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Never Let a Good War Go to Waste

In chapter 6 of The Dictator's Handbook, we discuss how having a neighboring country that is a historical enemy can be a godsend for a dictator (buy the book to read our take on it). It's a political gift that keeps giving, affording autocrats a scapegoat, an excuse, an ever-present distraction. It's also an excellent well of opportunity, particularly in wartime, and in the aftermath of a revolution. Sound familiar? To those of us who remember the Iranian revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war, it should. 


In the recent (and excellent) book The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran (The Penguin Press, 2012), author David Crist notes how the Ayatollah Khomeini seized on the war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an opportunity for consolidating power and ensuring that his theocracy took root: 


Steven Ward, a senior Iranian analyst at the CIA, observed that Iraq's invasion of Iran proved to be a 'godsend' to the new Islamic Republic. "The Iraqi aggression ensured the clerical regime's survival by reviving the public's nationalism and diverting attention from the country's slide into tyranny." Ayatollah Khomeini frequently said this too, boasting that the Iraqi threat afforded the Islamic Republic the chance to rally the public behind the regime and the excuse needed to purge domestic opponents, such as the powerful communist Tudeh Party. Just as the takeover of the American embassy allowed Khomeini to purge the liberal opposition from the government, Saddam Hussein's overt aggression provided a similar excuse to expunge the communists and consolidate power around the mullahs. (The Twilight War, page 89.) 

This raises an interesting question: if Khomeini was astute enough to seize the day, what does that say for Saddam Hussein, who probably bears some of the blame for allowing a rival to cement his power at a time when a successful revolution was not yet a sure thing (other than he wasn't very bright)? Maybe it's this: pick your war carefully. Even Khomeini failed to see the grim legacy of one of the longest, and bloodiest conflicts in the twentieth century. 

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