the technology theme -- may have further confirmed the dominance of finance over any concrete feature of the "real economy").

Saddam had no perception of any of these changes in the political culture or the potential of US individualism to reverse significant trends. In particular it now appears that he had no idea what Bush the younger might do, even if after the shock of 9/11 -- and the political manipulation that followed in its wake -- we AmerIcans could see it coming as a virtual certainty and therefore were not surprised by Bush the Younger's New World Disorder inaugurated in March 2003 with the complicity of Blair and Aznar. And even that monumental political decision played out pretty much according to the pattern of the new stock market, not as a political event to be prepared, negotiated and managed, but as a bet on futures*. A majority of AmerIcans thought at the time that the aggressive "takeover bid" of Saddam's Iraq was a sound operation of strategic market positioning (i.e. invasion of Iraq as a prelude to throttling Iran and securing stable resourcing in oil from the Middle East). The rest of us were treated as irrelevant because the only argument we had was "moral" (and we all know the equation "performance efficiency trumps ethics...except when the law imposes compliance issues", a question recently discussed among our Yahoo interculturalists in relation to diversity training; see as well the Steven Pinker piece in the New York Times magazine, where using this sort of implicit logic he appears to place Bill Gates above Mother Teresa in terms of ethical worth.

Finally, the article offers us the following culturally significant anecdote concerning the first Gulf war:

Piro also mentioned Saddam’s revelation during questioning that what pushed him to invade Kuwait in 1990 was a dishonorable swipe at Iraqi women made by the Kuwaiti leader, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah.

During the buildup to the invasion, Iraq had accused Kuwait of flooding the world market with oil and demanded compensation for oil produced from a disputed area on the border of the two countries.

Piro said that Al Sabah told the foreign minister of Iraq during a discussion aimed at resolving some of those conflicts that “he would not stop doing what he was doing until he turned every Iraqi woman into a $10 prostitute. And that really sealed it for him, to invade Kuwait,” said Piro.


That isn't the full story of course, but it's interesting to note the impact of Al Sabah's threat in Middle East culture. What was Al Sabah thinking? Did he fail to understand Middle East Arab culture? As an oil billionaire functioning within an economy dominated by the US, had he been infected by Texas culture, where such insults are mere expressions of macho bravado, the object of admiration for rhetorical skill? Or was he so sure of his position with the US that he felt he could afford to proffer such a hurtful insult?

One of the missing parts of the story is that the AmerIcan ambassador at the time had indicated informally that the US wouldn't prevent Iraq from invading Kuwait, which seemed logical enough to Saddam given his solid position as the buttress against Iran. For reasons of "global coherence", particularly in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, the US changed its attitude and quickly humbled Iraq but just as quickly re-established a political equilibrium that was at the limit of acceptable for Saddam and seemed, in its way, to guarantee long-term stability. Until, that is, Bin Laden (another US protégé during the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan) provided an irrational (i.e. emotional) pretext to see all Arabs and Muslims as the enemy and set in motion the surreal neo-con game plan of taking over the Middle East to manage it on their enlightened terms (the triumph of the culture of rational economic individualism, for which the entire world has been waiting...manna in the desert).

* Has anyone noticed a major cultural shift in the economic press? The stock market used to be about "investment" and economic value, but now the press routinely talks about "betting" on markets, trends or specific stocks. Recent economic news has been largely financial: the subprime fiasco and this week's Société Générale scandal. Wall Street doesn't yet have a hotel in its name in Las Vegas (now that would be a clever new theme to exploit, wouldn't it?), but it does seem to have borrowed its culture from Nevada (or Atlantic City, the home of Monopoly as well as east coast casinos). Actually I think a squeamish sense of political correctness would prevent even the cleverest Las Vegas real estate investors (gamblers?) from pointing too clearly to the speculative and greed-orientated nature of the stock market.

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