Who Misses Saddam?: These guys

Readers will recall this blogger’s interest in the Ba’thist trend in Mauritania, which is mainly dominated by the Iraqi/Saddamist strain. Mauritanian Ba’this (as well as a few of the other, small Arab nationalist or nationalist-Islamist parties) had gravitated toward the Qadhafite trend while Libya spreading largesse in the country, in the last few years mainly after the 2008 coup. CRIDEM has a very short summary report of a conference on 29 December where Ba’thists and other fans of Saddam commemorated the fifth anniversary of the death of Saddam Hussein with discussions on the state of the Arab ummah (community) and Arabic poetry readings; portraits of Saddam Hussein were distributed to attendees. The CRIDEM link is also interesting for reader comments, whose tone shows the kind of sentiments Saddam’s image calls up for some Mauritanians (especially non-Arab Mauritanians) given the country’s diversity and history in the last twenty or twenty five years as it relates to race and ethnic politics. At the same it shows the extent to which Mauritanian Arabs are integrated into pan-Arab trends and political discourses,¹ how Mauritanian political culture in general has been de-territorialised over the last few decades in terms of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic and Islamist narratives and ideologies (the difference between the latter two is especially important; and in terms of ethnic differences, the way ‘Moors’ and ‘Afro-Mauritanians associate and disassociate religion from identity politics is also important (Mauritanian Ba’thists include many religious references in their propaganda and programmes; the same is true for some of the other Arab nationalist parties; also among some of the Haratine movements Arabism and Islamic identity have been used to legitimise anti-slavery and anti-discrimination efforts for the descendants of slaves), while also keeping in mind that Islam is an important part of official or semi-official Mauritanian nationalist narratives in any case — the place is called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania on purpose not by coincidence; a similar trend can also be seen in black Mauritanian ethnic politics, too, where ‘African’ as opposed to ‘Arab’ identity and pan-politics have been somewhat prominent, especially in exile). In any case an interesting event that coincides with similar such commemorations elsewhere in the Arab countries.

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Translation: ‘In the Arab Maghreb’

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

Here is a brutish rendering of an excerpt from Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem ‘In the Arab Maghreb‘. The narrator is an Algerian independence fighter, looking at a headstone with him name written on it. It was indented as an anti-colonial version of ‘The Waste Land’. ‘Abraha’ is a reference to the Ethiopian king who led the attack against the Ka’abah and who, the story goes, was defeated through divine intervention. In the poem the narrator recalls numerous episodes from history, the fight with the Ethiopians, the Battle of Dhu Qar, ‘Abd el-Krim’s struggle in the Rif Mountains and so on, which are signs of hope as he reflects on his own situation; this passage comes as he links himself and his struggle to his ancestors’ struggles in the past. The poem is dedicated to Messali Hadj, founder of the Étoile Nord-Africaine (the first Algerian independence movement), Parti du Peuple Algérien and the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques. Continue reading

Barbarians with Other People’s Resources

In his 5 November column (‘Our Reckless Meritocracy‘) Ross Douthat eyes the limits of ‘meritocracy’.

For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington. By elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history.

And for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good.

Mr. Douthat is writing about the financial crisis and its causes. He teases this out into other areas, including wars mentioning the Whiz Kids of the Viet Nam era as a similar example. In meritocracies ‘it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.’  Continue reading

Notes RE: The Mauritanian Baʿth

What follows is a series of notes on the general outline of the history of the Baʿthist tendency in Mauritania. The information below has been gathered from primary and secondary sources, especially conversations and documents. Apologies for the lack of specific citations for each item; some of these are the result of problems transferring footnotes or internet links that have been consulted but are now dead and some are from conversations with individuals who cannot be identified. It is imperfectly semi-chronological because it is pieced together from notes taken at various times over relatively long periods. Updates and clarifications will follow. Continue reading

Good books

Two new books worth reading: Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War by Robert Jervis (Cornell, 2010) and The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson (Henry Holt, 2009). Jervis’s book is especially useful because it reproduces a CIA report on analytical failures leading up to the Iranian Revolution, probing and explaining why American observers by and large failed to see it coming. The section on the Iraq War lacks this level of depth because not enough information is available yet. But many of Jervis’s observations are pertinent and hot, even if the book is vastly more interesting in its first case study. Thompson’s book is one of many books on Kennan that have come out in the last couple of years; it does a dual biography with Nitze that is fascinating, regardless of whether it comes off with more affection than might be necessary. But it still offers a unique take on both men that makes for engrossing and worthwhile reading. One sometimes grows weary of reading descriptions of George Frost Kennan’s cool temper and geeko-stratego disposition in a world full of capricious and jocular policymakers and hacks. Thompson’s book keeps some of this but buries it under the more interesting intellectual back-and-forth between Kennan and Nitze and constructs a tight narrative that grabs the reader in a really meaningful way where the evolution of grand strategy is concerned. Compared with other recent biographies of Kennan, Thompson’s is one of the better ones at focusing on intellectual content. Both books are highly recommended.

