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The Necessity of Destroying the Baath Party By: Yuri Yarim-Agaev
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 25, 2003

The first stage of the operation “Iraqi Freedom” has been a complete success. In the course of several weeks American and British troops took control of the country and secured the conditions necessary for proceeding with the second stage of the operation: replacing the Iraqi totalitarian regime with a democratic system. The success of this stage, so critical for the operation as a whole, fully depends on us. There are no longer any insurmountable barriers or external factors that might force us to compromise on the right policy or the right people to carry it out. Although a daring endeavor, nothing can prevent us from democratizing Iraq—except our own mistakes.

Unfortunately, there are disturbing signs that a critical misjudgment may have been made. Some reports indicate that within the administration there is an opinion that most of the functionaries of the Iraqi Baathist regime should be kept in their positions. As the Wall Street Journal reported in April: “While they (US officials) intend to remove hard-core Baathists, they plan to leave many of Iraq’s 1.5 million Baath party members in their jobs, since they are the skilled force necessary to keep the country running.” Time magazine in an article concerning Washington’s plans writes: “Occupiers might need to fend off vigilante reprisals against rank-and-file party members that could ravage the civil service that a new ruler would need." This is a very serious mistake. Keeping the majority of the regime’s functionaries, the regime that we fought against and vowed to fully replace, will undermine Iraqi democratic reforms and our entire operation.

The requisite condition for the successful democratization of Iraq is complete “debaathification,” which is the removal of Baath party members from all positions of influence, and banning them from holding such positions in the future. We must remember that these are the people who were responsible for Iraqi aggressions, weapons of mass destruction and atrocities against their fellow citizens, which, according to the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, totally disqualify them from participation in the democratization of Iraq. 

As he rightly put it in his speech, "Building a free Iraq . . . will not involve the Ba'ath Party, . . .[which] does not fit the conditions that I've described.” Our policy should be geared toward completely rooting out the party, not merely “purging” it, as was recently suggested by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Purging the Baath Party was Saddam Hussein's prerogative; ours is to make it totally obsolete.

This process should be similar to denazification of Germany after World War II. The dictatorial rule by the Baath Party and its mafiosi type of network should be rooted out of Iraq as decisively as Nazism was from Germany. Such affirmative action is needed to rectify the situation after 35 years of the Saddam regime. Here are several reasons why debaathification is crucial.

First, democracy in Iraq cannot be secured unless we restore to the society fundamental justice and trust, which were totally destroyed by the Baathist regime. They cannot be restored to the country as long as Baathists continue to hold any positions of influence. The Iraqi people know very well who these people are and they cannot trust a system that continues to employ them. 

Second, allowing Baathists to keep their political positions would greatly undermine our credibility and ability to carry out democratic reforms. Many Iraqis would see us more as supporters of the old regime rather than liberators. This could cause the emergence of anti-Americanism among the most supportive and pro-democratic people of Iraq, and that would be the last thing we need.

Third, the Baathists are staunch ideological enemies of freedom, democracy, and capitalism. Although quite cynical about their own ideology, they deeply believe that a free market is chaos, and democracy is merely a propaganda tool for fooling the populace. They may readily pay lip service, but, if left at their positions, would actually sabotage democratic and free market reforms.

Fourth, keeping Baathists in place is a prescription for grand-scale corruption. The Baathist themselves surely do not believe that they will be allowed to stay. According to their mentality, the winning side should totally eliminate its opponents. So if they were to remain, they would consider their situation as a piece of accidental temporary luck, which is not destined to last long and should be fully exploited. Unburdened by moral restrictions, they would instantly turn to embezzlement, theft, and bribery. They would pocket American, UN and other foreign aid, as well as oil revenues.

Imagine that a bank robber is sentenced to serve as…the head of the bank that he just tried to hold up. What would he do the next day upon coming to work? Steal all the money from the bank. Even if he decided to change his life, he would never consider this situation as an opportunity to go straight, but rather a mistake, which would be soon revealed, leaving him leading directly to jail.

That is exactly what happened in Russia at the end of communism. The old Soviet nomenklatura was propped up by the American administration and endowed with billions of dollars. Former communists could not believe what was happening. They thought that America had gone crazy, called American officials idiots, but also thought that it would not last forever. So they rushed to steal whatever they could, both from the American taxpayers and from their own country. They enriched themselves, but hardly their country. Western experts almost approvingly called it “the initial stage of capital accumulation” and “robber capitalism.” There was enough robbery, but no capitalism yet.

If these reasons are not sufficient to make an argument for the debaathification of Iraq, they can also be supported by the no less compelling historic facts.

The best historic evidence supporting our position is the denazification of Germany after World War II. This was the Allied program of expunging Nazism and its influence and punishing its practitioners. Many members of the Nazi party were arrested and prosecuted. Others were severely restricted from holding any positions of political influence, not only in the public sector but also in private business and mass media. In record time Germany was transformed from a totalitarian state into one of the world’s leading democracies, and few people do not agree that denazification was a key factor in this success.

A more recent example is the decommunization of the Czech Republic. Of all the countries of the Soviet bloc, it has made the most remarkable progress toward democracy. It is also the only former communist country that introduced the law of lustration, which banned communists from holding public office for five years. Interestingly, this law evoked instant criticism from the American liberal community—great proponents of affirmative action in their own country. Under their pressure the law was partially tamed, but still sufficiently enforced to facilitate the democratic process.

