Iraq's Marion and Peter Sluglett: A Clamorous History

Malek Abisaab

Iraq Since 1958: 

From Revolution to Dictatorship
By Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett
New York, Pelgrave, 2001

Many students and scholars of the Middle East have found "Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship," by Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, a useful work on the modern history of Iraq. The book coherently presents the intriguing story of the major political turning points that shaped the modern history of Iraq from the last days of the Ottoman Empire (1516-1918) until the Second Gulf War (1991). This review assesses the third edition of the book (2001), which devotes a new chapter to the examination of the Second Gulf War that started in August 1990. Now that some time had passed since the First Gulf War, it is important to take a revisionist and more critical approach to the West's dominant accounts of it, particularly in relationship to Saddam Hussein's role in igniting it. Since Saddam Hussein has been placed on the "wrong side of the world," it is appropriate to reexamine the larger historical scope of the Gulf crisis and the real intentions of the Iraqi president in launching a war against Iran. We need to understand whether this war served any regional interests other than those of the Arab oil oligarchy and the Western multinational oil companies. Sluglett and Sluglett assess the domestic policies of Saddam Hussein and the practices of the Bath Party since its inception in Iraq, and highlight the party's ruthless means for domination in 1963. The authors imply that the Bath's repressive policies vis-a-vis the Iraqi Left and the Kurds were a rehearsal for the grand showdown with Iran. Critical primary sources on the Iranian side are absent from the authors' story; for example, it is questionable whether Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wanted to topple the secular Iraqi regime days after leading a major revolution in Iran. Nor was Khomeini in a position to wage a comprehensive war against his Arab neighbors. The Iraqi Shiites, even if they were a potential threat to the Bathist regime, for the most part opposed absorption by an Iranian Islamic state. Khomeini, in the euphoric aftermath of the revolution, called upon all Shiites and the "oppressed" around the world to revolt against tyranny, exploitation, and imperialism. He inspired many political movements around the Islamic world, but the local interests of leading Shiite scholars in Najaf did not intersect with those of Khomeini. Khomeini even avoided the dispute over Shatt al-Arab. He proposed a permanent solution for the crisis, suggesting its name change to al-Shatt al-Islami (the Islamic Coast). The chauvinistic nationalist outlook of the Iraqi regime, however, did not entertain a compromise and felt quite secure in its war rhetoric since it was guaranteed Western support against Iran. By considering these factors, one cannot hold both countries equally responsible for the war without differentiating between the aggressor and the defender/victim.

Sluglett and Sluglett aim to show how the First Gulf War led to the Second. The human and economic cost of the Iraq-Iran war took a high toll on human life as well as the nations' economic foundations, with the complete devastation of whole regions. In my opinion, one could easily compare the role of economic forces in producing war in Germany following WWI and Iraq in the late 1980s. The compensation and the reparation which Germany had to pay to the victorious Allies precipitated the rise of Nazism and consequently the outbreak of WWII. The considerable destruction of the Iraqi territories and the subsequent financial burden of the war with Iran predisposed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. However, unlike in Germany, these catastrophic circumstances did not of themselves give rise to Iraqi "Nazism." Rather, the chauvinistic Bathist ideology permeated all levels of political life in the state and society long time before the war.

Given unprecedented and forceful support from various Western governments, Saddam Hussein's ambitions in rebuilding Iraq as a regional super state began to look realistic, but to accomplish this, Saddam had to remove the huge debt Iraq owed to foreign and Arab Gulf countries like Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Iraq owed Kuwait, UAE, and the Saudi government an amount ranging from 60 to 80 billion dollars. Using the carrot and stick policy, Saddam asked the Gulf countries to cancel the debt as long as Iraq was fighting on behalf of all Arabs against "Persian aggression," Shiite radicalism, and al-Shu'ubiyyah (anti-Arab movements). As John Atkins, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, mentioned during a lecture at the University of Akron, "the Saudis canceled their debt to Iraq as a preemptive move to abort the rising tension in the Gulf." Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates did not do the same. When Iraq demanded raising the price of oil, Kuwait and probably UAE flooded the market with oil, which decreased the price of oil instead.

Sluglett and Sluglett offer a thorough, well-documented account of the consequences of American foreign policy and military operations like Desert Storm and Desert Shield, as well as the effect of the no fly zone policies. Could the Second Gulf War have been avoided? The authors believe that this option was not on Saddam's agenda, if the war can be reduced to the particular acts of Saddam. The reader does not achieve a clear understanding of Kuwait's position and motives for its regional policies from this text.

The Second Gulf war ended in 1991 but Iraq faced crippling economic sanctions. These sanctions have been detrimental to the Iraqi civilian population and particularly the poor. Meanwhile, Saddam's regime remains intact. Sluglett and Sluglett correctly noted that the Iraqi leader and his officials have made considerable fortunes from the distribution of food and manipulation of the black market. The Iraqi nuclear, biological, and chemical weapon programs went ahead, unhindered by the sanctions. Despite this, the authors raise little doubt about the long-term consequences, human and political, of the sanctions on Iraq.

The policy of economic sanctions has so far proved futile and inhumane and as such should be condemned. A few decades ago a similar set of economic sanctions were imposed on Cuba to remove Castro from power and end the Communist regime. Castro is still in power, and the Communist regime is still strong and well integrated. In Iraq, it seems that the sanctions benefitted Saddam and the Baath regime economically as well as politically. Thanks to the sanctions, Saddam is receiving support from important sectors of Iraqi society and "standing firm" against the Western world.

Overall, this book is an important resource on Iraqi history during the 20th century. It builds on some of the central themes established by Hanna Batatu and will be appreciated by numerous scholars and students of Middle East history.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, no.38 (Winter 2002)

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