On Obama’s Cairo speech

Official and unoffficial reactions to Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University are out, and the minds of many have been made up. Here are this blogger’s reactions to some of its major points, thematically, with emphasis on criticism, not genuflection (for the former is more valuable than the latter). Continue reading

Public works

En sko stor som en soffa har blivit staty i Tikrit, den forne irakiske diktatorn Saddam Husseins hemstad. Statyn, gjord i glasfiber och koppar, föreställer den sko som en irakisk journalist kastade mot USA:s dåvarande president George W Bush den 14 december förra året.

Skokastningen utfördes under en presskonferens då den irakiske journalisten kastade båda sina skor mot presidenten. Båda missade. Journalisten ropade samtidigt: “Det här är en avskedskyss din hund!”

Kastad sko blev jättestaty,” Clas Svahn, Dagens Nyheter, 29 January, 2009. Continue reading


baath_hqGvosdev asks

I read with interest the reports about the Ba’ath restorationists within the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior–lower level officers apparently interested in some sort of revival of the Ba’ath Party. It raises an interesting question–and I don’t know whether there is any sort of polling on this–the level of nostalgia for the past in Iraq, compared with the security and economic situation of the present. 

It also raises the question as to whether at least some elements of Ba’ath ideology–particularly secularism and nationalism–might still have some appeal, especially against the sectarian divide of the current government.

I’ve read about the rise in Yugo-nostalgia even in Slovenia, which by all accounts has done much better for itself since it separated from Yugoslavia. Is there a similar phenomenon at work here?

It would be surprising, given Iraq’s circumstances since the Fall, if such sentiments did not exist within the Sunni community. Ideologically, the Ba`th never held a wide sway over most of the Iraqis, it was a radical minority party for most of its existence there and it is the result of cunning and brute force that it was able to over come the more numerous and popular Communist Party and other minor factions. If Iraqis miss the Ba`th, it is probably the economic and political stability it facilitated early on (after a tumultuous period in the country’s history, it must be remembered), not so much its principles, though surely some do.  The Ba`th and its specific articulation of these principles, have likely had their time.  The Ba`th was never successful in eliminating sectarianism, and it long served largely as a partisan entity within the sectarian context, and years of religious conflict may make this specific ideal more appealing. Or not. It could have just the opposite result, as it seems to have in Lebanon: While objectively most agree that sectarian rivalries and distinctions are a major source of instability and strife, just as many probably would not be willing to give up their communal fidelities regardless of the potential benefits because of the lack of inter-communal trust as a result of the savage violence prosecuted between ethno-sectarian lines. Anti-sectarian forces tend to be weak — if they are genuine — or fronts for ulterior motives — if they are anything else — with the latter being most common in places like Iraq. If most people wanted to move away from identity politics, they are either unwilling or unable to move in that direction. At the same time, sectarian politics and sectarian and particularist leaders have gained power over secular and nationalist ones in Iraq. These were the most well and rapidly organized political forces after the invasion, and secular movements have not been successful. I therefore doubt that Ba`thonostalgia has arisen quite yet outside of the Sunni community, which has felt it practically since day one after the Fall.

