Were we better off with the Baathists?
We watch helplessly as our daily TV diet of violence shows Middle Eastern states such as Libya, Syria and Iraq descend into chaos, anarchy and tribal warfare. We try to make sense of events, as Islamist groups and “moderates” aim to establish supremacy in the region, to rebuild a society on what they hope will be the rubble of the old dictatorships. With groups such as ISIS and the Russian state backed forces of Assad, is this any kind of fertile ground for moderates to thrive? Should the West back Assad, along with Putin, to re-establish something that at least resembles a legitimate state, so that there is at least the semblance of a rational platform for dialogue and discussion to take place? Can we trust “moderate rebels” enough to back them with arms? And which rebels, which faction?
When thinking about the current desperate situation in Iraq, after the invasion and destruction of the Ba’athist regime of Saddam, I can’t help but feel reminded of the John Cleese character in the Monty Python scene from The Life of Brian, asking “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Try replacing “Romans” with “Ba’athists”. Looking back over the past twelve years, since the 2003 invasion and occupation, we really must ask seriously whether regime-change and “hoping for the best” was the best policy. Similarly, we were all in favour of the Arab Spring of 2011 - but has it left us with an animal we do not know to fill the power vacuum: a group of less rational, more radical, more dogmatic, more autonomous, more dangerous devotees to a stateless death cult? Better the enemy you know?
Hopefully I don’t come across as a Ba’athist sympathiser, but it has to be said that, from an outsider’s perspective, it appears that every attempt at trying to “democratize” the region (and by that I mean American/Western intervention) has lad to a more hostile situation. Not only in the Middle East but now also on a global scale.
In spite of their Mafioso style of governance, and their sadistic, autocratic regimes we have to give credit to the well-funded education systems that increased the literacy rate amongst a generation of boys and girls throughout the region, brought a sense of renaissance and pride back to Arab culture that was repressed by European colonialists, and forged a modern welfare state. Many people in the region have abandoned the abject poverty of desert dwelling in favour of newly established industrialising communities.
Although these states were not ideal by any western standard, could it perhaps be argued that the imposition of stable though imperfect government might have avoided the chaos and bloodshed we’re seeing today, and the mass evacuation of entire nations? It may sound a tad effete, but I’d argue that all nations that are maintained by “Radical Evil” naturally succumb to more desirable systems of government with time, and with a well enough educated population. I really feel that within another generation the likes of Assad and Saddam and Gadhafi would have faded into obscurity without us having to lift a finger - it would have happened of its own accord. Instead we (the West) have destabilized the entire region just to make sure they still trade in Dollars instead of Gold Dinars (but that’s a story for another article).
A Cult of Personality is a powerful thing. A strong leader can in many cases be presented as the tip of a spear, allowing for the fragmented citizens of a society of previously warring tribes, sects, religions, and races to put differences aside in order to unify into a sturdy shaft that enables a spirited momentum towards “progress” that can encompass economic/social stability etc. If people were good at governing themselves, after all there would be no need for a common coercive power to keep them in order. We can see here the mutual relationship of protection (even investment in the individual in many cases) and obedience.
The Arab-nationalist/Pan-Arab/Anti-imperialist sentiment that was a defining characteristic of Ba’athism is an obvious motivation that casts aside primitive tribal interests and replaces them with the party motto of “Unity, Liberty, and Socialism”. On paper, these nations were secular despite being home to an Islamic majority. The Ba’athists encouraged at a cultural level the idea that the nation came first, and maintained order and a welfare state by brutally repressing agitators like the Taliban and the theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood, whilst also containing them within the confines of their own rigid borders.
After the Arab spring uprising has gone terribly awry, with inaction leading to a prolonged revolution, which in turn leads to increased radicalisation amongst the masses, we have to ask ourselves the moral question: should we find a way to tolerate the intolerable in order to preserve some vestige of sanity within a chaotic region? Should we have sided, at least for the time being, with strong authoritarian leadership as a means to social progress? We need to ask whether we as Westerners really understand the type of people who wish to drag the region back to the feudal age? How can we relate, as privileged onlookers, mumbling to ourselves “That Assad is a nasty man”, to the measures required to maintain order and suppress extremism? This is especially germane when life for the Syrian people after Assad is worse than it has ever been? Without a well-defined border and a state further destabilised by tribal wars initiated by rebels of various radicalised persuasions, life truly has become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
We might well be asking: What have the Ba’athists done for us? Monty Python gives the list of Roman contributions to primitive civilisation (and we must here include primitive Britain as a beneficiary), such as roads, law, public works, clean water, etc. Perhaps we can regard elements of Socialist Baathism in the same context, and assess them as preferable to what has been left in its place due to Western intervention. Unhappily, things may have to get even more anarchic before they start getting genuinely better. Let’s hope that something progressive grows in the ashes of the old, sooner rather than later.