No, Donald Trump, Mideast wouldn’t be more Stable under Saddam & other Dictators

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump alleged this weekend that “of course” the Middle East would be more stable if dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were still around or if Bashar al-Assad could be restored in Syria.

The mistake Mr. Trump is making is to think ahistorically, that is, to think as though societies do not change dramatically over time. The Neoconservatives thought they could install a king over Iraq in 2003. But Iraqi society had overthrown the kings in 1958, and there is no going back. History may not be dialectical in exactly the Hegelian sense, but any historical situation does produce other, different situations over time. Moreover, societies can change dramatically. History is not static. It is not like a slab of marble. Historical developments produce new and different historical situations over time, and new generations react to the previous ones by striking out in different direction, even at great risk.

How anyone in his right mind could think that Bashar al-Assad (r. 2000- present) brought stability to Syria just baffles me. He provoked the 2011 uprisings and he caused the civil war by deploying his military against the peaceful demonstrators. That’s stability? It is mostly his fault that over 200,000 Syrians are dead and 11 million out of 22 million are homeless. If you are president and your country is in this condition, you don’t get to say you brought stability. Nor is the problem outsiders. In 2011 there was almost no outside interference in Syria. Bashar drove the opposition to pick up arms. The largely rural and illiterate Syria of 1970 when Bashar’s father came to power is long gone. You can’t keep them on the farm once they have seen gay Paree.

Iraq was anything but stable under Saddam Hussein (r. 1979-2003). The country invaded two neighbors, Iran and Kuwait, in wars that killed perhaps a million Iraqis out of then 16 million! Thousands were bulldozed into mass graves for belonging to opposition parties. Does this sound stable to you? That the regime would have survived in the long term is highly unlikely. I did and do think the US invasion of Iraq a huge mistake (in early 2003 I compared the idea to that scene in Star Wars where they are in the trash compactor and it starts to move, and Harrison Ford says “I have a bad feeling about this.”) But that is because the war violated international law and brought absolute chaos to Iraq, not because the existing government was “stable” or good for the locals.

Gaddafi’s police state was unstable all along, but survived because of repression. By 2011 it was no longer surviving, because society had changed. In 1969 Libya was largely rural and illiterate. In 2011 it was largely urban and literate. In 1969 most people did not have telephones. In 2011 most people had cell phones. When Gaddafi cut off the internet, people just sent videos and messages by SMS on their phones. People were what Karl Deutsch called “socially mobilized” (urban, literate, connected by communications networks, etc.). Being socially mobilized is no guarantee of being politically mobilized. Lots of socially mobilized societies are politically quiescent. But in 2011 people in Libya became politically mobilized, and their high degree of social mobilization was a real asset in making the revolution. The UNO/ NATO intervention mainly leveled the playing field for the rebels by destroying regime arms depots out in the desert or targeting SCUD and tank convoys.

Libya under Gaddafi was not stable by 2011, and it was not the United Nations no-fly zone that made it unstable. It was unstable because Gaddafi’s secret police state had lost its authority for a majority of the population, which rose up against it. That is clear instability, and it was provoked by Gaddafi’s erratic and sclerotic dictatorship and by massive repression. I wandered the halls of the courthouse in Benghazi in May of 2011 and the walls were full of pitiful old black and white pictures of young men, including soldiers, whom Gaddafi had made to disappear, asking plaintively if anyone knew their fate (we know their fate).

But in the major city of Misrata, e.g., the local population defied the tank corps of Khamis Gaddafi for six months and never fell, even though parts of the city were reduced to rubble. Not a single NATO bombing raid was launched in Misrata against the Gaddafi tanks, apparently because the tanks were inside the city and NATO did not want to risk hitting a civilian apartment building. Those who are confident that the rebels would have been crushed without the intervention should look at the defense of Misrata, which was successful and local, though Gulf RPGs did come in. Without an intervention, likely Libya would have become Syria. In the past couple of years, about 3,000 people a year are dying in political violence, which is terrible. But during some years of the last decade 12,000 people a year were dying of political and drug gang violence in Mexico. And Libya hasn’t suffered anything like the death toll of Syria, even if we take into account the disparity in population size.

Had Gaddafi not been overthrown (and this was done by the people of Tripoli and Misrata and Zintan and Benghazi, not NATO), Libya would have become exactly like Syria, with 60,000 dead and 3 million homeless (the proporitional equivalents of the situation in Syria). The actual number of internally displaced people in Libya 2011-2015 is 400,000. That’s awful. It isn’t 50% the country, as it is in Syria, it is 6%. Removing the Gaddafi regime forestalled the displacement of the 50%, because it is the air force and tanks and heavy artillery that produce that kind of social apocalypse, and the militias in Syria, bad as they are, don’t have that kind of armament.