Regarding the shoe tossing


To address something that has been raised by several people: Is there a culture in which throwing a shoe at someone is not highly offensive? The consensus would seem to be that in most cultures, throwing a shoe at someone at very least signals great hostility. It is true that in Arab culture, use of the shoe has a meaning somewhat different than it does in Anglo-Saxon culture: In the first place, it not as clear in Anglo-Saxon culture that the shoe is especially offensive as an instrument of abuse. Shoe throwing might be recognized as a hostile act, as a means of inflicting pain, but it would not insult the victim in the way that it would in Arab culture. In either case, the insult is obvious: Few people of any culture would take having a loafer or sneaker thrown at them as an expression of endearment. Is it necessary for a head line to describe the incident as “the worst Arab insult”? Perhaps, if only to inform culturally illiterate readers of the intent and significance of the act. But the result of describing every situation where an Arab throws, shows, or uses his shoe to bash something or someone as “a high insult in Arab culture” is that it presents something is easily appreciated as the particular behavior of an exotic people whose customs are [inordinately] Otherly and different from “world” conventions. This is not the case. Throwing shoes is seen as an insult in at least one other culture: “Throwing shoes is particularly insulting in Thai culture, which considers feet the dirtiest part of the body.” Still, given that in many Western European (and Anglo-American) cultures throwing shoes is associated with women (throwing heels, for instance) and irrational or strange behavior, mentions of the “importance” of the shoe as a device of insult in Arab culture is to a degree relevant and necessary. Regardless, it might be better informed to emphasize that in many cultures, including Arab culture, throwing shoes is especially insulting. Or something.

On liberal Kurdistan

Michael Rubin writes, after news of Kurdish journalists being arrested and harassed by the KDP: “Success in Iraqi Kurdistan could have been one of Bush’s greatest legacies. Unfortunately, it appears just one instance of how his administration has squandered its chances.” This has been one of the major myths of the Iraq War. The vision of a liberal Iraqi Kurdistan, free of the backwardness and religious fanaticism of Arab Iraq, is one many Western journalists have loved to cover. Westerners could travel with relative ease in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the people are broadly pro-American, and where pervasive military and militia activity discourages “Arab” terrorism. This is a land where women are routinely burned alive, non-Kurds have their movement heavily watched and regulated, often by gangs of militiamen, Christian churches are violated and the identity of their congregations forcibly reconstructed from Semitic ones to “Kurdish” ones, and where political actors suffocate dissent by intimidation and force. That isn’t to deny the stability and prosperity that has come to Iraqi Kurdistan since the invasion; that much is certain. And the Kurds have made more political progress in the years after the invasion; but this is not the result of Kurdish culture, as many Western writers like to suggest. The Kurds are not exceptional. Their culture is no more liberal than is Arab culture. And as much as some would like to blame provincialism and social conservatism in Kurdistan on the Ba`th Party or Arab influence, their condition remains and by all accounts predates the Ba`th regime and the British Mandate. Their politics have had more time to develop than the rest of Iraq’s, because Saddam’s authority was limited there. And, indeed, that development allows for Kurdish women especially to fight back against social and institutional pressures such as those I mention above. But the superficial coverage of its development, often laden with less than subtle anti-Arab and anti-Shia bigotry, that is so common in American news and magazine reporting has to stop. It must be remembered that Kurdistan’s success is only relative success within the context of a fragmenting Iraq.

The glories of times gone by

Nostalgia for colonial times: Ryan Crocker. One of the precious pearls today in the testimony of Ryan Crocker was his crocodile tears over the “sufferings” of Iraqis. He said that the Iraqi people suffered even before Saddam: since 1958, he added. All was well under colonialism, he wanted to say. [ From As'ad ]

This attitude is particularly common among American observers of Iraqi affairs; the problems in Iraq began after the revolution of 1958, and its ethnic and sectarian problems do not predate the rise of Arab nationalism, or “radicalism.” Arab nationalism is to blame for ethno-racial and ethno-sectarian hostility. Indeed, the monarchical and colonial regimes that predated the Arab nationalist and republican ones were “liberal.” They represented a time of unprecedented tolerance and openness in the Arab world. This is half-true. This was largely the case for the middle and, especially, upper classes. The rest of the population was largely ignorant or resentful of this liberal period. It is part of an attempt to argue that democratization and liberalization (however vaguely or specifically defined) is possible in the Arab world, because such processes have antecedents, especially in the Arab east. This view is expressed in the works of Barry Rubin, and some “liberal” Arab writers, some of whom are more respectable than others (and is not entirely without validity; I wrote a positive review of a major book on the subject). It is part of a somewhat neo-conservative narrative, though they hold no monopoly over it, and it is a view that has some merit on a cultural level, but not in terms of political or ethnic liberalism or tolerance across society as a whole. The Iraqi monarchy was responsible for acts of genocide against ethnic Assyrians, and viciously battled Kurdish rebels in the north. The main flaw with this view is that it takes Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad, and Beirut (or certain quarters of those cities) to be chiefly representative of life during the entire pre-revolutionary period, as opposed to the living conditions and social attitudes present in the rest of the country. Continue reading