The contrast between two political cultures

Gulf News, January 3, 2007

The day Saddam Hussain was executed, Americans paid tribute to their 38th president, Gerald R. Ford, who died at the age of 93 a few days earlier.

The dissimilarity between the circumstances and aftermath of the deaths of Saddam Hussain and Gerald Ford highlights the contrast between two distinctive political cultures.

Saddam Hussain represented the pursuit and reverence for absolute power that prevails in most of the Muslim world. Gerald Ford, on the other hand, was the product of a political system that emphasises legitimacy rather than the notion of a powerful ruler.

The US role overseas has often been mired in controversy. But even the critics of America’s power-based foreign policy acknowledge that at home, the United States is by and large a nation of laws that attempts to restrain the power of individuals and institutions.

Saddam Hussain was Iraq’s absolute ruler for over a quarter century whereas Ford governed for a little over two years. Saddam lost power only after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ford had not wielded political office since losing an election in 1976, some 30 years ago.

Saddam’s life and death both polarised Iraq. Ford healed the wounds of Vietnam and Watergate while in office and was hailed for his contribution by members of all political parties when he died. Ford’s most controversial decision was to pardon disgraced former president Richard Nixon, whose resignation prompted by the Watergate scandal had brought Ford to office.

Saddam Hussain came to power through a series of coups d’etat and palace intrigue. Instead of being accountable under the law, he made the laws of Iraq while he wielded power. Having risen to power as a coup-maker and intriguer, he trusted no one.

Lack of remorse

In Saddam Hussain’s mind, his “contribution” to Iraq’s security and economy conferred a special status on him. He considered himself as Iraq’s saviour, the man who held the country together against external conspiracies and domestic rebels.

Saddam’s lack of remorse and his defiant attitude even during his last hours confirms that he did not feel he had done anything wrong. To him, human rights violations and brutality were merely a small price that had to be paid to rule Iraq with a firm hand.

As he saw it, Saddam Hussain had a plan for Iraq’s greatness and he would be damned if he allowed niceties of law or morality come in the way.

His supporters and apologists were either too timid to disagree with him or believed that a difficult country such as Iraq needed a strong man whose excesses had to be overlooked in “the national interest.”

President Ford had no delusions of grandeur. The highest office he aspired to was Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

He was nominated vice-president after Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges. When Nixon was forced to resign, Ford was elevated to the presidency, the only US president who was not elected to either the presidency or vice-presidency.

Ford was not a charismatic man. His modesty and humble ways were mocked by comedians and critics. Thirty years after he left office, Ford is being praised after his death for saving America from greater polarisation.

System in place

The United States has a system in place that allows continuity in leadership and respect for departed leaders, which is not possible in countries where rulers rise to power through coups and conspiracies.

The contrast between the political cultures of absolute power and systemic legitimacy goes beyond the comparison between Saddam Hussain and Gerald Ford.

When India’s former prime minister Narasimha Rao died last year, he received a ceremonial burial accorded to all deceased elected Indian prime ministers even though he had been indicted on corruption charges and convicted by a lower court, awaiting judgment by the superior judiciary at the time of his demise.

On the other hand, when Pakistan’s former president Gulam Ishaq Khan died not long ago, his life of public service did not receive the tribute it deserved.

The last time a civilian Pakistani head of government received a ceremonial state funeral was in 1951, following the assassination of Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan.
Since then Pakistan’s leading politicians have been dismissed from office and jailed or, in the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, executed after a dubious trial.

The different ways nations treat their past rulers is partly related to the manner in which the rulers behave while in office. The Muslim world needs to review its political culture of reverence for power.

The Lebanese poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran observed, “Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.”

According respect to all on the basis of constitutional legitimacy would offer a chance for Muslim countries to build viable and successful systems of governance that have not evolved due to the current preoccupation with charismatic and all powerful rulers.