As of 2011, Gaddafi did not make Libya stable. He made it unstable. Because his rickety 1970s socialist police state could not survive in the modern world. It was modeled to some extent on Communist East Germany, which trained his domestic spies, and you will note that the DRG isn’t there any more, either.

Does Mr. Trump believe that Europe was more stable when Erich Honecker ruled significant swathes of Germany with an iron fist? Or when Tito headed Yugoslavia?

Inflexible dictatorships that cannot adapt to social change and the rise of new generations cause instability, Mr. Trump. They don’t forestall it. Or, they don’t forestall it for more than a generation.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Trump: Mideast Would Be More Stable With Saddam, Gadhafi

49 Responses

  1. So when you draw the line, was the intervention in Libya a good thing?

  2. Changes in Iraq and Libia could have come from within. Outside forces, whose motivations have been very questionable, obliterated the possibility of any domestic political discourse.

  3. Thanks Juan for explaining all of this. It is unfortunate that celebrities like Trump or ill informed politicians try to become history experts and formulate bd policy on millions of people.

  4. This is why I visit this site everyday for your “Informed Comment.” To me, the non middle east scholar, Trump’s remarks sounded rather enlightened. I should have considered the source.

    Maybe I wanted to believe that Bush/Cheney and their chickenhawk advisers, all of whom I detest with every fiber of my being, are completely to blame for the current turmoil throughout the middle east, a position I’m not prepared to completely abandon.

  5. Let’s not forget the local joke about Bashir’s father: huwa kan labwa qabel assad. He was a bitch before a lion.

  6. Donald Trump is running for President, not for chairman of the History Dept. Trump is making a radical and important point: recent Middle East interventions by the US have not had a stabilizing effect-that is, they have not furthered US interests.
    Is this post arguing that these US interventions served US interests or not?

  7. stephen kenney

    The unnecessary Iraq war alone cost 200,000 dead including 4491 US soldiers, 2.2 Trillion+ and counting. And Iraq is a mess today.

  8. Trump will be out of the Republican primary race before the New Year ball drops.

    The corporate-controlled media will have to find another diversion.

  9. Professor Cole,
    Surely you’re aware of the reports that from the beginning of the 2011 uprising there were armed (weapons supplied by whom? Islamic extremists within the ranks of the protesters, and that thereafter their numbers steadily increased? As for NATO not having seriously influenced the outcome in Libya, your opinion contrasts sharply with media stories at the time which talked about the rebels being on the verge of annihilation by Gadaffi forces. Didn’t sound then (assuming the reporting was accurate) that the insurrection had much of a chance.

    • The issue is not NATO influencing the outcome, but the anti-war culture’s conspiracy theories that there was no genuine uprising at all or that it did not represent any significant number of Libyans. Bombers do not equal popular legitimacy.

  10. in sharp contrast with JC consider the words of the former UK ambassador to syria: “cameron got it wrong; russia got it right… the fall of assad regime would be a disaster” the sky news video interview is clear and compelling
    link to

  11. You lost me now, Dr. Cole, the No_Fly_Zone turned out to be a Nato bombing range, but that made no difference?
    Gaddafis weapons were transfered to Syria, but made no difference?
    I suppose we should flood Saudi-Arabia with guns in order to “stabilize” them too?
    I don’t like Trump either, but this makes no sense….

  12. So true, Juan, and mostly overlooked by politicians, pundits, think-tankers and the like (many of whom have not read your latest book). It is a conservative mantra to glorify the past, thus abrogating their adult and personal responsibility to create and maintain a free, lawful and fair present, and prepare their offspring to carry this into the future. Many American neocons remain adolescents, enthralled with their adult toys of destruction and/or pleasure, but never accepting the responsibility for the misuse or over indulgence of them.

  13. Regarding NATO’s role in the overthrow of Gaddafi:

    (1) agreed that Mistrata was bravely defended by rebels for months without outside intervention;

    2) Benghazi was being invaded by Gaddafi’s forces and his son announced the eventual fall of the rebel movement within a few weeks as the Libyan army had been rolling victories along the Mediterranean coast on the way to Benghazi – until French jet bombers struck against regime forces and drove them back in a long retreat that resulted in the fall of Tripoli;

    (3) U.S. cruise missiles destroyed Libyan government communication facilities which not only hastened Gaddafi’s fall, but were welcomed by the Libyan populace.

    Without NATO intervention in Libya, the Arab Spring revolution there may have failed or at least been delayed.

