The United States intervened militarily in Iraq in 2003, 15 years ago this month, and the result was war and chaos. But the United States did not intervene in Syria in 2011 when the regime there was challenged, and the result was still war and chaos. Though the media has interpreted the past decade and a half of armed conflict in the Levant exclusively through the failure of U.S. policy, the fact that the policy in Syria was 180-degrees different from the one in Iraq and yet the result was the same indicates that there has to be a deeper, more fundamental force at work in both countries that journalists and historians must acknowledge.
That deeper force is the legacy of Baathism. A toxic mix of secular Arab nationalism and Eastern Bloc-style socialism that dominated Syria and Iraq for decades since the 1960s, it made the regimes of the al-Assad family in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq completely unique in the Arab world. Baathism, more than George W. Bush or Barack Obama, is the father of the violent Hobbesian nightmare that has devastated the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian plateau in the early 21st century.
As a rule, the more abstract and totalizing the ideology, the more blood that follows in its wake. That's because once a leader is toppled or challenged, such ideologies provide for no intermediary layers of civil society -- between the regime at the top and the tribe and extended family at the bottom -- to hold a country together. In 1998 in Beirut, three years before 9/11, I interviewed the public intellectual Elias Khoury who told me regarding Iraq and Syria, "these regimes have succeeded in destroying not only their societies but any alternatives to themselves. Because no alternative can survive, the choice may be between total control and total chaos."
Khoury's clairvoyance rested on the knowledge that Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein had used their many decades in power to build elaborate moukhabarat (security service) structures that only masqueraded as states. Their people remained subjects, not citizens; and ethnic and sectarian contradictions lay bottled-up, ready to explode, rather than be assuaged by healthy economic and political development. Beneath the carapaces of tyranny lay utter voids.
At the root of this complete failure to forge vibrant, secular identities spanning ethnic and sectarian lines in Syria and Iraq was Baathist ideology, something far more lethal and suffocating than what obtained in the basically ordinary, bourgeois tyrannies of Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world. Places like Egypt and Tunisia constitute age-old clusters of civilization, which have been states in one form or another since antiquity, and with robust identities to go with it; whereas Iraq and Syria were merely vague geographical expressions, with much weaker histories as states, and thus they required more extreme forms of brutality to hold them together. And in that effort, Baathism supplied the ideological adhesive.
Baathism was hammered out before and during World War II by two members of the Damascene middle class, one Christian and the other Muslim: Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar, who were attracted to the heady ideologies swirling around Europe that they had picked up as students in France in the early 1930s. What emerged was a concoction of Arab nationalism, the Marxism that both Aflaq and Bitar had become enamored with, and German theories of an idealized blood-and-soil identity that were prevalent among the Nazis at the time. What the French scholar Olivier Roy writes about the half-educated Islamic fundamentalists of today applies as well to the secular Baathists: Because their own societies had ignored these bookish sons of the lower and middle classes, they resented their own status and dreamt of a revolution that would wipe away the Arab bourgeoisie altogether, in return for heavily mobilized, overly centralized states with a proletarian mindset. And by the early 1960s, it was people such as Aflaq and Bitar, not the members of the traditional merchant classes in Damascus and Baghdad -- nor the Ottoman- and European mandate-era elites with their easygoing notions of governance -- who gained the ears of rising military officers and activists like the elder Assad and Saddam Hussein.
Alas, the consequence of Baathism's steamy and abstract ideas, whose intellectual meaning began to evaporate once they directly encountered the largely illiterate and traditional societies of the Levant, was merely sterile police states built on repression, some economic development, and the manipulation of sect and clan. While in Iraq, under Sunni rule, Baathism evolved eventually into an anti-Shiite philosophy, in Syria under Alawite rule it became in effect anti-Sunni; it was anti-Kurd in both countries, whatever its stated pretensions. Baathism was in practice an intensified-disease variant of Arab nationalism, which itself would be later overwhelmed by the forces of Islamist radicalism.
Of course, within Baathism there were always regional differences. Iraq under Saddam, where people didn't even dare whisper about the regime in their homes, was far more repressive than Syria under the elder Assad, where dissent was allowed, as long as it was never public. As a journalist from the 1970s to the 1990s, I periodically visited Syria and traveled the country by bus, meeting people everywhere, without need of an escort.
But in Iraq, following a day trip from Baghdad south to Najaf in 1984, I was warned in the strongest terms never to attempt that again, and when I did travel in northern Iraq two years later I could do so only with an escort, after my passport had been temporarily taken from me by the regime authorities. In Iraq in the 1980s, I had to hand my news copy to an official behind a thick glass window, who would punch it out on a telex machine to my editors. In Syria I could go into any post office and send out my copy unsupervised.
Iraq was like a vast prison yard lit up by high-wattage lamps. To wit, Saddam required Iraqi society to be always on a war footing. After fighting Iran for a decade in the 1980s, he invaded Kuwait in 1990. That invasion would in a pathological sense constitute the beginning of the bloody finale of Baathism, invented at the Sorbonne six decades earlier.