Aziz was friendly, confident, and urbane. Iraq had relatively good relations with the United States at the time. It was at war with Iran, the fundamentalist Islamic republic that had held American diplomats hostage for more than a year. By contrast, Iraq was a secular regime, actively advancing itself diplomatically as the antidote for the kind of government Iran represented. Aziz was dressed in a suit and tie, looking slightly rumpled and professorial but distinctly Western.
After everyone had feasted on the delicious Middle Eastern buffet, with alcohol freely available, Aziz spoke. He started out brilliantly, explaining why Iraq and the United States had mutual interests, including the need to prevent the Gulf from being overrun by religious militants. At the same time, he stressed, the West must allow Arabs to achieve economic and social progress and the self-respect that comes from such achievement. The Islamic regimes that were friendly with the United States were no less anathema to the Arab future than Iran’s government, he suggested. They were backward, discriminatory, and wasted their nations’ resources in decadent indulgences. Arabs needed to feel proud to succeed. A successful future for Arabs depended on their being trained to modernize their societies and on being disciplined, not degenerate.
It was a successful pitch, not only because Americans longed to believe that Arabs could be modern and rational but also because Aziz was correct about the Gulf potentates, and because his aspirations for Arabs were legitimate and admirable.
Then, like a fighter pilot on a kamikaze mission, he veered off into the jingoistic aspects of the Arab nationalist line. To succeed and gain honor, Arabs need solidarity. The “Arab nation” must work together and not permit artificial borders, drawn by the Western powers, to condemn them to be divided. Through solidarity, Arabs could reclaim their glory as a civilization, and all that was rightfully theirs, including of course Israel. Some of those present supported Aziz in these myopic views; others had heard this Arab nationalist line often enough not to get upset by its excesses. Not so Donald Rumsfeld, who rose to speak after Aziz had concluded.
Rumsfeld expressed his admiration for the foreign minister’s ability and for the aim of modernizing the Arab world. He shared and supported the idea that Arabs should live with pride and comfort, rather than being ruled by princes and tyrants. His goodwill toward Iraq had recently been demonstrated by his success as Middle East negotiator in restoring diplomatic relations between Iraq and the United States. Aziz beamed with pleasure. But then Rumsfeld asked Aziz directly: “Do you really think the way to achieve what you are attempting is through ethnic solidarity? Are you convinced that you have more in common with all Arabs than with others who are non-Arab but share a vision of hope and decency for all peoples? Is it possible that the quest for Arab solidarity is driving the Arab world to seek alliances that are artificial or based on self-defeating and costly hatreds?”
Aziz was flabbergasted. For what seemed a long time, he said nothing. The room fell into awkward silence. “Arab solidarity is a necessity,” Aziz persisted. “We are as entitled to seek our national and ethnic destiny as any other group. The problem is that most Arab leaders do not understand this and are pursuing their own personal aggrandizement, rather than the best interests of their people. We, in Iraq, set an example of the commitment necessary to achieve self-respect, economic well-being, and the power to end exploitation by outsiders.”
Rumsfeld might as well have been speaking to a robot. He had offered ethical, rather than ethnic, solidarity, suggesting: “Tariq, my friend, don’t you think you have more in common with me, and with many of the people in this room, than with many if not most of the Arabs in the world? The values that ensure political and economic progress are universal, not ethnic.” But Aziz could not accept this offer. He had become a committed Baathist, determined to achieve progress through a combination of nationalism, socialism, and racism.
Some 18 years later, Tariq Aziz is a prisoner, in custody of Donald Rumsfeld. As shocking as this result seems in the light of that memorable evening, it is a just outcome. However intelligent and refined he seemed, Aziz committed himself to the dark side. Like all other ideologies based on tyrannical rule, Iraq’s Baathists did far more harm than good. Aziz’s boss, Saddam Hussein, was a butcher. The economic development and self-respect that Saddam’s regime was able to generate through a national-socialist agenda, guided by capable, committed men like Aziz, were overwhelmingly outweighed by fear, evil deeds, and corruption. The regime was ultimately destroyed by insanely ambitious military adventures that killed or injured hundreds of thousands of Arabs and equal numbers of Iranian Muslims. Aziz must answer for his part in these crimes.
At the same time, this turn of events is sad beyond words and the outcome remains in doubt. Along with the Saddam regime, U.S. and coalition forces have potentially swept away the sense of achievement and self-respect that Iraqi Arabs felt, despite their suffering. Donald Rumsfeld has, on behalf of the president and the people of the United States, renewed the offer he made to Aziz that night. He should continue to insist, without embarrassment, on Iraq’s adherence to values enshrined in the UN Charter and other treaties to which Iraq is a party, including the right to vote, religious liberty, sexual equality, due process of law, and private property. But he must also reaffirm, equally firmly and concretely, his commitment to Arab progress and self-respect.
No amount of American power or will can ensure that the Iraqi people will accept what Aziz could not. Our soldiers are being killed in significant numbers, and the United States is being told to go home and leave Iraqis to govern themselves as they see fit. Ironically, the very jihadis (holy warriors) that Saddam’s regime attempted to stamp out are fighting and dying on Iraqi soil. The task ahead is not merely to persist against adversity but to convey to Iraqis a message likely to convince them of our goodwill and support. We can do this only by ensuring that the credit for Iraq’s progress will belong to the Iraqi people.
Ambassador L. Paul Bremer has moved decisively in the right direction by creating and empowering the new governing council of Iraqi leaders. He should encourage their leadership in every area of the council’s activity, making clear the lines the alliance insists must not be crossed. He should also accept requests by local officials to assume control of their own cities as swiftly as that can safely be accomplished. As a general rule, in fact, the United States and its allies should deliberately fashion (or refashion) every program, function, investment, and project undertaken in Iraq with the objective of making Iraqis a real part of each success, so they can achieve the self-respect and national fulfillment now truly within their grasp.