DATE September 25, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Charles Tripp discusses the history of Iraq and the
rule of Saddam Hussein
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Charles Tripp, is an expert on the past and present of Iraq. We
asked him to help us understand the long dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and
to assess how Iraq and the Gulf region might be changed if we go to war
against Iraq. Tripp is a senior lecturer in the department of political
studies at the University of London. He's the author of books about the
Iran-Iraq war and Saudi Arabia. His book, "A History of Iraq," has been
published in a new updated edition.
Let's start with the creation of Iraq by the British government. During World
War I, Britain invaded and occupied three provinces of the Ottoman Empire:
Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. In 1920, the League of Nations combined these three
separate provinces into the state of Iraq, and authorized the British to
administer it. This new state brought together different populations,
including Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds, and created for the first
time an Iraqi national and political identity. I asked Charles Tripp about
the problems the British faced in trying to hold this new nation together.
Professor CHARLES TRIPP (Author, "A History of Iraq"): Well, there were two
major kinds of problem. One was the fundamental question that many of the
people who now found themselves within this new state of Iraq had never
actually had to live and work together. And, therefore, the idea of working
with an Iraqi state was quite a new idea. And many of them were quite
apprehensive, I think not simply by the fact that people hostile to themselves
might be controlling that state, whether they be the British or the British
clients in Iraq itself, but also the whole notion of working within a modern
state, having to abide by regulations, boundaries, taxation systems,
conscription systems; all the apparatus of a modern state that many people in
Iraq found deeply repulsive.
GROSS: What kind of debate went on within Iraq about what Iraqi identity was?
Prof. TRIPP: Well, there was a big struggle, in many ways, to define what
identity the Iraqis had. So one of the natural tendencies was for the people
who actually had control of the state, who were largely from the Sunni Arab
population, largely Ottoman civil servants and army officers, tended to think
that what they said was Iraqi would be Iraqi.
But that was challenged both by the Kurds in the north, who believed that
Iraqi nationality, as far as it had developed, should not be simply dominated
by the Arabs, and it was often challenged by the Shia of the south, who
didn't, many of them, believe in a single national secular identity, but saw
themselves more as part of a Muslim community.
GROSS: When did Britain give up the mandate of Iraq, and when did Iraq get
Prof. TRIPP: Well, Iraq was the first of the League of Nations mandate states
to become independent in 1932. The British had decided quite early on that
there was no need to be an imperial power in a very detailed sense in Iraq,
that is administering every aspect of the Iraqi state. Rather, they should
exercise what came to be called `informal empire' in Iraq, that is a influence
over the government, military basing rights, but beyond that, largely granting
the Iraqis their independence. So after 1932, Iraq was formally independent.
There was still, of course, a large measure of British influence and British
power there, but it was certainly independent earlier than any of the other
GROSS: What happened after Iraq got its independence? How did its own
national politics start to take shape?
Prof. TRIPP: Well, one of the things that became apparent quite quickly was
the fact that the British had installed a monarchy in Iraq, because that's the
way the British at the time thought that you would bring a certain degree of
cohesion. And they'd chosen as the monarch a member of the Hashemite family
from the Hejaz in Arabia, who had been very instrumental in the Arab revolt.
And King Faisal I, the first king of Iraq, was man of extraordinary authority,
and battling against great odds, both against the British and against the
Iraqis, managed to forge something like a national sense of loyalty to him.
But he died a year after independence, and then you had his much weaker son,
and his son died in a car crash a few years later, and then his infant child.
So the monarchy was in Iraq, but increasingly troubled, increasingly at odds
with various factions of the Iraqi population.
And one of the things that became apparent very quickly in the 1930s was the
role of the army in Iraqi politics, that is the importance of the army
officers in deciding who should govern the country. And just as Iraq became
the first of League of Nations mandates to become independent in 1932, it was
also the first of the Arab states to suffer what one came to think of as a
classical military coup d'etat in 1936, which led to a whole succession of
coups and countercoups up until 1941.
GROSS: And what happened in '41?
Prof. TRIPP: Well, in 1941, the Second World War was raging, and the people
who were coming out on top in Iraqi politics increasingly believed that the
British Empire was about to be defeated by the Axis of Germany and Italy in
Europe and North Africa, and rather unwisely sided with the Axis powers, at
the same time seeking to defy British demands to send increasing troops
through the Middle East via Iraq. And that led to a brief war with Great
Britain in 1941, whereby the British invaded, recaptured Baghdad and
reinstated the monarchy.
