Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Edwin Black, the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, The Transfer Agreement, and War Against the Weak. His latest book is Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict.
FP: Welcome to Frontpage Interview Mr. Black, it is a pleasure to have you here.
Black: Thank you.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Black: Iraq is the compelling story of our day, but just part of a much broader story of the west vs. the Middle East and indeed the clash between world terrorism and western civilization. For me, it was not enough to go back to the rise of Saddam Hussein, or even the formation of Iraq after WWI, as other authors have done. I went back to the centuries-long reign of the Ottomans, and then further back to the Islamic Conquest and further until the beginning of recorded time in the so-called and misnamed “Cradle of Civilization.” I discovered that Iraq’s history has been one of unending victimization of the people, and their revictimization of the perceived victimizers in a ceaseless cascade of violence, oppression and desolation.
FP: You show Iraq's long history of exploitation by Western powers and powerful competing corporations. Tell us a bit of how this complicates the contemporary U.S. effort to build democracy in Iraq.
Black: The people of Iraq do not want democracy. They have a 7,000-year head start on the West. If the people of Iraq wanted democracy, they don’t need a permission slip from New York or London. The people of Iraq are fundamentally an intolerant people that oppress half their community—women. Yes, since Iraq was invented in 1920, the Western nations have attempted to create a pluralistic and democratic nation where one has never existed to have some ruler sign on the dotted line to legitimize their oil concessions and to create an atmosphere of democracy to promote the unimpeded flow of oil. I assure you, when the people of this region hear the word “democracy” they hear a code word for “you people want to take our oil.”
FP: What can the United States start doing to increase its own legitimacy and win the war of ideas in the Middle East?
Black: Nothing. It is not our policy in Iraq the people resent, it is our very presence. It does not matter how many bridges we rebuild or schoolhouses we repaint. It is us and our presence—the infidels—that they revile. Even the Shiites who fervently push for elections say it is a way to rid themselves of “the foreign occupier.” In the larger Middle East, we can never be seen as legitimate—or at least not during the years to come. True, we may prevail in our efforts at winning peace in the Arab-Israel conflict—maybe maybe—but not because we are seen as legitimate, but rather because we were able to somehow force a square peg into a round hole. The reality is: we will never succeed in the Middle East until we get off of oil.
FP: Despite the history of war, profit and conflict, Bush’s liberation of Iraq was still legitimate and necessary—correct? Not only did it dislodge one of the most vicious and barbaric regimes in history and liberate 25 million people, but it made the crucial step to winning the terror war: starting the process of democratization in the Middle East. Do you agree?
Black: I am so happy Saddam has been dethroned and retrieved from his rat hole. I wish we could go down the list of the world’s oppressors and relieve them all of their rule. That said, if Bush had gone in on Monday to liberate Iraq from Saddam, and then left on Thursday, things might have genuinely turned out differently. But we have just stayed. You are correct, Saddam was a heinous monster in the tradition of Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler. But he was a regional monster in a region filled with such monsters. Moreover, his regime was only one of a long-line of oppressive, monstrous regimes in Iraq that long predate the Ba'athists. The UN is filled with such tyrannical regimes. But Iraq came to the top of the list because of our strategic interest. That strategic interest is oil.
FP: So building democracy is a waste of time in Iraq? In the end it will fail anyway? You say the Iraqi people don’t want democracy. What do they want then?
Black: They want us gone. They want the infidels out of their midst. They want to create their own national expressions based upon their own tribal, religious and social values, traditions and legacies.
FP: You may be right, there are so many depressing and impossible realities here. But surely we can’t just sit back and not try to instill some kind of democratization in that region. And surely there are many Iraqis who want nothing to do with dictatorship and want freedom. Despite the obstacles, we have to try to bring democracy to Iraq and the rest of the region. It is a key strategy in our war with radical Islamism. History teaches that the way to fight our totalitarian enemies best is to try to spread liberty and democracy as much as we can. No? If not, what alternatives are there?
Black: We will never succeed in Iraq. No one has ever succeeded in Iraq. Not all people on earth are destined for Starbucks and the American societal makeover. Certainly, in the past century there has always been a forward thinking and politically enlightened segment of Iraqi society. Right now, today, the magnificent Iraqis who are trying to democratize the government are braver than brave. Those who work with the coalition and the Americans are targets as much as our own marines, but those government leaders of Iraq wear no armor and do not live in the Green Zone. I keep finding new depths of outrage over the violence and inhumanity there. Think of the brazen assault in Baghdad on an election commissioner and his body guards a few days ago—they were just dragged from their cars in open daylight on the busy main Haifa Street by gunmen without masks; they made them kneel and shot them in the head for all to see. In the face of this violent segment—call it a popular minority—how can democratization survive? Monsters succeed in Iraq by virtue of their monstrosity—look at the history. I think more civilized behavior can come to the Cradle of Civilization, but not in an overnight transformation. Only with baby steps. The people must yearn to be free. Elections don’t make democracies. Democracies make elections. Compare the situation in Iraq with that in the Ukraine where the masses gathered in the squares day after day in the snow and the rain to rally for proper elections. Compare the people of Afghanistan—a very different people, far less urbanized and with a vastly different tradition—and their recent epic trek to the polls. We can help. We do help. But we cannot impose democracy from afar. There will never be a military disengagement, only an energy disengagement. When we get off oil, we won’t need to be in Iraq and won’t spend billions per month to transform their society.