Most former Soviet republics present contrary evidence, since no decommunization program was ever launched.In Russia, except for the very top crust, all members of the Communist party remained in power, most of them in the same positions they occupied in the Soviet Union. With such “democrats” in charge of the country one should not be surprised to see Russia on the side of totalitarian Iraq, rather than American democracy.

Regarding the countries of the former Soviet bloc one can make a rather astute general observation: the success of their democratic and free market reforms has been in direct proportion to the degree of their commitment to decommunization. At one end is the highly successful Czech republic with its lustration law, and on the other, the Central Asian republics, where communist leadership remains intact and which still have no association with democracy.

The above-mentioned reasons and facts are indeed sufficient to make a compelling case for the debaathification of Iraq. Yet to complete this case we may also address arguments by the opponents of debaathification. The debate about the future of the Baath party is not yet fully developed, but some remarks quoted at the beginning of this article are reminiscent of the major arguments against the decommunization of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.. 

The first argument against decommunization was that if ousted, the party nomenklatura would engage in open resistance, as far as civil war. This argument was totally speculative and unfounded. Communists were so demoralized after the collapse of their regime that they had no will for any resistance, a fact that many of them openly admitted later. If in the case of Russia this argument was flawed, it simply does not exist for the Iraqi situation. The only force that Baathists can challenge is the American army. They will hardly dare do this, and if they do, it would only be to our advantage. It would be much easier to neutralize Baathist resistance in open confrontation, rather than clandestinely within political and economic structures.

The second argument was that society could not function without professionals most of whom were allegedly party members. This is exactly the same point that is made in the quote concerning Iraq at the beginning of this article. This argument was factually wrong. All professions needed in a normal society—such as doctors, scientists, engineers—figured to less than a small percent of the party members in their ranks. The percentage of communists was disproportionally high only in the areas that were directly related to the regime, such as ideology, administration, and secret police. Almost all professors of Marxism-Leninism or KGB officers were members of the Communist party. Those skills, however, are hardly required for a democratic society.

Ordinary professionals aside, this argument extended to the executive level. The same article in Time magazine reports on a computer database of Iraqi leaders prepared by U.S. intelligence, which divides them into several categories. “Last [category], the closet dissidents: key government and economic leaders who privately oppose Saddam and would be needed to run the country after him could receive a general amnesty.” How privately? Presumably so privately that nobody could hear or confirm it. Otherwise those leaders would not have stayed in their positions. Why should we believe them? Now they will say anything to please us. They will call themselves “new democrats” and “free marketeers.” Let us not forget, however, that social mimicry and unscrupulous lying are job qualifications for all these people—not only for their Minister of Information. And even if some of them were privately involved in self-criticism, why does this redeem them from the crimes that they committed or to which they were accomplices? Do we need them so badly? 

Most of them got to their high positions not because of greater talents or leadership qualities, but because of their loyalty to the regime. In fact, many of them would join the party only to be promoted ahead of their colleagues who were better professionals and better managers. So if those colleagues were finally to be put in their proper places, it would be both fair and beneficial for society. The executive experience of the nomenklatura has no positive value in normal society either. A good servant of the command economy would usually be a bad entrepreneur, and the experience of oppressing people in a totalitarian system does not directly transfer into democratic society. Emigration from communist countries actually shows a negative correlation between the position that the person occupied there and his work status in the United States.

The Soviet and Iraqi situations are remarkably similar. The ratio of party members to the total population is virtually the same. The Soviet Union had 18 million communists for 300 million people and Iraq has about 1.5 million Baathists out of a population of 25-30 million people. The composition of the parties is also similar, as well the rules for promotion in the social hierarchy. Hence, the above-mentioned arguments concerning Russia are fully applicable to Iraq. If all Baath party members are ousted, there will be no shortage of skills or leadership. Actually, in all areas we would be better off replacing them with more suitable and deserving people. And even if a few good professionals and managers were lost by the wayside, this would be very little collateral damage, which we can afford. 

So much for arguments against debaathification. The intelligence database mentioned above contains the names of about 2000 members of the Baath party, only part of them being considered for prosecution. Compare this to the 3,410,728 sentences of punishment and reparation imposed on members of the Nazi party by the Allies. Are we being too lenient? Will this leniency prevent us from democratizing Iraq? It may. To assure democratic reforms, many additional Baath party members must be arrested, prosecuted and removed from their positions. Excessive generosity to the Baath party may turn our success into failure and liberation into occupation. American soldiers paid with their lives not so that Baathist thugs would continue to run the country and enrich themselves, but for freedom and democracy in Iraq. To make sure that this freedom will prevail, we cannot be too kind to its oppressors.

Dr. Yuri Yarim-Agaev is a scientist and former leading Soviet dissident who, despite ongoing KGB harassment and detention, actively participated in anti-Soviet campaigns, such as the public efforts to defend Anatoli Sharansky, Yuri Orlov, Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents. In the 1980s, he headed the New York based Center for Democracy in the USSR. He is the author of many works in science, economics and human rights.

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