GROSS: And how long did the monarchy last?
Prof. TRIPP: Well, until 1958, when, again, a military coup d'etat by
revolutionary army officers swept aside the monarchy, killing most of the
ruling family and establishing the Iraqi republic.
GROSS: And how did the Iraqi republic compare to what had gone before?
Prof. TRIPP: In some ways, the Iraqi republic wasn't very different to the
Iraqi monarchy. And I think this is one of the features that one has to take
into account when looking at Iraqi history, is that whether under monarchy or
under republic, one of the features was the very centralized, authoritarian
state, the importance of the army in that state, the lack of truly
representative life and the increasing importance of oil income. These are
all features of the republic as they were increasingly of the monarchy under
the Hashemite monarchs.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Charles Tripp. He
has a new edition of his book "A History of Iraq."
Let's jump ahead to when Saddam Hussein assumes power in Iraq in July of 1979.
How did he assume power in Iraq?
Prof. TRIPP: Well, in 1979, Saddam Hussein became president of the republic
formally, but effectively, he had been the strongman, as it was called, of the
regime for some years before. In 1968, there had been a military coup d'etat
engineered by the Ba'ath Party, of which he was an activist. And the
president of the Iraq after the coup d'etat became someone called Ahmad Hassan
al-Bakr, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and in many ways his protector, his patron
within Iraqi politics. And it was under his protection that Saddam Hussein
increasingly became the power in the state from the early 1970s onwards. In
1979, it's been, I think, convincingly argued that he pushed Ahmad Hassan
al-Bakr aside, and Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr retired on grounds of ill health. And
Saddam Hussein became president.
GROSS: He was 42 at the time. You say he acted swiftly and ruthlessly to
eliminate all those whom he felt would not give him unquestioning obedience.
How did he do that?
Prof. TRIPP: Well, for the two years before he became president, he had made
sure that he had disposed of many of those who had supported the Ba'athist
government, but were not very enthusiastic about Saddam Hussein. In other
words, people who had joined the Ba'ath Party, which was an Arab national
socialist party, either because they were socialists and believed in a view of
a socialist development path for Iraq, or because they were Arab nationalists.
And for Saddam Hussein, these people, although useful at a certain stage in
Iraqi politics, were quite dangerous to him, because they effectively pursued
a vision of Iraq which wasn't his. He was a not socialist, and some would
argue that he's not particularly an Arab nationalist if it contradicts his own
pursuit of power and security. So these people were dangerous.
And effectively, he did it by a number of conspiracies. There was the
`Communist conspiracy,' so-called, of 1978 whereby many of the leftists in the
party were purged, killed, arrested, disappeared. And in 1979, there was the
so-called `Syrian conspiracy,' where many of the Arab nationalists in the
party were equally disposed of through denunciations, arrests and executions.
GROSS: When Saddam Hussein took over Iraq, it was, as it still is, a country
of divided religions and ethnic backgrounds causing a lot of conflicts of
every sort within the state. You say he sought to build political unity
within Iraq by uniting people behind his own personality cult. So instead of
uniting around, like, a larger Iraqi identity or Arab identity or religious
identity, it was a Saddam identity that everybody was supposed to rally
around. How did he manage to do that, or try to do that? We'll see how well
Prof. TRIPP: I think he succeeded in it through two well-tried techniques,
which the Iraqis call intimidation and co-option. In other words, he
terrorized people so that he made it quite clear that if you were not with
him, you were against him. And the price of being against him was very
severe: death, torture, expulsion, arrest and even at its most mild level,
the stunting of your career prospects and making it clear to you that you will
But however, if you were for him, if, in other words, you mouthed all the
things that he held true at the time, if you followed the party line as he
dictated it, then you found yourself on an upward-moving escalator of rewards,
privileges, favors, which bound you to the person of Saddam Hussein, but also
made you, in a sense, a collaborator in his venture and separated you off from
other people. So he has been an extraordinarily astute operator within Iraqi
politics, knowing whom to favor, whom to disfavor at what time. And the fact
that he's survived so long in Iraqi politics is a testimony to his skill at
manipulating this particular form of coercion and co-option.
GROSS: What are some of the things Saddam Hussein has emphasized in his
version of Iraqi identity?
