According to some reports, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has conveyed a message to the White House saying he would be willing to democratize Iraqi politics and pursue less antagonistic relations with Israel should the sanctions on Iraq be lifted. Iraq has denied that such a message was sent to the United States. But according to wire reports on Oct. 6, Jordan's King Abdullah, who arrived in Washington Wednesday, carried a message from Tariq Aziz to Bill Clinton. If the initial report were valid, it would represent an act of desperation on the part of the estranged Hussein. But while it is impossible to gauge the sincerity of a Hussein proposal, it is nonetheless an important development in the ongoing propaganda war between the United States and Iraq.
King Abdullah, in Washington to discuss the Middle East peace process and economic issues relating to Jordan, has reportedly said he would not negotiate for the sake of Iraq, but will only deliver Baghdad's message. But Iraq's plight needs little introduction. Nine years of sanctions have crippled the country's economy, infrastructure and public services. According to recent statistics published in the Iraqi News Agency (INA), 1.8 million people, many of them children, have died as a result of the sanctions. Since December the United States and Britain have relentlessly bombed Iraq, causing further damage and loss of life.
A Baghdad message to Washington would no doubt be designed to give the U.S. government less justification for the continued strangle hold on Iraq. Along with a greater commitment to attaining Middle East peace, according to the BBC on October 8, Hussein has reportedly promised a change to a multi-party democratic system together with greater respect for human rights, two issues Washington has often used to defend its policies against Iraq. Hussein has been in power for twenty years and the ruling Baath party for thirty. The U.S. government alleges that Hussein has abused his power in stifling political dissent and persecuting minorities, among other things.
It seems unlikely that such a message would produce any new breakthrough in US-Iraq relations. Washington has repeatedly demonstrated it is unwilling to negotiate with Baghdad so long as Hussein remains in power. According to an article in Monday's Washington Post by U.S. Senator Bob Kerry, Iraqi opposition groups will meet later this month in New York. Kerry said that the "liberation of Iraq" is "not only inevitable but may be imminent." In reference to the recent Iraqi overtures, the BBC quoted U.S. State Department spokesperson James Rubin as saying, "The Iraqis regularly seek to have discussions with American officials, and we're not interested in those discussions."
Taken from the mouth of a dictator who has been so long in power, Hussein's supposed proposal would need to be met with some skepticism. Hussein has eliminated much of his political opposition and has often demoted or replaced many of his top advisors who could have been potential threats to his power, often replacing them with members of his own family. It is widely believed that Hussein is grooming his own son to succeed him. If the Iraqi leader was really interested in fostering greater democracy, he would have done so before now, it could be argued. And if he believes in democratic ideals and human rights, why should he attach them as a bargaining chip in an attempt to have the sanctions lifted?
But the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat has reported that Baghdad is sincerely committed to democratic reform and would consider adopting a new constitution to allow for a multi-party democracy, as reported by the BBC on October 8. While it is impossible to know Hussein's personal commitment to democracy, there seems little reason why he should not be willing to make genuine attempts at greater democratic reforms. Hussein himself is widely believed to have actually gained in popularity since the sanctions and he perhaps believes he will retain power regardless of democratic reforms. But more importantly, Baghdad desperately needs to break the deadlock on the sanction debate. Greater democratic reforms are perhaps seen as a better alternative than allowing Washington what is no doubt seen as free reign in Iraq with the return of UN weapons inspectors. And any government would rather reform itself than suffer a violent clandestine overthrow.
Regardless of Baghdad's real intentions, talk of a message from Hussein represents a significant Iraqi propaganda victory over the United States. If the U.S stance against Iraq is a result of Hussein's undemocratic government, why then would Washington be unwilling to negotiate for greater democracy and human rights in Iraq?
And even if Hussein's proposal were only aimed at securing such a propaganda victory, the language of democratic idealism is always a dangerous thing for a dictator to use. By saying he is willing to allow greater democracy and respect for human rights, Hussein would implicitly admitting that Iraq has trouble in these areas. Admitting shortcomings is the first step to change, even if the one doing the admitting is not reluctant to see the change carried through. Whatever the opinion of the U.S. government concerning Hussein, Washington should jump at Hussein's recent proposal if it truly is committed to fostering democracy around the world. If Hussein's message is pure propaganda, it is only Washington that can call the bluff.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com