Murphy's Law: Iraq And The Toxic Secrets

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June 30, 2010:  Iraq has a problem with the millions of documents, compiled by Saddam's secret police, that American forces removed to the United States in 2003. Some Iraqis want those documents returned, even if it means finding out that friends and family informed on them for Saddam's secret police. But many Iraqis would rather not look into that. Most Iraqis know that there were informers everywhere, and would rather not ruin friendships or family relationships by knowing who volunteered (for the money) or was coerced (often to avoid punishment) to inform.

This sort of thing already played out in East Europe, after the fall of communist dictatorships in 1989. It was all about dictatorships wanting to stay in power. The lives and relationships ruined in the process did not matter. This self-preservation process for dictators starts with information and fear. Thus every such tyrant has informers, secret police and control of the media. Knowing who is doing what, and knowing it first, goes a long way towards stopping plotters before they can get started. Fear is the dictator's friend, for if you just go around killing anyone who might overthrow you, you end up eliminating a lot of competent, and potentially useful, people. Fear keeps people on their toes and often eager to do you a favor, like ratting out someone who's planning to move on you. A system of informers and a diligent secret police keeps everyone unsure of who they can speak freely with. This alone stops a lot trouble, and the fact that a plotter will inadvertently speak to someone on your payroll exposes the rest of them. This approach can reach ridiculous extremes. When the communist East German government collapsed in 1989, the records of the secret police were obtained. It was found that half a million informers aided 90,000 police to keep records on six million people (over half the adult population). This could have kept the communist government going, but many in the leadership were unwilling to use force to put down the massive unrest. Successful dictators are not only nosy, they are also not wimps.

But informers are not enough, for in many cultures family and tribal loyalties are strong. So you need tools to weaken these relationships. Money and media does the trick. Throwing some cash around always gains a little gratitude here, a little sense of obligation there. No matter how desperate the local economic conditions are, a competent dictator will always have money for those whose loyalty can be bought. The rest can starve, and often do, as many Shia did under Saddam. This also serves a useful purpose, providing a vivid example of what happens to those who don't play along with the strong man. Often entire groups are paid off to behave, as Saddam did with the Sunni tribes in the 1990s. This eliminates the problem of ethnic and family loyalty, for there will always be some in each group who will feel obliged to betray any disloyalty. This approach is used to good effect in the Middle East, where dictatorships in Syria and Iraq lavish goodies on those with family, clan and religious ties with the Big Guy. These groups also know that, by throwing in with the dictator, they would be punished if their boy ever got overthrown, unless they were leading the coup. For this reason, Saddam Hussein had to occasionally execute members of his own family or clan.

And then there's the media. It's become something of a cliché for any coup to begin with the rebels seizing the radio and TV stations. Since these media became common during the last half century, dictators and coup plotters quickly noted how useful broadcasting was in stirring up opposition, or keeping an enslaved population quiet. Dictators have become ever more adept at using the media to control the people. We are past the blatant, "Big Brother is your friend" pitch. Dictators always looked to the American networks for tips on how to mold public opinion without turning off the audience. The proliferation of satellite TV and CNN has also forced dictators to adopt world class production values. This was bad for the captive populations involved, for they had a hard time telling the reasonably accurate CNN from the carefully twisted local newsfeed. But it got worse, as dictators found they could keep many angry citizens off the streets at crucial moments by simply airing some big Hollywood movies when the opposition planned big demonstrations. And many people are suckers for screen time. A wise dictator makes sure that his friends show up, not just in the news programs, but in lifestyle and entertainment shows, if only in the audience. A little flattery can save your life if you are a dictator.

Keeping a dictator in power is basically the creative use of paranoia. A police state runs on it and makes sure none of its citizens leave home without it. Fear, uncertainty and doubt all combine to discourage all but the most steel nerved and competent from making a move on the hated tyrant. It's no accident that many dictators last for decades. And those that do get overthrown generally do so because they got sloppy, or soft. A dictator who gets too much into the good life, or loses his taste for blood, is soon out of a job.

But in the aftermath of a dictatorship, you have to worry about revenge and retribution. It's to avoid this that many Iraqis would prefer Saddam's records to remain in the United States. Some secrets are truly toxic, and lots of Iraqi don't want to drink that poison.

 

 

 


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