Prof. TRIPP: There are two things, I think, that came out quite clearly in
his depiction of Iraqi nationalism, Iraqi national identity. One is very
strongly this idea that Iraq is a 5,000-year-old nation. In other words,
making up for the fact that Iraq is an invention of the British in the 20th
century, to try and root Iraqis, give them a sense of place in history, a
sense of purpose, a sense of unity in that way. And he's been very keen to
try and emphasize this historical rootedness of the Iraqi people.
I think partly that comes out of a concern by Saddam Hussein, which he's not
alone, I think, in feeling, that Iraq was a creation of imperial powers and it
may one day be uncreated by imperial powers; an idea that it has a kind of
precarious existence. So to assert the rootedness, the thousand years of
history of Iraq as a nation is clearly one way of getting around that.
But the other aspect of Iraqi nationalism that he's been very keen on
emphasizing is the importance of obeying a single, powerful leader. So when
he waxes poetic about the 5,000-year-old history of Iraq, he's actually often
talking about characters such as Sargon or Nebuchadnezzar or other great
autocrats of the past. And clearly, he sees himself as a successor to those
powerful tyrants of the Mesopotamian Valley.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Charles Tripp, and he
teaches at the University of London. His book, "A History of Iraq," has just
been published in a new updated edition. Let's take a short break here and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Charles Tripp, is the author of "A History of Iraq." He's
also the author of a book about the Iran-Iraq War, which ended three years
before the Gulf War of 1991.
The Iran-Iraq War lasted around eight years, and a very, very bloody war. Did
that effect Saddam's standing in the Arab world and how Muslims saw him?
Because here he was going to war against a Muslim country.
Prof. TRIPP: The effect of the Iran-Iraq War in the Arab world generally is
quite interesting. I think that for many of the Gulf states, and for others
that had no sympathy with the new regime in Iran, there was a good deal of
sympathy and support for Iraq and Saddam Hussein's line that Iraq was
effectively protecting the Arab world against Iran. The fact that he had
invaded Iran in 1980 was rather glossed over. But there was this notion that
if he hadn't done it then, the Iranians would have come over the border. So
there was this notion that Saddam and Iraq were defending the Arab world
against the religious fanatics, as they were often portrayed, in the Iranian
And, also, of course, there was a sectarian element; that is of the majority
Sunni Arab community in the Middle East seeing the Shia Muslims of Iran as
being a national enemy, but also, to some extent, a sectarian enemy. And that
got very joined together in some ways in their view of the threat posed by
Iran. So I think in the early days, he was viewed as, to some extent, the
person who would protect the Arab world from this threat to the east.
There were others who didn't buy that line, most, obviously, the Syrian, which
allied itself promptly with Iran, largely because it didn't get on with the
government in Baghdad. But by and large, many swallowed the line that he was,
indeed, defending the Arab world against Islamic reaction.
GROSS: Let's skip ahead to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which kicks off
the Gulf War. What was Saddam Hussein's motivations in invading Kuwait?
Prof. TRIPP: Well, to some extent, the invasion of Kuwait was a result of
the Iran-Iraq War; that during the war against Iran, many Arab states, the
Gulf states, the rich ones, had been very willing to support the Iraqi war
effort, had lent huge amounts of money and given huge amounts of money to
When the war ended and the Iranian threat seemed to have passed, they became
rather less sympathetic to Saddam Hussein and to Iraq, and so began to press
for the repayment of debts and for the contribution that he could make to
giving back some of the oil that they had shipped out on his behalf during the
So by 1990 Saddam Hussein, far from being the hero of the Arab world, looked
like the debtor, and he was, to a large degree, bankrupt. The Iraqi state had
built up enormous debts, had huge costs of reconstruction and that the great
victory proclaimed in the ending of the war in 1988 wasn't quite as much of a
victory as all that.
So the invasion of Kuwait was an attempt by Saddam Hussein to make up for
that, both in terms of military prowess, but also purely on economic grounds.
He thought that this would be a ploy whereby he could recover the billions
that he now owed through some kind of arrangement with Saudi Arabia and
perhaps with Kuwait itself.
GROSS: So he thought that he would, like, take over the oil in Kuwait?
