The Common Good
September-October 2002

With Weapons of the Will

by Peter Ackerman, Jack DuVall | September-October 2002

How to topple Saddam Hussein—nonviolently.

Saddam Hussein has brutalized and repressed the Iraqi people for more than 20 years and more recently has sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction that would never be useful to him inside Iraq. So President Bush is right to call him an international threat. Given these realities, anyone who opposes U.S. military action to dethrone him has a responsibility to suggest how he might otherwise be ushered out the backdoor of Baghdad. Fortunately there is an answer: civilian-based, nonviolent resistance by the Iraqi people, developed and applied in accordance with a strategy to undermine Saddam's basis of power.

Unfortunately, when this suggestion is made publicly, hard-nosed policymakers and most commentators dismiss the idea out of hand, saying that nonviolence won't work against a tyrant as pathological as Saddam. That is because they don't know how to distinguish between what has popularly been regarded as "nonviolence" and the strategic nonviolent action that has hammered authoritarian regimes to the point of defenestrating dictators and liberating people from many forms of subjugation.

The reality is that history-making nonviolent resistance is not usually undertaken as an act of moral display; it does not typically begin by putting flowers in gun barrels and it does not end when protesters disperse to go home. It involves the use of a panoply of forceful sanctions—strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, disrupting the functions of government, even nonviolent sabotage—in accordance with a strategy for undermining an oppressor's pillars of support. It is not about making a point, it's about taking power.

Another misconception about nonviolent resistance that policymakers and the media entertain is that there is some sort of inverse relationship between the degree of severity of a regime's repressive instincts and the likelihood of a civilian-based movement's success in overturning it. Three cases come to mind in illustrating that repression is not typically the decisive factor in the dynamics of these struggles.

First, during World War II the Danes gradually developed a broad popular nonviolent resistance to their German occupiers and—through actions such as cultural protests in the beginning and later general strikes—managed both to create the space in which to operate and to impose substantial costs on the Nazi regime for its decision to occupy the country. Even though the Germans were capable of more severe repression in Denmark than they chose to apply, the point is that there was a transactional relationship between the Germans and the Danes, and the Danes discovered that fact—and from that they derived the leverage to press their resistance.

An authoritarian ruler or military occupier wants certain services or benefits from the population, and those benefits can be withheld, albeit at a cost to those resisting. Ratcheting up repression does not necessarily work as a strategy to quell resisters, since when repression increases, more people are antagonized and join the resistance, and business as usual for the regime or occupier becomes even more costly to maintain. It's essential to understand that unless a regime wants to murder the entire population, its ability repressively to compel a population's compliance is not infinitely elastic.

This was illustrated in another case during World War II: the nonviolent public resistance of the Rosenstrasse wives in February-March 1943. Reacting to the internment of their Jewish husbands, hundreds of these non-Jewish wives and other civilians who supported them started daily sit-ins in front of the building at Rosenstrasse 2-4 where their husbands had been taken initially (many were soon shipped to the camps). SS soldiers shot into the air over their heads, shut down the nearest streetcar station, and tried to frighten them off, but they kept coming, their ranks swelling to a thousand. The Nazis were faced with a dilemma: To stop the protest, they could drag these women away and arrest them, or brutalize them in the streets—but the regime was concerned that that would inflame other Berliners, who would surely hear about what had happened. In a week Goebbels decided it was easier just to give them their husbands back, and he did so, transporting many back from the camps; 1,700 were set free.

Nonviolent resistance often confounds the assumption that the next degree of repressive pressure will somehow neutralize further resistance, because conflicts in which strategic nonviolent action is applied are not necessarily contests of physical force in all of their phases. The Nazis could have ended the Rosenstrasse protest on its first day, but they did not—they realized it was not really a physical problem. There was a political context: Killing Jews was one thing, but killing or even injuring non-Jewish German citizens, especially women, was quite another—it would tarnish their image (which is to say, potentially jeopardize the legitimacy of their domestic rule) at a vulnerable time, right after the German defeat at Stalingrad. The lesson: Their latitude for decision making was not automatically enlarged by their capacity for repression.

Another case that illustrates the importance of this question of legitimacy is that of Chile. No one doubted the willingness of Pinochet's regime, in the 1970s and early 1980s, to use terror as an instrument of repression in order to assure the regime's control: Disappearances, brutal killings of dissidents, and arbitrary arrests had silenced most dissenters. But once that silence was broken in 1983 in a way that the regime could not immediately suppress—through a one-day nationwide slow-down, followed by a nighttime city-wide banging of pots and pans in Santiago—the regime was no longer able to re-establish the same degree of fear in the population, and mammoth monthly protests were soon under way.

