Christine Moss Helms, Iraq: Eastern Flank of the Arab World (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1984).

The publication of Christine Helms’ book coincided with renewal of diplomatic relations between Baghdad and Washington first severed by the Baath regime 16 years earlier. This coincidence neatly fits in with the book’s underlying intent. Helms has undertaken “to evoke the perspective from which the Iraqi government itself views its problems and chooses its priorities.” While unconventional, this is not an unreasonable approach. One positive outcome is that Helms avoids the usual pitfalls of the everything-is-international-relations mindset. She emphasizes the role of the Baath party in internal affairs, the preoccupation with party ascendancy throughout the 1970s and the problems of acquiring the skills to organize a population of 13-14 million people. She is the first to inform us that the party now numbers some 1.5 million organized supporters. If true, this remarkable ratio between party and populace provides the basis for many insights into various aspects of Iraqi political behavior which have remained obscure to outsiders.

Unfortunately, Helms does not carry the discussion into this terrain. In her best chapter, “Party Organization and Ideology,” Helms attempts to grapple with the “innovative structures” of the party among youth, women and the popular militia. Interesting nuances of how Baathist leaders think arise from the extensive interviews she has conducted with leading personalities at various levels. In the secretive and xenophobic world that the Baath has created in Iraq, any new information is welcome, even if it does come to us more or less as Baath advertisements.

No doubt Helms believes that the purpose of her study “is neither to condemn nor to praise the party and its current leader.” She would like to walk a tightrope that does not exist in reality. She asserts that the Baath is willing to make concessions and that it is not monolithic. The regime’s image of implacable hostility to Israel is rooted in a rhetoric reflecting an “idealized conception of unity.” Apparently Helms thinks the actual policies bear no relation to what a regime thinks. We all experience such disjunction at times, but I seriously doubt whether even the Baath can sustain such a schizophrenic condition all the time.

The loss of critical faculties is the price writers have to pay for interviews inside Iraq. The real problem is that when no tightrope exists, no amount of clever footwork can prevent an acrobat from falling on one side or another of a moral divide. Here we find justification for the use of poison gas in war, and reference to the mass expulsion of “Persian” Shi‘a. The book reproduces Baathist apologetics to explain why, despite themselves, the regime launched the ugliest war that the Third World has ever seen. Helms has set herself the difficult task of rescuing her readers from “the stereotype of Saddam Hussein as the ‘butcher of Baghdad’.” This stereotype, she believes, “has obscured the possible common interests of the West and Iraq.” Such gallantry warms the heart of the Baathist authorities. Once they organized themselves in their new Washington embassy, they hosted a dinner in honor of Jeane Kirkpatrick. And was it a similar generous spirit of academe that led Iraqi officials to hand out free copies of Christine Helms’ book?

How to cite this article:

Muhammad Ja'far "Helms, Iraq: Eastern Flank of the Arab World," Middle East Report 141 (July/August 1986).
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