Prof. TRIPP: Well, it's all been a bit unclear until Saddam writes his
memoirs exactly what he was after in detail. It's quite difficult to tell,
but I think there's a strong thesis which argues that the capture of Kuwait
was, in a sense, the first move in a game with Saudi Arabia. He didn't want
to capture Saudi Arabia's oil wells, but what he wanted to do was basically to
be paid to withdraw from Kuwait.
The business about Kuwait being an eternal part of the Iraqi nation came
rather later, although it's always been in the background in Iraqi political
history, but it's not something that many Iraqis subscribe to or think that
their country should do much about. But the notion, in other words, that, `If
you write off my debts, if you pay for the reconstruction of Iraq after the
war, then I shall withdraw from Kuwait.' That was, I think, in the early
weeks after the invasion was something that Saddam thought was seriously
GROSS: And then the Gulf War started, and he realized it wasn't going to
happen that way.
Prof. TRIPP: Yes, he made a terrible miscalculation, of course, in the fact
that he hoped, and some of his allies in the Arab world, that the occupation
of Kuwait would be amenable to what was called then the Arab solution. And
the Arab solution was basically to keep the Western powers out of it; to do a
deal effectively with Saudi Arabia to make it worth Iraq's while to withdrawal
from Kuwait and on terms that Iraq would dictate in financial terms.
Of course, what he discovered was that in occupying Kuwait and expelling its
government that he had effectively wiped a member of the United Nations off
the map. And this was no longer simply an Arab affair, but became an affair
both of the international community and, of course, of the Western interests
that seemed to be at stake in the Kuwaiti economy and its oil fields.
GROSS: Let's skip ahead to the present. The United States is preparing to go
to war against Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein because of his weapons of mass
destruction. What kind of shape is Saddam Hussein in now? Is he as powerful
now as he was in '91?
Prof. TRIPP: Ironically, domestically, or within Iraq itself, he is probably
more powerful than he was in 1991. One of the effects of sanctions, which I
think was clearly not envisaged at the time, was they've actually strengthened
the kind of regime that he runs in Iraq. This may seem odd and perverse, but
in many ways, that has been the outcome.
In military terms, of course, he's much weaker. The conventional armed forces
of Iraq or not only smaller, but the nature of the weaponry has been degraded
over 10 years. And although he's tried to buy spare parts from here and
there, in terms of the major refitting or modernization of his armed forces,
it's been a very limited affair. So his conventional armed forces are much
And also in terms of his weapons of mass destruction, whatever the United
Nations believes he still retained when they left in 1998 and what he may have
achieved or tried to acquire since 1998, it's clear nothing by comparison with
what the weapons inspectors found there in 1991. So one could argue that in
military terms, as a threat to the region, as a threat to world security, he's
much weaker than he was in 1990, 1991. Politically, he's somewhat stronger.
GROSS: How did sanctions end up strengthening him politically within his own
Prof. TRIPP: One of the reasons, I think, was that when sanctions are imposed
upon a regime like that of Iraq, there's an assumption somehow that they put
pressure on the people and the people will put pressure on the government. Of
course, in a regime like that of Iraq has always operated on the basis of a
sanctions regime deployed against its own people. It's always decided who
gets favors, who doesn't, who is excluded, who's get access to resources and
who doesn't. And before 1990, the Iraqi people did suffer under a sanctions
regime which was effectively operated by Saddam Hussein and his coterie to
decide which parts of the Iraqi population would have good things and which
would deprive of things. After 1990, of course, they suffered under two
sanctions regimes: a regime imposed from the outside and the one that
continued from within.
And I think one of the things that Saddam Hussein has managed to do during the
1990s is to put all the blame for the deprivations of the Iraqi people on the
outside world; on the United States, on Britain, on the United Nations
Security Council. And for many Iraqis, therefore, when they look at their
pretty miserable standard of life, they do not blame, necessarily, Saddam
Hussein as they might easily have done before 1990; they'd rather blame the
GROSS: Charles Tripp is the author of "A History of Iraq." He teaches at the
University of London. He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of "Diaspora Blues")
GROSS: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the CD we're listening
to now, "Diaspora Blues" by trumpeter and composer Steven Bernstein. And we
continue our conversation with historian Charles Tripp, and consider how the
world might change if the US invades Iraq.
(Soundbite of "Diaspora Blues")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with historian Charles
Tripp, author of "A History of Iraq." He's also the author of books about
the Iran-Iraq war and Saudi Arabia. He teaches at the University of London.
We've been talking about the history of Iraq and the Bush administration's
plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Let's pick up where we left off.
