IRAQ: Saddam sans mustache
Greg Guma

In case you have been living in a duct-taped bomb shelter, we in the United States are in the midst of a national dialogue about strength. It is central to US President George W. Bush’s public persona and a main argument for his effectiveness.

Not to be outdone, his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., has done everything from riding a motorcycle to making ‘stronger at home’ a campaign mantra to sell a muscular image.

Strength is also central to the image of the new Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, whom Newsweek described as “Iraq’s New SOB,” and has been lauded as a ruthless strongman in The New York Times and Washington Post. Locally, he is known as ‘Saddam without the mustache.’

Of course, he is not the first bully boy to be embraced by over-confident US leaders or an obsequious press corps. Nicaragua’s Somoza, Zaire’s Mobutu, Iran’s Shah, the Philippines’ Marcos, and many more have received similar kid glove treatment over the years.

But is it possible to be too strong? That is the prospect raised by unproven allegations that Allawi personally executed six prisoners in June, just a week before the handover of power by Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer.

The story, first published by the Sydney Morning Herald on July 17, was written by Paul McGeough, who got the details from two separately interviewed Iraqi witnesses.

Both insisted that Allawi shot the handcuffed and blindfolded men in cold blood, in front of US military and Iraqi police, while visiting the Amariyah security center in Baghdad.

He was sending a message, Allawi allegedly explained, and showing Iraqi police how to “deal with” the opposition. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked about it, he dismissed the allegation as “odd” and called Iraq’s new prime minister a “deeply humane person.”

Despite the seriousness of the allegation, US newspapers and networks avoided covering the story for almost a week. Some still have not. Eventually, Los Angeles Times reporter Alissa Rubin did develop a follow-up; but her July 22 report, “Iraq rumors reflect debate over need for a strongman,” classified McGeough’s story as one of several “urban myths” circulating about Iraq’s new leader.

Rubin opted to interview random citizens about their attitudes. One opined, “We really need such tough measures to be taken.” Iraq’s deputy prime minister told her such “rumors” are evidence of a political culture that equates strength with force.

Her story ended with the bleak notion that many Iraqi’s are relieved and comforted by the impression the rumors about their prime minister have created.

If that is really true, here are a few more examples that ought to rouse cheer in Iraq’s apparently bloodthirsty street. According to a July 11 New York Times feature by Dexter Filkins, Allawi cut off one prisoner’s hand to make him confess about “terrorist” activities. Talk about protecting the homeland! In Filkins’ view, this show for force demonstrated why Allawi is “the perfect man” to bring this “fractious country” together.

Citing CIA sources, the Times also has published reports that Allawi’s organization, the Iraqi National Accord, conducted bombings that killed civilians during the 1990s. He was opposing Saddam at the time, after running Baath Party organizations in Europe during the 1970s. Made up mostly of defectors from the military and intelligence services, his anti-Saddam group received financial support from Britain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and, eventually, the CIA.

Before his June elevation, while chairing the interim Governing Council’s security committee, Allawi is also alleged to have recruited former torturers to serve in a new secret police apparatus while, of late, he has threatened martial law, shut down sections of the media, suggested the government might delay elections, and moved to bring back the death penalty. Sounds more despotic than strong.

Rubin’s story trivializes the murder rumor and downplays Allawi’s brutal style. Her survey of Iraqi opinion does raise an interesting point. Deeply divided societies, especially those frayed by violence, often question “whether democracy or dictatorship will best deliver the life people desire,” she suggests.

Before the Iraq invasion, we heard that the United States needed to oust a tyrant and establish a democracy. Now the argument is that the unruly country needs a tough guy ready to impose martial law, ban protest, and use secret police to ‘annihilate’ opponents. In other words, a tyrant.

In the United States, both major party candidates want to be seen as the real ‘iron man.’ After 9/11, Bush morphed from compassionate conservative into ‘war president.’ In wartime, stubbornness is sometimes confused with true strength, and trumps values like individual liberty and human rights. For most Democrats, it nevertheless followed that choosing a war hero – their own strongman – was the best ticket back to the White House, even though many of them opposed the war and still yearn to end the occupation their champion ambiguously supports.

Like Iraq, does US culture now equate strength with force? How many millions in this fragile democracy are comforted by the idea that their commander in chief is ready to ‘do whatever it takes?’ Are policies like preemptive war and the abuse of suspected enemies merely knee-jerk reactions, or the fateful power plays of an arrogant superpower?

At the Democratic coronation, former president Bill Clinton argued that “strength and wisdom are not opposing values.” Good line. But in politics, looking tough usually works better than sounding smart, and, in journalism, playing it safe too often wins over boldly seeking the whole story.

At this point, maybe the best we can hope for is a little more wisdom from our leaders and a bit more courage from the press.

Greg Guma is the editor of `Toward Freedom,` a Vermont-based world affairs magazine, and author of `Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do`