FP: Ok, definitely you are right that we are facing monsters that are trying to defeat democracy in Iraq with their monstrosity. We are facing tremendous challenges and yes, it is very difficult, to say the least, to implant democracy if the masses are not fervently crying out for it, gathering in mass demonstrations like in Ukraine and so forth
But here is the key now: we are already in Iraq and we have to win in Iraq.
Are you suggesting that we withdraw?
If we withdraw, we lose – and the consequences will be much worse and bloodier than those that occurred in Indo-china. After we abandoned Southeast Asia, the Communists ended up perpetrating a bloodbath, exterminating three million people.
If we suddenly cut and run in Iraq, there will most likely be a much more horrible bloodbath. The terrorists will slaughter not only all of our allies, but also all of those who don’t want Sharia. The danger is that there could be a domino effect and militant Muslims will be inspired by this sign of infidel weakness and go on a violent spree not only in the Middle East, but all over the world. The key here is that we are not in Iraq now to just save Iraq; we are there because we are in a war with radical Islam. And we have no choice but to win. Do you not agree that withdrawal in this case is the greatest of evils?
Black: We can’t cut and run like the Spanish. That’s the problem. We are in it. Our boys and girls are there. If we retreat, it is a huge victory for world terrorism and Jihad. And by the way, neither world terrorism nor the Jihad were in Iraq until we created the power vacuum and opened the door. Under Saddam, no one was allowed to achieve any element of power base or rival his authority—not the Shiites, not al Qaeda, no one. But now they have rushed in. We are creating the world’s next Chechen-style murder battalions. Moreover, the world will witness an unprecedented bloodbath, one that will exceed anything you saw in Viet Nam. Understand, we are in an unwinnable struggle with an implacable enemy that knows no limit to their historic barbarism. That said, we must understand that while we cannot run, and while we can survive in Iraq, we will never succeed in Iraq. We must declare a war on oil addiction, and launch an international Manhattan Project to move the world to alternatives such hydrogen, solar, wind. We could do it for $5 billion in 5 years—or a month’s war expense in Iraq. Then we rob the region of its arch-importance. Then we edge out of Iraq as the Israelis are doing in Gaza, as we did a generation earlier in Viet Nam. That will end the war in Iraq but the legacy of world terrorism, the new Mongol-style onslaught, shall be with us for generations.
FP: Well, there is substantial evidence of Hussein’s associations with world terrorism before we invaded Iraq. The Iraqi dictator aided, abetted, and provided sanctuary to Abu Nidal’s terrorists, Abu Abbas, and all kinds of radical Islamic terrorist groups – Hizbollah and Hamas among them. His $25,000 rewards to Palestinian suicide bombers’ families speak volumes. Laurie Mylroie and Steven Hayes have already documented all of these realities with meticulous research and precision. In any case, the U.S. just couldn’t take the risk that someone like Saddam, who at one time possessed – and used – WMDs, could arm the perpetrators of 9/11 with God knows what. We just couldn’t take that risk.
Black: Slogans are easy. Let’s get the facts in focus. I followed the career of Abu Nidal, the nom de guerre of Sabri al-Bana, an arch Palestinian terrorist. I was among the few who flew to Israel during the famous Abu Nidal Passover scare, when he threatened to blow up any El Al plane in the air. It is true that after his exodus from the West Bank, Abu Nidal set up shop in Iraq and worked extensively with Iraqi intelligence as part of a rejectionist front; that was a generation ago in the 1970’s. I already explained that no one with a power base—religious, tribal or political—could co-exist with the murderous Saddam. Abu Nidal was financed in large part by Gulf States and was considered a Carlos-style terrorist for hire. Saddam did not like that. By 1983, during the war with Iraq, Saddam expelled Abu Nidal and his shadowy terrorist group—this very much in a deal with the Americans in exchange for their support of Saddam against Iran. Remember the Stark?
A few years later, the money-hungry Abu Nidal conspired with the Kuwaiti authorities against his former host in Kuwait’s conflict with Saddam. He provided intelligence against Iraq to the Kuwaitis to be transmitted to the Americans during the first Gulf War. By the mid-eighties, the renegade Abu Nidal, expelled from a gallery of terrorist-leaning Middle East countries from Syria to Libya stopped his terrorist acts against the West and focused on internecine Arab assassination in Tunis and Beirut, which stopped by the mid-nineties because he ran out of funding, his health deteriorated into crisis mode, and because his once-revolutionary terrorist group was supplanted by a new generation of suicide bombers and killers spanning the Middle East. I do not know of any Abu Nidal attacks against the West in the last fifteen years. In August 2002, Abu Nidal was admitted into Iraq and either immediately murdered by Saddam’s intelligence operatives, or somehow convinced to commit suicide by shooting his brains out. The Middle East is comprised of nations that have practiced, nurtured and supported international terrorism—from Egypt and Lebanon to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Did Iraq exceed Saudi Arabia?