Now you're saying that from what you perceive, Saddam's military and his
weapons of mass destruction program are much diminished since the first Gulf
War. So would you challenge the Bush administration's statements that his
weapons of mass destruction are such a threat that we must go in there right
now and destroy them?
Prof. TRIPP: I think that the present administration, which may be talking
about the need to overthrow the regime in Iraq in order to disarm Iraq, has to
answer--a particular question is: Why now? What makes it so threatening at
this moment? And I think that in many ways, when one's heard the present
administration talking about preemptive strikes, one has heard it talking
about `We must do it before it becomes a danger,' they're clearly not basing
their argument for the change of regime on what Iraq presently has. I think
in terms of its missile capabilities and its weapons of mass destruction, it
clearly has very little that it can do damage with.
It's largely basing it on two kinds of supposition. The first is that within
a number of years it will have acquired much more long-range missiles, much
more effective chemical and biological weapons, and possibly a nuclear
capability. And that, of course, to some extent is conjectural because we
don't know whether they would be able to do that. And they're also basing it
on the supposition that once they have them, they will use them in some kind
of aggressive and radical way. And again, I think one has to be quite wary of
that supposition, too.
GROSS: Because Saddam Hussein is a ruthless and brutal dictator, I think that
there are parts of the Bush administration who assume that if the US military
goes in that there will be parts of the military and maybe other Saddam
Hussein insiders who will side with the United States against Saddam Hussein.
Do you have any reading on that, about whether we can expect any of the
military to defect and change sides?
Prof. TRIPP: It's a difficult thing to predict. I think the nature of
internal opposition in Iraq, particularly within the military, is something
that you cannot tell until it's come out in the open, most usually in the last
20 years to be purged and executed. But clearly in the circumstances of an
American invasion of Iraq, there is a possibility that sections of the armed
forces will turn on Saddam Hussein and overthrow his regime. Some would argue
that that is what part of the administration hopes for very fervently--that
is, the overthrow of the regime in Baghdad by people within the circles of
power itself, therefore removing the need for America to occupy the whole of
the country or to be seen to be simply removing a foreign government.
But, of course, it also faces a kind of dilemma which I think others in the
administration are quite aware of, is the fact that the people who unseat
Saddam, who have the power to do so and who are well-placed to do so, are very
much like Saddam. They are not necessarily as ruthless as he at the moment,
but their world view isn't necessarily very different to that of Saddam
Hussein himself. And so they will then face a dilemma in the American
administration of `Well, do we leave power in Iraq in the hands of these
generals who have actually been the mainstay of Saddam Hussein's regime over
the last 15, 20 years and simply go away or do we carry out these more
ambitious objectives of bringing a more liberal, open and democratic society
into existence in Iraq?'
GROSS: You've studied Saddam Hussein, you've studied his inner circle and his
family. One of the things he's famous for is hiding out, because he knows he
has a lot of enemies. How difficult do you think he would be to find if we do
go in there looking to overthrow him?
Prof. TRIPP: I think if the Americans or outside forces think that they can
simply assassinate him, I think that would be really tricky. I think he knows
Iraq much better than anybody on the outside. And being able to pin him
down--so the notion of sending in a kind of elite force to simply isolate and
remove him is, I think, fraught with danger. And you'd only have to be by the
purist chance that they actually got hold of him. However, if the Americans
and their allies, such as they are at the time, invade Iraq and occupy
Baghdad, then there's very little question of Saddam Hussein simply
disappearing rather like Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. I
think he would be tracked down very quickly.
GROSS: You think he would be tracked down quickly?
Prof. TRIPP: I think he would, because in many ways, if America was in full
occupation of the whole country, then there'd be very little interest, I
think, amongst many Iraqis to remain loyal to Saddam Hussein, because his
power depends upon state power, and once the state has been torn away from
him, he has no power. And for many Iraqis, they would be very willing to turn
him in if it meant escaping the retribution of America themselves.