After it was clear that a broad cross-section of the population opposed the regime, Pinochet felt compelled to reassert its legitimacy, and so he went ahead with a scheduled referendum on his continued rule which, thanks to internationally supported poll watching and extraordinary grass roots organizing, he lost. Then his impulse to crack down was blocked when his senior military chiefs made it clear that they would refuse his orders to do so. What had happened? A seemingly innocuous protest had compromised the regime's ability to rule by intimidation, allowing the democratic opposition to organize and eventually capture a higher legitimacy, splitting the ranks of the dictator's supporters.

WHILE IT MAY well be true that Saddam's rule has been as brutal as that of any dictator since Stalin, he is not, unlike the Russian tyrant, supported by an entrenched party system that can claim a higher ideological purpose. His hold on power is even more reliant on personal loyalties and their reinforcement by material rewards and mortal penalties. As such, the frequent reports of his repression should be seen not only as a sign of his brutality, but as evidence of the disaffection that his capricious, personal style continues to breed: He would not have to crack down if there were no one who might be disloyal.

If a military invading force attempts to shoot its way to Saddam, it must necessarily shoot first at all those military and security units deployed around him—and, if they are threatened with death, they will shoot back. Thus the horrendous fighting in or around Baghdad that we know the Joint Chiefs has advised the president would be extremely costly in the event of U.S. military invasion.

But if instead a campaign against Saddam began with civilian-based incidents of disruption that were dispersed around the country and that did not offer convenient targets to shoot at, any attempt to crack down would have to depend on the outermost, least reliable members of Saddam's repressive apparatus. If the resistance made it clear to police and soldiers that they were not viewed as the enemy, and even if resisters were at first only a nuisance—mosquitoes that could not all be swatted—the realization that Saddam was being opposed openly would begin almost immediately to lessen the fear of engaging in further, more systematic acts of resistance. As opposition became more serious or visible, this would offer to dissenting elements within the regime a place to which to defect, once events reached a crescendo.

A few years ago, in the holy city of Karbala, when tens of thousands of Muslims gathered for an annual religious occasion, the regime sent in troops because it feared disorder or an uprising. But they were so badly outnumbered by the civilians who came that they were effectively encircled—a graphic display of the limitations on Saddam's repressive apparatus if it were constrained to respond to incidents in all directions from Baghdad.

Earlier this year, a leading nonviolent Iraqi oppositionist expressed exasperation that the Bush administration appeared to be considering every possible military strategy for regime change without realizing "that 22 million Iraqis detest Saddam Hussein" and that they represent an enormous potential resource in ungluing critical levers of his control. At a recent conference on the future of democracy, another Iraqi oppositionist stood up and reminded other, more skeptical Iraqis in the room that Saddam's regime cannot function without oil revenues, and there is a limited number of civilian oil workers who, if they were to abandon their jobs, could create a crisis by themselves. If Saddam starts shooting oil workers or workers at electrical utility installations, how would that keep the oil fields running or the power flowing to his palaces and prisons?

AT THE MOMENT a nonviolent movement begins, most observers think that success is impossible, because most people can only see the costs of resisting instead of the costs that resisters can impose on those who maintain the existing system. The oppressive rulers who have been brought down by nonviolent movements—whether they were generals in Latin America, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, or Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia—did not tolerate a degree of dissent or refrain from murdering all opponents because they were softer adversaries than Stalin would have been or Saddam is now. These were all dictatorial regimes, meaning that openness was tolerated only as necessary to maintain the facade of internal or external legitimacy, or because suppressing it would have been too costly. And the Raj in India was not the exception that proves the rule, unless you think that the massacre at Amritsar or the killings at Dharasana were merely unfortunate lapses in English manners.

The reflexive assumption that nonviolent action has structural limitations related to a regime's character is in part the product of three generations of stereotyping this strategy as a moral preference or a form of ethical behavior. Most preachers of "nonviolence"—by insisting that nonviolent action triumphs when the opponent witnesses the suffering or hears resisters' messages and is persuaded to relent—have unwittingly reinforced the belief that power cannot be taken from rulers who are willing to use superior military force. That isn't the way nonviolent resistance has usually worked.

Regimes have been overthrown that had no compunction about brutalizing their opponents and denying them the right to speak their minds. How? By first demonstrating that opposition is possible, peeling away the regime's residual public and outside support, quashing its legitimacy, driving up the costs of maintaining control, and overextending its repressive apparatus. Strategic nonviolent action is not about being nice to your oppressor, much less having to rely on his niceness. It's about dissolving the foundations of his power and forcing him out. It is possible in Iraq.

Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall are co-authors of A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, the companion book to the PBS documentary of the same name, of which DuVall was executive producer. Ackerman is chair of the board of overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and DuVall is director of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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