Kanan Makiya’s Republic Of Fear

When Republic Of Fear, an inside look at how the Ba’ath Party ruled Iraq, was finally published in 1989, after three long years of publishers deferring out of sheer disbelief at the horrific details contained within, Saddam Hussein had not yet invaded Kuwait, triggering America’s response and the Gulf War. Its author, Kanin Makiya, could not safely publish under his own name, choosing instead the sobriquet Samir al-Khalil. The international reading public took no notice of the book until the annexation of Kuwait, at which point it flew off shelves, and the world was introduced to the real Saddam Hussein. If we now know him as a murderous tyrant, with genocidal designs towards the Kurdish peoples, Makiya’s early reporting deserves much of the credit.

Republic Of Fear is, by its author’s judgment, not a work of history. “This book is not a history of the Ba’ath regime established in 1968 in Iraq. It is an enquiry into its meaning,” he tells us from the start. It seems to me manifestly a work of history, replete with information about the founding of the Ba’ath regime and the ideological battles, going back centuries, that made its politics attractive in 20th century Iraq, but we take his meaning: Makiya is more interested in understanding the mechanisms by which the Ba’ath Party wielded power in Iraq. The title, in that sense, is not glib but propositional: the Ba’ath Party, Makiya contends, ruled by the logic of a fear so pervasive and comprehensive that even its own higher-ups were bound by it. Ultimate authority gradually became invested in the person of Saddam Hussein, who, like Stalin and Hitler before him, made himself ubiquitous:

A large painted cutout figure of Saddam Husain towers over the entrance of every Iraqi village; often at night it emits a lurid fluorescent glow. A thirty-foot high version can be seen near Baghdad city center. Photographs adorn every shop, school, police station, army barracks, and public building, and can be seen in people’s offices and living rooms and overhanging the streets from the parapets of houses. No official will appear before a camera without a picture of the president in the background, and his name is evoked in every public address.

Respect to the leader must be paid, and as Saddam’s whisper network grew, as his influence among the younger generation blossomed, and children came to inform against their parents, reporting their most minor infractions against the Party, he displaced even the authority of parents within the home. “Once people stop saying things in front of their children, and even encourage them in their spoon-fed enthusiasm for the Great Leader, things become less clear. Raw power lording it over civil society has been turned into a new kind of authority, one that rules inside each soul.” Iraqis adapted, Makiya argues, by putting on a mask, a permanent outward demeanor of passive resignation or quiet obedience, the better not to stand out. But such a defensive mechanism is lethal to self-respect, and only advantages a ruling class that wants passive, obedient citizens.

The obsession with putting a mask on oneself in the workplace, in dealing with officials, in relations to neighbours and even within the family is so pervasive today in Iraq that inevitably the distinction implicit in the original act of deception gets blurred; the mask fits so completely, so tightly, that it can no longer be readily discarded. Like a snail sealed in its shell, personality and character shrivel up.

I have read enough accounts of life in post-Iron Curtain Europe to find this passage resonant with the experiences of, for example, the Poles, who very suddenly found themselves, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, able to think and speak freely for the first time in years.

Violence – or at least the credible threat of violence – was the mechanism by which Saddam ruled by fear, and the accounts of the pain he was capable of inflicting almost beggar belief: imagine sadism made state policy, and you’ll begin to approach the horror. Consider this small litany of abuses a mere sample: whenever Saddam encountered recalcitrant merchants or business owners who resented having the state control their operations, he added their names to lists, waiting until the list reached a critical mass before rounding them all up at once, torturing and executing them in secret, and then stringing their bodies up on telephone polls in front of their stores, to serve as warnings to others. Draconian punishments for petty theft were instituted: “stealing anything worth more than 5,000 dinars – worth roughly 12 dollars in 1994 – by anyone who was not a minor became punishable in Iraq by amputation in the first instance and in the second by branding.” Army deserters, once caught, were given similar treatment: a first offence resulted in an X being carved into the forehead; at a second offence, a limb was hacked off; on a third offence, execution. When several hundred Iraqi doctors went on strike, protesting the barbarity of the punishments and their being forced to carry them out, they themselves were threatened with amputations and disfigurement, promptly ending the strike. When men and women were abducted by the secret police, tortured, and executed, without warning or trial, their bodies were returned to their families in sealed caskets, which became infamous in Iraq as the numbers continued to grow. Finally, cruelty and humiliation were not restricted to employment against subversives, but deployed for their own sake. Against the wealthy patrician class of Iraq, whose political power had faded long before the Ba’athi rise, and were therefore no real threat to Saddam’s power, he nonetheless sent out his sons to abduct their daughters on their weekend visits to Baghdad’s famous night clubs, returning them only after weeks of rape and humiliation – acts calculated to shame and demean not only the women but their families as well, who were powerless to retaliate or seek justice.

Republic Of Fear is a gripping and comprehensive account of how the Ba’ath Party ruled Iraq for the better part of half a century. It investigates not only the party’s historical but also its ideological origins in socialism and pan-Arabism, and its shrewd manipulation of Israel and America as “imperialist” forces against which any action or measure was justifiable. Reading it now, decades after its initial publication, and after coalition forces ousted and then executed Saddam Hussain, Iraq’s fate seems uncertain, but the hope nonetheless remains that some measure of justice might have been attained by the disastrous Iraq War, some room created for a brighter future.