GROSS: The Bush administration says that the United States should overthrow
Saddam Hussein because of weapons of mass destruction and because in this era
of terrorism, Saddam Hussein poses a grave threat. Do you think there are
other geopolitical reasons why the Bush administration might want to overthrow
Prof. TRIPP: Well, I think quite a number of Iraqis, and I rather sympathize
with them, tend to think that Iraq may be a means to an end, that certainly
weapons of mass destruction is a concern, certainly the tyranny of Saddam
Hussein is a concern, certainly his record has been pretty diabolical in terms
of his actions upon his neighbors. But they can't help feeling that there
must be a reason why this is happening now in the wake of the 11th of
September, as things are unraveling on the Israel-Palestine side. And so many
people have interpreted this more as an assertion of American power. In other
words, they tend to see some in the administration as looking upon regime
change in Iraq as effectively a measure whereby America will impose its order
on the Middle East for some years to come. It'll keep Iran terrified that
it's next on the list, it'll remind the Saudis that they're not the only oil
producers, and some would argue it will force the Palestinians and the Syrians
to realize that they have no option other than to deal with Israel as
supported by the United States at the moment.
So I think many people tend to regard the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the
imposition of a new regime more friendly to the United States in Iraq itself
as being part of a larger strategic plan, at least for some in the
GROSS: Now what would it mean for the future of world oil if the United
States invades Iraq and overthrows Saddam Hussein? What are the possible
outcomes in terms of oil?
Prof. TRIPP: I suppose the oil question always comes up. Quite clearly, Iraq
is perhaps the second largest oil reservoir in the Middle East, perhaps in the
world after Saudi Arabia. And I think that there's clearly the immediate fear
of a war on oil supplies and the price of oil and, therefore, the kind of
jitters that the oil market seems to periodically go through, even when
objectively, as one might say, there's little reason for it to be too jittery.
But in the long term I think that--and this is the irony of it in some
ways--whether Saddam Hussein is in power or not, Iraq will need to sell its
oil and people will need to buy it. And the logic of the oil market, the
energy market will dictate, really, the importance of Iraqi oil in the world.
So in that sense, I would not agree with those who believe that the planned
invasion of Iraq is all about oil. I think oil has its own dynamic, its own
market, and oil consumers can deal just as well with Saddam Hussein, who's
eager to sell it to them, as they can deal with anyone else.
GROSS: What do you think the invasion of Iraq would be about?
Prof. TRIPP: I think there is an element here within the administration, it
seems, of two different visions of America in the world. And I think one of
them does correspond to this idea of looking at the 11th of September and
reading it not as a result of resentment of the misuse of American power in
the Middle East, but rather looking at it as a lapsing of American deterrence
in the Middle East and, therefore, an argument which says that if America
asserted itself more, then groups like al-Qaeda would not dare and would not
have the opportunity to do the kind of things they did on the 11th of
September last year. And I think there is a kind of, for want of a better
word, imperial logic here, which is to assert power when you have it and to
use it very starkly. And one can certainly hear that within the
administration when they talk about Iraq.
So it's less, in other words, to do about weapons of mass destruction as such
than to do with making an example of states that dare to defy the most
powerful state in the world by developing weapons of mass destruction and
threatening to use them in a way which may be harmful to their interests. So
I think there's that side to it. But there also seems to be another vision of
America in the world which comes through in some of the pronouncements the
people in the administration.
This is a belief that the end of tyranny, the introduction of more open
markets and liberal democratic regimes is, in the end, the best way of
securing a world that America can live securely and with. And so there is,
again, a more, I think, ideological and less, perhaps, crudely imperial view
here, which is about the establish--or using Iraq as a way of establishing a
more democratic, a more open order and serving notice on many of the
authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, but perhaps beyond the Middle East
as well, that America will not shrink from using force to change the political
arrangements across the world.
GROSS: My guest is Charles Tripp, author of "A History of Iraq." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Charles Tripp is my guest. He's a professor of history at the
University of London. He's written extensively about Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
His latest book, "A History of Iraq," has just been published in a new
What are some of the unintended consequences, you think, a war with Iraq might
Prof. TRIPP: I think there are two that the United States must be very wary
of. One is that a war with Iraq which leads to American entanglement in Iraqi
politics in terms of trying to reconstruct a polity in Iraq, trying to protect
that polity, trying to bring it out as a viable entity that somehow is
supportive of America is, of course, fraught with danger. It's fraught with
danger in the sense that there are many within Iraq who would be deeply
hostile to that vision. There'd be many in the region who'd be deeply hostile
to the vision. And I think that for the Americans, what they'd have to ask
themselves is `Do we have the same staying power? Do we have the same stamina
as the locals?' either the locals in Iraq or the locals in the region.
The example there, I suppose, is Lebanon in the 1980s, when America
intervened, but, of course, the Lebanese and the Syrians and others had far
greater staying power and, to some extent, ruthlessness and ensured that the
Americans left, abandoning the attempt to re-create the state or the polity of
Lebanon. So I think that's clearly one of the unintended consequences, which
is a painful, open-ended engagement with forces with which the Americans are
perhaps ill-equipped to cope or will cost them more than they think it's
worth, and then perhaps ignominious withdrawal.
The other, obviously, is the other thesis about the 11th of September, which
is that events such as this--recruitment for al-Qaeda thrives upon conditions
whereby it can be portrayed that America is at war in some way with the
Islamic or the Arab world. Clearly, therefore, there is a fear that a war
against Iraq will provide an excellent recruiting ground for the next wave of
GROSS: Of course, the most frightening scenario is that the US invades Iraq,
with or without allies, and this is the first strike in what later develops
into World War III. What do you think the odds of that are?
Prof. TRIPP: I don't think there's anyone out there who can really launch
World War III in a conventional sense or a non-conventional sense against
America. So some have argued--and again, one has to be wary about swallowing
all the rhetoric, but the war on terrorism is a kind of World War III. This
is often being portrayed as such. And what one's looking at then is war not
in the conventional sense, but in the sense of the powerless using what
violence they can against the powerful in unexpected places and often with
devastating results. So clearly if the invasion of Iraq leads, not
necessarily next year or within six months but perhaps in five years' time, to
precisely the sort of event one saw in New York last year in September, then
clearly the Americans have sown the seeds or will have sown the seeds of
something that they will find difficult to control by conventional means. And
the question there is: How well-equipped are the Americans still to deal with
such a non-conventional war?
GROSS: What's happening in your country? It looks like Tony Blair's in a big
minority in wanting to join with the United States in invading Iraq.
Prof. TRIPP: I think the public is rather confused. Today there is a debate
in Britain about the wisdom of supporting the American line. And clearly the
British government is trying to make an argument which suggests that the
acquisition or intention to acquire weapons of mass destruction by the Iraqi
regime is sufficient grounds for intervention, but I think many in this
country question whether it's sufficient grounds for war. I think many share
the government's concern and the American government's concern about the
development of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But I don't think that
many support the notion that one should go to war to cure it.
I think for many, the perception is that for the last 10 years, deterrence and
containment has largely worked. Saddam Hussein is not regarded as a threat by
most of its regional neighbors and, in many ways, is a much reduced power.
And I think many also look at the way Saddam Hussein has organized himself and
see a rather third-rate Third World power, and find it quite baffling to know
why, again, this has built up in the way it has in the moment. So I don't
think people are unconcerned about the development of weapons of mass
destruction. I think what people are concerned about is whether going to war,
with all the unforeseen consequences it might bring in its trail, quite apart
from the immediate deaths of Iraqis and others that it will cause--whether
this is really the best way of going about deterring and containing the Iraqi
capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction.
GROSS: I'd like to close with a question that isn't one of the weightier
questions that are facing us right now. But, you know, every time I see a
photograph in the newspaper of Saddam Hussein surrounded by his inner circle,
it looks like Saddam Hussein with a roomful of Saddam Hussein look-alikes.
They're not only dressed like he is, in the same military uniform, with the
hat, they have the same haircut and they have the same moustache.
Prof. TRIPP: Well, it's certainly true that in the political systems based
upon the powerful personality of one person, many of those around him want to
look like him because they imitate the way he dresses, they see this as the
sincerest form of flattery. And one can never have too much flattery when
you're around Saddam Hussein, and I think for many, this is a way of doing it.
Of course, the other side of that is that many of the people around Saddam
Hussein come from his background and, therefore, it's not really surprising
they look rather like him. Many of them are related to him or come from very
much the same community in Iraq from which he comes from. So there are all
sorts of reasons why I think that has developed, leading to, of course, all
the wonderful stories about doubles and trebles and...
GROSS: Right. Right.
Prof. TRIPP: ...various versions of Saddam Hussein that crop up in the press.
GROSS: How much is the moustache an Iraqi tradition and how much of it is
Saddam Hussein look-alike?
Prof. TRIPP: Oh, no, it's very much an Iraqi peasant tradition.
Prof. TRIPP: And at the same time, it's also regarded as a very masculine
tradition, not just in Iraq. I mean, I think if one looked in many other
countries in the Middle East, there's a very similar importance for a certain
idea of masculinity of growing your moustache as bristling and as aggressive a
way as possible.
GROSS: If he asked, what advice would you give President Bush?
Prof. TRIPP: I suppose the advice that one would want to give him is to think
whether he can achieve the same objectives without war. I think that a war on
Iraq leads to many unforeseen consequences. If President Bush and his
administration has a very clear idea of what it is they want to achieve beyond
the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and if they have a realistic idea about how
that can be achieved inside Iraq society, they have to ask whether the use of
war to achieve that will actually undermine those achievements. So, again,
what one has to ask is: Have you got your priorities right? Is it really
about the elimination of weapons of mass destruction? In which case, is war
necessarily the best way of doing it? Or is this about the construction of a
more open, liberal regime in Iraq? And again, one has to ask: Is war with
large numbers of Iraqi and possibly American casualties and the installation
of a client regime in Baghdad necessarily the best way of going about it?
GROSS: Charles Tripp, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. TRIPP: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Charles Tripp is the author of "A History of Iraq." A new updated
edition has been published. He teaches at the University of London.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Diaspora Blues," the new CD by
trumpeter and composer Steven Bernstein. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New release from Steven Bernstein, "Diaspora Blues," and
reissue of "Jewish Melodies in Jazztime"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The combination of jazz and Jewish music is nothing new. In the 1930s,
trumpeter Ziggy Elman brought klezmer inflictions and at least one Jewish
melody to Benny Goodman's band. And even Cab Calloway recorded an impression
of a cantor's cantillations. Mixing the two became a full-blown trend in New
York in the early 1990s, when some downtown musicians started presenting
concerts and recording CDs under the rubric Radical Jewish Culture. Jazz
critic Kevin Whitehead says some of that music hasn't sounded very radical or
very good, but one new CD vindicates the concept.
(Soundbite of music)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein's new CD "Diaspora Blues" was inspired by Moshe
Koussevitzky, a legendary cantor from Warsaw who survived the Holocaust to
become a prominent figure in New York's Jewish community. Some of his
rhythmically and melodically intricate chants were captured on record, which
is where Bernstein discovered them. Four of the pieces on his new album uses
transcriptions of Koussevitzky as springboards for improvising, where the
players observe the same modes or scales the cantor used, riffing on the same
At 40, Bernstein is a veteran of downtown groups like the Lounge Lizards,
Spanish Fly and his own Sex Mob. He has a focused, vocalized approach to
trumpet, which is perfect for this project. Sometimes he also uses a plunger
mute with a rare slide trumpet to sound even more voicelike.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Steven Bernstein's master stroke was to record these pieces with
musicians from way outside his circle, the Orlando-based trio of the
African-American saxophonist and flutist Sam Rivers. He's a longtime hero of
Bernstein's and an old hand at constructing meaty solos over minimal or
open-ended structures like these. His heavier sound makes his tenor a perfect
foil for trumpet. This is from one of the Koussevitzky pieces.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Sam Rivers has been working the same rhythm section since he moved
to Florida a decade ago, and they sound exceptionally good under Steven
Bernstein's leadership. Bassist Doug Matthews and drummer Anthony Cole also
double on bass clarinet and tenor saxophone, which lets the band briefly morph
into a wind quartet.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: It's curious that the loose unisons the horn players play and the
deep reverb on the recorded sound are cliches of the German label ECM, whose
aesthetic is rarely associated with Jewish soul. But here that echo does
enhance the music's open texture and puts you in the sacred resonant space of
a temple. Steven Bernstein somehow folds free jazz and the Old Testament into
one tradition. Now that's Radical Jewish Culture.
By happy coincidence, the 1963 album that looked forward that movement has
just been reissued. Terry Gibbs plays "Jewish Melodies in Jazztime," mixed
musicians from the vibraphonist jazz group and his brother Sol Gage's Jewish
band for a program of old and new tunes that doesn't take itself all too
seriously. Let's go out with a bit of Terry Gibbs' "Pretty and Sweet."
(Soundbite of "Pretty and Sweet")
GROSS: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the
Chicago Sun-Times. He reviewed "Diaspora Blues" by Steven Bernstein and the
reissue "Jewish Melodies in Jazztime" by Terry Gibbs.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Pretty and Sweet")
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