  14. Seems to me that, for the common citizen, stability is day to day predictability. That at least gives the citizen the ability to best adapt to the local environment. If a brief, possibly bloody, surge of instability results in a predictable, but better life for the citizen, then I would have a positive feeling about it.

    The US and its allies have spared no wealth and action in the Middle East to generate trasformative instability, but long term instability, with no notion of what the final form will take, is what has resulted.

    I don’t think we have yet seen a recent result that proves Trump wrong.

    • And you think Gaddafi was predictable? People in Libya complained bitterly they never even knew tax rates from one month to the next; impossible to run a business.

      • Prof your comment is unbelievable! You are comparing tax rate uncertainty to thousands killed and choosing the former over life! I do not get it. I am sure the Libyans would prefer life!!!

        • The Libyans were being killed at a fair clip under Gaddafi. Read the article. You’ve never heard of Abu Salim, have you?

        • Well, a lot of Americans died from 1775 to 1781 in a dispute over taxation without representation.

  15. If Donald Trump meant that Iraq and Libya would have been more stable today had the US/West left their constitutional evolutions to work themselves out, he could well be right. However, things are not that simple. The actions of the US/West in the ME over the last 15 years have been stages in their own evolution on the global stage. The whole ‘what if’ business is simply an attempt to write alternative history based on what didn’t happen.

  16. Ask Somalis was Somalia a better place after Siad Barre? It is certain that Somalis after thinking a while of what followed: decades of violence, no order, poverty, death, militias etc would answer “probably not”. During Saddam’s rules start Iraq developed with giant steps until Saudis and USA conned him to attack Iran. However Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad could provide order and security for their people. Not democracy or no secret police, but compared to the pro-US kings, presidents and PMs in Middle East they were no better or worse. From the viewpoint of Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians the world would be a better place and more stable without Israeli prime ministers, past and present. It depends what we mean by “better place and stable” and from whose viewpoint we estimate that.

  17. Outside forces (Nations) have no right overthrowing a dictator or any leader.

    This is were you fail miserably, in not acknowledging this crime.

  18. Your conflation of Tito’s Yugoslavia with the DDR is unfortunate and inaccurate. Tito managed to unify and integrate what had been a rather cumbersome and artificial multi-ethnic state, partly due to his internationalist ideology, and established economically a semi-successful development state, in which workers had significant rights and input in management. And certainly the overall political atmosphere in Yugoslavia was much freer than in any Soviet bloc state. It, of course, all came apart a decade after his death when IMF “shock therapy” was imposed on the country,-(there was a balance of payment crisis and inflation reached 1200%),- which destroyed the self-management system, resulted in mass industrial unemployment and shattered the legitimacy of the government, leaving a power vacuum in which ethno-centric extremists opportunistically emerged. It seems like an instance of the very sort of inverted and fallacious historical “reasoning” that you are otherwise criticizing.

  19. The big question here is, what does Trump prescribe based on his statement? Is he saying:

    a. no more overseas interventions
    b. his interventions will be HUUUUUGE and be so successful that your head will spin?

    That’s kind of a huuuuuge difference. And it’s the first time that a Republican candidate with serious numbers (meaning not surnamed Paul) has dared to question the idea of American hegemony since the Cold War began. Even an ignorant lout, it seems, can see that we don’t know what we’re doing overseas. But can an ignorant lout author a process for extricating ourselves from our commitments in over 130 countries and define a National Interest in non-superpower terms?

    This could be the most important development of the 2016 campaign if Trump is rebuked by the GOP establishment and, as usual, keeps fighting back and provoking the rank & file into discussing what it all means.

  20. Obama has no business intervening in Syria’s affairs and neither does Putin.

    There needs to be an iron law that no country can ever violate the sovereignty of another under any circumstances.

    • Chris, there is a difference..Russia has been invited by a legal UN recognized govt,, whereas us and the west has intervened illegally. If we follow your logic US and NATO should be out of Europe, GCC countries…etc. as should Russia out of some central Asian countries.

    • And the enforcement of “iron law” would fall to what authority?

      Looking through the piece by Professor Cole, Donald Trump and his lack of historical relevance is the topic.

      A helpful tip – Displaying ODS (Obama Derangement Syndrome) is easier if a keyboard macro with our President’s last name is programmed. Using this method, only one key is necessary. Assign it to F1. Saves time and wear-and-tear on the keyboard.

