Nuri Said was the puppet prime minister of Iraq during the 1950s, when the British pulled all the strings in Baghdad.
When revolutionary Iraqi officers toppled him in 1958, his mangled corpse was dragged through the streets – much as President George Bush and his colleagues are thinking of doing to Saddam Hussein, if they can catch him. Said used to say: “You can always rent an Arab, but you can never buy him.” His end more or less confirmed that. But the Bush administration is filled with violent men with short memories, who won’t have heard of Nuri Pasha, and aren’t in the frame of mind to listen to his advice.
At the time, Said’s downfall was attributed to the clever tactics of the Soviet Union, in part because some of the revolutionary officers were communists, and mostly because the events took place during the Cold War, and Washington and London had no other way of explaining unexpected outbreaks of nationalism, localism, and the like. It didn’t take long for Moscow to realize the fragility of the new situation in Baghdad, as the Baath Party, in which Saddam got his start, began its long and bloody rise to power. Russians who have known Iraq from those days to the present realize that the only certain thing about Iraqi politicians is their thirst for blood, and the only reason for Hussein’s long rule is that he has out-drunk all others. Such Iraqis, Russians understand very well, can be rented, but not bought.
What quietly drives President Putin’s strategy in Iraq is that Russia needs stability, especially in the oil markets. The pressure on Iraq has kept large volumes of crude oil off world markets, and allowed the Russian government to navigate out of its debt trough on the back of high oil prices. But an American invasion is bound to upset the balance. To be sure, in the first days of the attack, oil will jump to $30 or $35 a barrel. But if the Americans establish the protectorate they claim to be aiming for, it is nearly certain they are quickly going to open the spigots of Iraqi taps. The flood of new oil on to the market, by which the fresh Iraqi democracy will pay for its American tutors, will be so great, prices are likely to collapse to between $10 and $15. Americans will celebrate the victory all the way to their petrol pumps. Russians – by then approaching a parliamentary election, followed by a presidential poll – won’t be so cheery. They can say goodbye to much of the planned investment in the Arctic, around St. Petersburg and the Baltic shore, on Sakhalin and along the Pacific coast, all of which depends on oil prices remaining stable at around $20 a barrel.
Putin may be quietly giving Bush Nuri Pasha’s venerable advice. But he already understands that if Bush has gone this far, he will have to attack, if not wage war. Putin’s hope, therefore, is that Bush won’t have the nerve to risk the U.S. occupation that most threatens the Russian interest. The best outcome, from Putin’s point of view, would be an American attack on Hussein himself, taking a leaf from Ronald Reagan’s script when he dispatched 120 warplanes to kill the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in his tent in the middle of Tripoli. Qaddafi’s infant child was killed while the leader himself survived.
In a wicked world run by ill-educated men who can’t be reasoned with, the best outcome for Russia is for Americans to try the biggest assassination attempt in the history of the world – and leave Iraqi oil in the ground, where it does Russians the most good, for a few years yet. Even the tinning of the attack ought to be clear – within three weeks of Tuesday, Nov. 5. That’s Election Day in the United States.