Friday, October 01, 2004

The Many Faces of Iyad Allawi

Few historical actors acquire a social persona as intensely ambivalent as that of Iyad Allawi so immediately upon mounting the political stage. Richard III had to wait more than a century before Shakespeare fixed his villainy in iambic pentameter. The historical judgment on Chairman Mao has slid gradually along a numerical scale: he went from being the people's infallible savior to being "7 parts right, 3 parts wrong," to being "6 parts right, 4 parts wrong." If this trend continues we will eventally reach the point where the post-Long March CCP would have done just as well by flipping a coin. Even so, this erosion has taken time, and as Mao's stock falls among China's political cogniscenti his currency rises as an object of devotion in the popular religion.

By contrast, the newly minted Prime Minister of Iraq's interim government has almost as many faces as he has biographers. He is, by various accounts, an accomplished surgeon and ardent patriot, a quack fraud and craven puppet of the CIA, a near-martyr for the cause of Iraqi liberation, an inscrupulous opportunist to whose hands clings the blood of past Iraqi dissidents. Such a panoply may not aid clarity, but it does inspire a kind of respect. Hero or villain, we are left with little doubt that Iyad Allawi has done something to someone.

The cloud of ambiguity surrounding Allawi trailed after him when he, like many other Iraqis, crossed an ideological boundary in 1975. It was in this year that, for reasons which (like so much else about Allawi's personal chronology) remain murky, Iyad Allawi resigned from the Ba'ath Party of Iraq. This step set him on the road of anti-Hussein activist, and almost certainly resulted in a failed assassination attempt that hospitalized him for one year in 1978. Prior to his personal "de-Ba'athification," so say Allawi's detractors, he was a close associate of Saddam Hussein's and a willing collaborator in the crimes that brought the latter to power.

The truth or falsity of these allegations is far less interesting than what they themselves can tell us about the recent history of Iraq. The polarity between inscrupulous scoundrel and patriotric doctor may surprise, but this disjunction is no less ambivalent than the political and moral legacy of Ba'athism itself. Michel Aflaq, one of the Ba'ath Party's founders and its ideological pole star, wrote movingly on human rights, the dignity of the worker, and the need to overcome sectarian strife. Himself raised a Syrian Chistian, he propounded a vision of pan-Arab brotherhood and prosperity. At the same time that Aflaq served these high ideals, his thought pulsated with a none-too-latent undercurrent of Nazism. Pan-Arab unity was to be rooted in a radically racist and xenophobic doctrine of "Arab supremacism," the application of which had gruesome consequences for groups such as the Jews, Turkomans, and Kurds.

One can see where motives both pure and ill could naturally be attributed to those who would join such a movement. With 20/20 hindsight we may judge that anyone who colluded in any way with Saddam Hussein must have been either degenerately amoral or insanely misguided. Yet there may have been a time when the ascendancy of a movement that could accomodate both Hussein and Allawi, the scions of a Sunni shepherd and a Shi'ite merchant, seemed a ray of hope on Iraq's bleak political horizon.

The shaping of Iyad Allawi's life into a kind of personal morality tale will never be of any more than prurient interest. As the recent play Copenhagen suggests, it is entirely possible that the famous 1941 conversation between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg was understood, even as it transpired, by the former as an invitation to join the Nazi war effort, by the latter as an offer of aid to the resistance. If a single experience can be clouded in such ambiguity, it is folly to suppose that the entire course of a man's life can be compelled to yield an unequivocal moral a la Aesop.

More intriguing is the larger systemic tale to be read in the shifting tea-leaves of Iyad Allawi's social image. The raw fact that Allawi and Hussein could move from being fellow travellers to mortal enemies tells the story of a movement that fell catastrophically short of its highest ideals and a society in the throes of a profound developmental crisis. The degeneration of Iraqi Ba'athism from a pluralistic coalition accomodating Iyad Allawi into a narrow oligarchy centered on Saddam Hussein's Tikriti kin is not, in the final and ultimate analysis, most usefully plumbed for information about the character of these two men. Rather, it speaks of a nation in which atavistic patterns of tribalism, regionalism, and sectarian chauvinism can so violently subvert efforts at unity and modernization as to leave the moral status of all but the most egregiously evil actors permanently shrouded.

No comments: