WASHINGTON--Gulf War II--the Three Week War (or possibly, Four)--is a monumental event: the first war ever aimed at destroying a totalitarian regime--and sparing the invaded country. The surgical removal of a one-party police state while trying to leave the civilians and the infrastructure as untouched as possible is an operation of unusual difficulty. Yet the pictures from the opening nights of the war told the story: plumes of smoke from precision strikes on Saddam's instruments of power while the city lights remained on and cars casually traversed the streets.
This kind of war is totally new. We have, of course, destroyed totalitarian regimes in the past, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan most notably. But in World War II, we made war not just on the regime but on the whole country. Cities were firebombed with the intent of breaking the people (``the Hun,'' as Churchill liked to call the Germans) and destroying the whole of their industrial civilization. And we damn near succeeded. It took decades to rebuild those countries from the ashes.
Recent wars have been far more modest both in means and ends. Neither Gulf War I nor Kosovo attempted regime change; they simply expelled an occupying army. And in Afghanistan, we did indeed remove a repressive regime while leaving the country intact. But the Taliban were too primitive, and the country too premodern and tribal, to merit the distinction of ``totalitarian.''
Saddam's Baath dictatorship deserves the honor. The Baath Party, consciously modeled on the fascist parties of the early 20th century, exercised control through a one-party apparatus that infiltrated every aspect of life. Every town and village, every trade union and military unit, every school and mosque had its Baath Party agents, given absolute power to torture and terrorize in the service of the centralized state.
At the beginning of the war, no one knew the state of health of Baath totalitarianism. Did it have the youthful vigor of early Nazi and Communist regimes? Or was it a desiccated shell like the superannuated Ceaucescu dictatorship in Romania that collapsed overnight?
Baath totalitarianism has turned out to be somewhere in between, middle-aged. It was no longer highly mobilized and energetic. The Soviet experience demonstrated that no people can remain in that state of thrall forever; they tire of the endless rallies, the empty slogans, the messianic prophecies. But the Baath leadership still commanded a fanatical core, a Hitler youth, with a thirst for terror and a will to fight.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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