The appointment

If you were puzzled by the title and later reference in Christopher Hitchen’s Slate column the other day, it’s a reference to an old tale repeated in the introduction to John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara:

A certain merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market to buy some provisions. A little while later, the servant returned looking white in the face. In a trembling voice he said, “Just now in the market place I was jostled by a man in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Mr. Death. He looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please lend me your horse, because I want to go to Samara where Mr. Death will not be able to find me.”

The merchant agreed and lent the scared man his horse. The servant mounted the horse and rode away as fast as the animal could gallop. Later that day, the merchant went down to the market place and saw Mr. Death standing in the crowd. He approached him and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?”

“That was not a threatening gesture,” said Mr. Death. “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara.”

Hitchens’s point, of course, is that a confrontation between the United States and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was inevitable:

Iraq was in our future. The specter, not just of a failed state, but of a failed society, was already before us in what we saw from the consequences of sanctions and the consequences of aggressive Sunni fascism at the center of the state. Nobody has ever even tried to make a case for doing nothing about Iraq: Even those who foresaw sectarian strife were going by a road map that was already valid and had been traveled before. Thus it seems to me quite futile to be arguing about whether to blame the Iraqis—or indeed whether to blame the coalition.

I think there’s a kernel of truth in what Mr. Hitchens says. Iraq is not merely suffering from the collapse of an Arab dictator who, as 24 Steps to Liberty reminds us, rewarded his friends generously and punished his enemies cruelly. One of the many things we’re seeing in Iraq is the results of the collapse of a socialist state in which an enormous proportion of the people, especially educated people, were employees of the government.

I’ll make the case Mr. Hitchens is looking for: a successful outcome to an invasion of Iraq assumed the presence of political support and the will to see the project through and support it with both men and money, which were obviously not there. Skepticism over the prospects for containing Saddam assumes the opposite: a lack of political support and the will to see the project through and support it with both men and money. If support could have been built (which it wasn’t) for the invasion, surely support could have been built for containment.

With respect to the humanitarian argument for invading Iraq, proportion requires that such efforts be directed at the gravest such insult. If you must, tilt at giants, not ordinary men. Saddam was a horrible, cruel, repressive, violent dictator. He wasn’t the worst.

5 comments… add one
  • Tom Strong Link

    I think you’ve just touched on why I think the war was not just a mistake, but a foolhardy mistake. I’m someone who could have been swayed to support it, in the day – if and only if those who pressed for it did so more effectively, and more honestly, than they ultimately did. And if I had supported it, I would have done so fully, and I would have helped to convince others.

    But instead they played the urgency card, which even then looked clearly to be a canard. If you use fear to sway people, they will follow, but only for only so long as the immediate threat remains in place.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The sanction regime was either collapsing or destroying the Iraqi state, most likely doing both at the same time. Hitchens captures my own fatalistic views. Better to make the appointment earlier in the hopes of meeting the shreds of an Iraqi state than delaying the inevitable and finding only anarchy.

  • I agree that had we not gone into Iraq, we would have gone to war against Saddam at some later point in the future. It’s clear from the documentary evidence and interviews with regime officials that he had every intention of reconstituting his WMD programs once the sanctions regime fell. Given his ability to ingratiate himself with France and Russia and his regimes skill at exploiting corruption at the UN, I doubt sanctions would have lasted more than another few years.

    And speaking of sanctions, they ultimately worked at destabilizing the regime, but had the unintended consequence of destabilizing Iraqi society which contributed to problems after the war. In order to generate sympathy in the international community as well has provide much needed cash for regime security (which is quite expensive), Saddam diverted the money from its intended recipients. What’s clear is that few in the west had any understanding of the sanction’s effect on Saddam’s regime and Iraqi society. No longer able to control the county completely with traditional tools of power like the Republican Guard (which distrusted immensely), Saddam turned to Fedayeen and other irregular “militia” forces – forces that eventually formed the nucleus of the Sunni insurgency. Iraqi society, on the other hand, could no longer depend on the governments social and socialist institutions, and so increasingly turned to tribal and religious institutions, particularly in the south. As a result, one could argue the sanctions were ultimately a major factor in how the post-war insurgency/civil war developed.

  • Ken Hoop Link

    CIA European head Tyler Drumheller told the truth in his recent Spiegel interview. The Bush Administration lied about the WMDs, browbeat and cherrypicked intelligence, (and as Pat Buchanan outlined in “Whose War”, used phony intel provided via Israeli Likudists like Doug Feith.)

    Humanitarian? Yeah, if there weren’t millions of Palestinians still
    living in the camps-against UNENFORCED UN edicts though very
    humanitarian were/are the edicts’ intent

  • Ken Hoop Link

    “successful operation” built on malevolent lies. not likely to have the
    public’s support if exposed early, which they were.

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