Saddam in black, white, and gray. (Originally posted 10/15/02 at 9:55 a.m.) The New York Times and the Boston Globe both run front-page stories today on the attitudes that ordinary Iraqis hold toward their maximum leader, Saddam Hussein, and, by implication, toward the United States. Together, they show the difficulty of gauging the public mood in a totalitarian society where speaking out against the regime is likely to get you tortured and killed. The stories appear on the eve of a national election in which Saddam is expected to get more than 99 percent of the vote. Or else!
The Times piece, by John Burns, reports that the surface enthusiasm Iraqis show for Saddam often masks much nastier feelings. Though most Iraqis will offer ritual pro-government rhetoric -- often in terms "strikingly similar" to official "diatribes" -- Burns also found that ordinary citizens rarely criticize George W. Bush or Tony Blair unless prompted, and seem to hold a generally favorable view of the US and Britain.
In the Globe, Anthony Shadid reports that Saddam has boosted his popularity in recent months by increasing food rations and government salaries, and by bestowing special favors on those who hold jobs of critical importance to his regime. "Without a doubt," Shadid writes, "fear keeps the government in power. But so do guns, money, and, in particular, food. The success of Baghdad's overtures is a key reason that, despite intense US pressure, the government remains secure and perhaps even stronger than in past years, according to diplomats who have been closely following Hussein's administration."
The Times and Globe reports do nothing to dispel the fantasies of such pro-war ideologues as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney that a war aimed at "regime change" will lead to the quick fall of Saddam (likely) and the establishment of a new peaceful, democratic order in the Arab world (what are they smoking?). For that, I recommend James Fallows's thoughtful and frightening cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly on the likely outcomes of a US invasion. The title is "The Fifty-First State?", and the question mark is only to indicate that that is the best possible outcome. The worst? You don't want to know -- but you should.