As for financing West Bank suicide bombers, yes, Saddam paid insurance benefits of $25,000 to the families. But let’s put this in perspective. Kuwait held a national telethon. The Saudi Royal family was involved in such “charity.” The Middle East is filled with Arab countries that consider this type of payment—governmental or private—a holy exercise. Now then, as for the falsity that Saddam was involved with 9-11, this is a recent shibboleth that Rumsfeld disowned once again on television just a few days ago, as was done by Bush and the 9-11 commission last year. The WMDs we feared did not exist, and we grasped at straws in the intelligence to believe they existed because we wanted to believe. You say, “We could not take that risk.” I say Saddam should have been removed not because he posed a threat to us, which at that moment he did not, but because he was an inhuman monster and tyrant. I go back to the clarion calls of Stephen Wise who declared at Madison Square Garden on March 27, 1933 that there comes a time when persecution is not local, but becomes an international concern.
Are you getting it? I want all the dastardly oppressors and murdering regimes gone. Preemptively. I support the original concept: regime change. With so noble a cause why did we need to fake it with WMD?
FP: Well, we agree on some things. This WMD debate can go on in circles. Suffice it to say that Al-Zarqawi and the terrorists are in Iraq and they are our enemies and they are the ones we need to fight and to kill.
So let’s say President Bush called you tomorrow and asked you for your advice on what to do in the terror war in general and in Iraq in particular. What would you say?
Black: Find a Polish person.
FP: Why do you say this?
Black: Every Polish person in America knows that the Russians liberated Poland from the greatest monsters of all time. But then they just stayed and became the most hated people in Eastern Europe. As I say, had we gone into Iraq on a Monday and dethroned Saddam and left by Thursday, it might have worked out differently. But we just stayed. We stayed too long. Now we can’t get out.
FP: Mr. Black, with all due respect, you are making analogies between one of the most evil and vicious regimes in world history and the United States. The Soviets did not “liberate” Poland. A sadistic tyranny does not liberate people; it enslaves them. The Soviets simply replaced the Nazis with the same totalitarian evil. Any Polish person would tell you that they would have loved the Americans to occupy Poland temporarily rather than the Soviets. Because then the fate of Poland would have been the fate of Japan and Western Europe: political freedom and economic prosperity.
Black: I have been studying WWII and the Holocaust for more than 20 years, since my first book in 1984, The Transfer Agreement. In the subsequent two books, IBM and the Holocaust and War Against the Weak, I had the chance to study the day-by-day process of Allied liberation and occupation in 1945—juridical and militarized. First, the question of Polish “liberation by the Soviets.” There is no survivor of Auschwitz, no book, no web site, no memoir, no documentary on the subject that does not declare that the death camp was “liberated” by the Soviets. Ask any survivor. Ask my parents who escaped from a Treblinka boxcar and shooting place and who lived as forest fighters for two years whether they think the Russians liberated Poland? Just a few days ago, the Polish Foreign Ministry commemorated “the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of the KL Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Even today, Polish people even refer to “the liberation” of Poland from the Nazis that systematically plundered and raped the entire nation as a slave race. When you are cracking under a life of brutal slave labor or face the barbed wire of a concentration camp, the one who defeats your oppressor and sets you free is the liberator, whoever he is, whatever his politics are, whatever his later conduct is. The difference between liberation and invasion is defined not by the pages of a dictionary but by the pages of the calendar.
I think the real confusion has arisen in the Administration, confusing our justified occupation of Japan and Germany—perpetrators of a world war that murdered 35 million people and destroyed large parts of the world—cannot be compared with dethroning regional monsters such as Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. We liberated Kuwait. We did not remain in Kuwait. We liberated Iraq. We stayed in Iraq and used the German occupation as legal and historical precedent.
FP: We stayed in Iraq because we couldn’t simply just abandon Iraqis to be re-enslaved by some other monstrous tyranny.
In any case, you say now we can’t get out of Iraq. Well, no, we can’t immediately get out of a place where World War IV is being fought, between the forces of democratic freedom and Islamist despotism. We cannot just leave. And if we have to, we’ll have to fight till we kill very last terrorist, no matter how many of them there are. The alternative is the equivalent of Khmer Rouge’s killing fields being perpetrated not only in Iraq, but eventually on our own territory and throughout the entire world.
Black: Correct—in principal. I wish it were that easy. The Khmer Rouge were only interested in dominating Cambodia. Can we say the same for Islamic terrorism?
FP: No we cannot, and that is the problem.
Mr. Black, we really appreciate the time and energy you have devoted to visiting Frontpage Magazine. It was a pleasure to discuss all these matters with you and we hope to see you again in the near future.
Black: Thank you for helping me answers questions for myself as well.
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