  21. After last weeks shooting Trump showed he was a fan of the 70’s vigilante movie “Deathwish” where Bronson turns from a victim of a mugging into a one man death squad targetting anyone who resembled his racist profile of a mugger.
    By calling the Iraq invasion illegal but nevertheless a good thing you are also taking the position of a vigilante, someone who is judge, jury and executioner. tyrants are propped up, some are bombed, new tyrants take their place but the decision is always made by the vigilante.
    I believe your analysis does not take into account the chaos vigilante action has caused. Case in point: Syria is stalemated because the opposition is holding out for outside vigilante intervention. A political settlement will not be reached if the rebels think they can march into Damascus behind US tanks.

  22. The moderate center does not ever seem to hold in Middle Eastern countries. Too much “my way or the highway” attitude in the culture.

  23. Trump has never studied history or foreign policy. His purpose in the GOP race is ego gratification (a rich man’s game to relieve boredom) and also to make Bush et al seem “moderate” in comparison (there was a good article on climate change the other day that compared the GOP candidates to conservatives in other countries. Bush’s policies are far to the right of almost all of them, but might be too “moderate” for US Republicans).

  24. Thank you for clarifying things on Iraq: the right course of action would have been to let people get rid of their dictator.
    The outside intervention obviously brought tremendous chaos to the region.

  25. Juan: I think that you both are wrong. Trump, never mind, but you write about the different dictators and what they did. The USA is the culprit here. Supported Iraq against Iran. Then “allowed” Iraq to invade Kuwait. And after being rejected by West forces the Kurds were left alone for another massacre by Hussein. The USA deposed via Coup the elected man in Iran and put the Sha there. I mean you mentioned history but history is moved and written by the powerful and the victors…….granted these dictators were murderers, as was Pinochet but the USA had a lot to do on all those in the Middle East and in Latin America.

  26. “Without an intervention, likely Libya would have become Syria.”

    Is this a typo? I’m confused by your arguments here.

    you’re talking about dictator remaining in power vs. outside (i.e. NATO) intervention vs. local uprising? Whose air force and tanks and heavy artillery produce a social apocalypse?

    • The dictator’s heavy artillery and tanks produce the social apocalypse.

      In Libya, contrary to some allegations, NATO bombing mainly hit weapons depots and tanks and maybe killed 100 civilians and a few thousand regime troops.

      • I generally agree with much of what you have to write and say, in addition to the influence you have had on my knowledge of the Middle East and Islamic history, but I have to disagree with your Libya comments.

        NATO refused to investigate civilian deaths, and possible war crimes, during the bombing of Libya. “100 civilians and a few thousand regime troops” has as much legitimacy as the US Government’s claim that only 100 000 or so Iraqis died as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

        Gaddafi may have been a monster, but to pretend that NATO is some noble organization concerning itself with human rights and the betterment of humanity is beyond naïve. The country was left in ruins. Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk filed excellent reports of how dire the situation became after NATO left.

        And Libya was also a war based on lies. Amnesty, HRW, DWB, and the UN found no evidence that Gaddafi ordered mass rapes as claimed by the rebels and Secretary Clinton.

  27. I agree we must avoid being ahistorical. As an historian, don’t you think some mention should be made of the role that draught played in Syria, and the role the CIA has played throughout the region, or the role that Turkey has played in facilitating the entry of foreign fighters, or the role that the Gulf states have played in funding the jihadis? I am sympathetic to those who view the Assad regime as a brutal thuggish autocracy, but there should be some recognition that his government also has a mass base. And for those who believe Assad must go, please explain to me what would follow. Who or what kind of regime would fill the void? What would become of ISIS, al Nusra Front and other religious fanatics? How Syria could avoid what has happened in Libya? How a blood bath could be avoided when the Sunni extremists and war lords go after the Alawites, Christians, Kurds and Druze? This is not a defense of Assad but a request for thoughtful analysis that looks beyond the demand for Assad to go to what follows next.

  28. While I have issues with Professor Cole’s analysis of NATO involvement in Libya, it’s important that he has written this, and I wish it would penetrate the MSM. If you go through the message boards on the MSM sites, Trump’s position is quite popular. There is this notion that Muslims can only live under dictatorships because they are (fill in the blank with every repugnant racist trope you can think of). Conrad Black puts forth the dictatorship thesis over at the National Post. Even many of the realists within the American foreign policy establishment, while decrying dictatorships, ultimately defend their utility with respect to American interests.

  29. “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

    • How many people were there on the planet when Rumi said that? The world has 7 billion now and it is quickly headed to 10 billion unless something unexpected happens first. If the world does not change fast something unexpected is almost inevitable. Then no one will have the time to change themselves. At least not while still alive. As their corpses rot their pyhsical appearences will change very fast indeed.
      The message of social and political systems change needs to go out to those that are most resistant to it, first and formost law enforcement officers, second the clergy.

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