Entry from July 2, 2009

I can’t resist the urge to gloat just a little.

As I pointed out in my book Honor, A History (have I mentioned this before?), it was the American unfamiliarity with the honor culture of the Middle East which led to the fuss about Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction — something that the left continues to this day to see as the fons et origo of their undying hatred of our 43rd president. Did Bush not lie? And did people not die? If so, it seemed to me an odd sort of “lie,” since it was given as the reason for an action which, if it was a lie, the President himself must have known was bound to expose it as such. Much more likely, I thought, was a mistake on the part not only of our intelligence services but those of every other country in the West — a mistake born of the failure of “post-honor society” to understand a primitive honor culture in which “Saddam was far more likely to keep hidden the fact that he didn’t have WMDs than that he did” — even if it cost him his life. (Honor, A History, page 30).

Now, thanks to a freedom of information request by the National Security Archive, we have the transcripts of a series of interviews that the FBI conducted with Saddam Hussein in 2004 in which the former dictator confirms that this was indeed the case. As Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post sums up these interviews and “casual conversations” in this morning’s paper,

Saddam Hussein told an FBI interviewer before he was hanged that he allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction because he was worried about appearing weak to Iran, according to declassified accounts of the interviews released yesterday. . . .Hussein, in fact, said he felt so vulnerable to the perceived threat from “fanatic” leaders in Tehran that he would have been prepared to seek a “security agreement with the United States to protect [Iraq] from threats in the region.” . . . “The threat from Iran was the major factor as to why he did not allow the return of UN inspectors,” [George L.] Piro [the FBI interviewer] wrote. “Hussein stated he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for his refusal to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq.”

So now we know better, right? Don’t bet on it. The American propensity to ignore the role of honor in geopolitics and substitute for it a sort of ethics writ large continues undiminished to this day. It is what lay behind our new President’s recent apology tour of Europe and the Middle East, for example, and shows no sign of abating. President Obama’s continuation of Bushite policies and practices appears to copy the bad as well as the good.

Coincidentally, I notice in today’s Wall Street Journal a review by Jonathan Karl of ABC News of Kissinger: 1973, the Crucial Year, by Alistair Horne, which comments that, in spite of being too “chummy” with his subject, “Mr. Horne doesn”t ignore the major criticisms of Mr. Kissinger — he acknowledges, for instance, the amorality of Mr. Kissinger”s maneuvers when he was faced with the dismal human-rights violations of his friends in Beijing and Moscow.” Here we go again! With all due respect to Messrs Karl and Horne, “amorality” is exactly the wrong word there. Morality and ethics belong to the world of civil society, not to international relations, where questions of honor always predominate, whether we recognize them or not. America has a very bad habit of not recognizing them, and acting as if behaving morally herself or inducing other countries to behave morally on the international stage were what diplomacy is all about.

It isn’t. And Henry Kissinger’s success as a diplomat was largely owing to the fact that he recognized the honorable component of international relations in a way that neither his fellow American diplomats nor his critics could understand. Saddam Hussein may have been a brutal dictator who thoroughly deserved to be hanged, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from him, so let him have the last word:

Piro raised bin Laden in his last conversation with Hussein, on June 28, 2004, but the information he yielded conflicted with the Bush administration’s many efforts to link Iraq with the terrorist group. Hussein replied that throughout history there had been conflicts between believers of Islam and political leaders. He said that “he was a believer in God but was not a zealot . . . that religion and government should not mix.”


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