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GREEN L IGHT FOR THE CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONSHIP – Pages 6-7
FEBRUARY 2012 No 1202
The competence of tyrants
The Ba’ath Party under Assad runs Syria as it ran Iraq under Saddam. An external invasion was needed to topple Saddam
– will Assad fall of his own accord?
MONIF AJAJ – ‘Untitled’ (2008)
Tobin isn’t enough now by Serge Halimi
Fifteen years ago, Le Monde diplomatique first mentioned a tax on financial transactions (1). At the time, the value of these transactions was 15 times the entire world’s gross annual product. Today, it is almost 70 times. Back then we had barely heard of subprime loans and no one imagined there could be a sovereign debt crisis in Europe. Most European socialists, under the spell of Tony Blair, were all for “financial innovation”. In the United States, Bill Clinton was about to encourage deposit banks to speculate with their clients’ money. And in France, Nicolas Sarkozy, besotted with the American model, was praising the (potentially ruinous) policy pursued by the Federal Reserve (2) and dreaming of French-style subprime loans.
Almost no one in power backed a Tobin tax in 1997: everything was going so well. The then French finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, thought it would not work. Sarkozy was even more incisive: “The Tobin tax business is absurd … We will encourage the creation of wealth in other countries if we penalise it here” (3). As soon as he became president, he instructed his finance minister, Christine Lagarde (now head of the International Monetary Fund), to cancel a tax on stock exchange transactions. She explained that “this measure will make Paris more attractive as a financial centre” and she warned that if it was not cancelled, “deals will be made in foreign centres where taxes of this kind have long since been abolished” (4).
It is now clear that policymakers were irresponsible when they expected to make the most of “financial innovation” that grew from tax dumping. The state rescued the banks and asked them in return only to make even fatter profits for themselves. But no decisions were taken on financial control; there were just more grumbles about “money ruling the world”. In the US, even ultra-conservative Republican candidates now criticise Wall Street “vultures” who “come in, take all the money out of your company, and then leave you bankrupt while they go off with millions” (5).
So it is no surprise that, four months before the end of his presidential term, Sarkozy now claims “the financial institutions should be made to help repair the damage they caused”. No more talk about the “absurdity” of a tax on financial transactions, or the danger that the goose – speculation – might lay its golden eggs in some other country.
We could still be content to “throw some sand in the wheels of our excessively efficient money markets,” as economist James Tobin recommended long ago. But since these markets clearly represent an essential public asset whose shareholders have the ability to take countries hostage, we should do more. From now on, we must insist that the banks cease to be in the hands of private interests.
Translated by Barbara Wilson
(1) See Ibrahim Warde, “The tax which speculators love to hate” and Ignacio Ramonet, “Disarming the markets”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 1997 and December 1997 respectively. (2) “If I was to take anyone as a model, it would be Alan Greenspan,” he explained in an interview published in Les Echos, Paris, on 23 June 2004. “He has always acted with pragmatism and humility.” (3) France 2, 7 June 1999. (4) Speaking in a debate in the French Senate, 23 November 2007. (5) Newt Gingrich, Today Show, NBC, 9 January 2012.
inside this issue Hungary’s new right: Viktor Orbán’s laboratory for young entrepreneurs Page 2 War on salaries: time to put a ceiling on the income of top earners Page 4 Home truths: IDF soldiers tell how they helped impose Israeli occupation Page 8 Dynasty: the seamless succession of North Korea’s reclusive leaders Page 10
y Joseph Sassoon
Syria and Iraq were both controlled by the Ba’ath Party (in Iraq 1968-2003; in Syria under the Assad dynasty from 1970 to the present), and many of their decision-making mechanisms were similar. Both regimes created a centralised bureaucracy with the president at its apex and security services integral to the system. In both countries, Ba’ath Party branches co-opted the masses.
Documents of the Iraqi Ba’ath regional command and audiotapes of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) meetings headed by Saddam Hussein show how decisions were made. The system operated with few written orders. Although decisions were discussed by members of the RCC and among the senior military and party leadership, it was clear that if Saddam Hussein was unconvinced by their arguments, then the original order stayed intact. Top-down decision-making was exacerbated when it came to military matters, since Saddam Hussein did not have any military training (Bashar al-Assad, unlike his father Hafez, also had no military background).
Saddam Hussein, like many other tyrants, hated bad news more and more. In a symposium on the 1991 Gulf war attended by senior military officers, he snubbed those who complained of Iraq’s military, saying: “I will not permit pessimistic views, only positive ones” (1).
In Iraq – and to a certain extent in Syria – it was difficult to oppose the president. The audiotapes of the meetings underline the sycophancy that made it almost impossible to discuss vital topics. Meetings were coloured by the mood of the leader, and no serious attention was paid to the agenda: Saddam Hussein mostly discussed what was on his mind. The cult of personality worsened his delusion of grandeur and his belief in his own popularity and destiny as the bearer of a special messenger (risala)
Joseph Sassoon teaches at Georgetown University, Washington DC, and is currently a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford; he is author of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, Cambridge University Press, 2011
Six more years? Senegal has hardly prospered under AbdoulayeWade Page 11 Is the future still nuclear? France is torn on the issue of its energy sector Page 12 Anonymous: cyber protestors join the global forces of dissent Page 15 Speculating on hunger: when rice becomes just a food future Page 16
to his people. In the same way Assad told a journalist: “I live a normal life. That’s why I am popular” (2).
The cult of personality makes presidents consider themselves above reproach: someone else will be blamed for bad decisions. And the situation worsens as they become untethered from reality, with media attention and incessant praise from subordinates and colleagues. Bashar al-Assad told Barbara Walters on ABC television on 6 December 2011: “I did my best to protect the people, so I cannot feel guilty, when you do your best. You feel sorry for the lives that have been lost, but you don’t feel guilty…”
Terrifying the population is fundamental to the durability of these authoritarian regimes. In a meeting with high-ranking officials in 1987, Saddam Hussein was clear that he was willing to use violence against opponents. Talking to his chief of general security (al-amn al-am) he said: “We are here to serve our nation, not to kill them. Yet, whoever needs to be slaughtered will be slaughtered. We will chop heads off to serve fifteen million [Iraqis]” (3). In Syria fear is actually decreasing as brutality increases. An observer put it: “Bullets kill fear” – which will make it hard for the regime to control the population (4).
Because opposition is always eliminated, the heads of military or security services never reveal unpleasant truths. In a fascinating audiotape of a meeting in 1992 to analyse the invasion of Kuwait and the uprising after, Hussein Kamil, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and a close associate at the time, told him: “The truth, we have to tell you that most of [the military] ran away.” Saddam Hussein said: “The honourable people really show their true colours in these situations.” Kamil replied: “Morale was at the lowest level, but when [the generals] came to talk to you, we could not reveal it to you or inform you with the truth about our situation” (5).
Saddam Hussein, in 1991, and Bashar alAssad, 20 years later, were taken by surprise by uprisings, because their surrounding inner circle had not functioned as a true consulting board. Both inner groups were composed of family and clan members. In both regimes, brothers, with first and second cousins intermarried with the president’s family, ran the show. This created a cohesive and tightknit circle that shared the same interests and
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