"Contrast Between Two Political Cultures": Insightful Comparison between Saddam Hussein and Gerald Ford

Contrast Between Two Political Cultures
By Husain Haqqani
The Nation (Pakistan), The Star (Bangladesh), Indian Express, January 3, 2007

The day Saddam Hussein 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 Hussein and Gerald Ford highlights the contrast between two distinctive political cultures. Saddam Hussein 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 emphasizes legitimacy rather than the notion of a powerful ruler.

The U.S. 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. The U.S. domestic political system is based on the ideas of accountability and checks and balances. Officials wield power within limits prescribed by the U.S. constitution and America’s laws. Their tenures of office are well defined. Once out of office, leaders are judged on the basis of their legacy. There are many arguments about a politician’s legacy but there is no question of executing former rulers, celebrating their deaths or pretending they never existed.

Saddam Hussein 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 U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ford had not wielded political office since losing an election in 1976, some thirty years ago. Saddam’s life and death both polarized 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 Hussein 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. In Saddam Hussein’s mind, his “contribution” to Iraq’s security and economy conferred a special status on him. He considered himself as Iraq’s savior, 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 Hussein 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 like 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 U.S. 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 U.S. president who not elected to either the presidency or vice-presidency. Nixon, Agnew and Ford were all Republicans. Ford had to lead his country and party at a time when both had fallen in their standing.

Ford was not a charismatic man. His modesty and humble ways were mocked by comedians and critics. His decision to pardon Nixon, primarily to save Americans from prolonged trauma of Watergate, cost him public support and possibly made it impossible for him to win the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter.

Ford restored the prestige of the presidency, which had been eroded by Nixon’s mistakes, by refusing to be confrontational towards an assertive Congress, controlled by the rival Democratic Party. He appeared in person before a Congressional panel to explain his decision to pardon Nixon. He abided by Congressional restrictions on supporting continued war in Vietnam, which led to the ultimate defeat of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime and the fall of Saigon.

Thirty years after he left office, Ford is being praised after his death for saving America from greater polarization. Ford’s low-key, uncharismatic tenure in office had helped the United States heal at a time when healing was more important than anything else. Ford was a decent man who rose to power through legitimate means. He may have ruled only a little over two years but he received a state funeral which all American leaders are entitled to. 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 Hussein 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. It did not seem to make a difference that Mr. Rao had been indicted on corruption charges and convicted by a lower court, awaiting judgement by the superior judiciary at the time of his demise.

When Pakistan’s former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan died not long ago, his life of public service did not receive the tribute it deserved. Pakistanis found it difficult to rise above the circumstances of President Ishaq Khan’s departure from office. The polarization of his last years in office unfortunately continued to haunt him after his death.

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 only Pakistani rulers to receive state funerals since 1951 have been army generals, men who derive their respect from their power and the power of their powerful institution. In fact, the army has been generous to accord full honors even to officers who did not acquit themselves honorably.

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 too 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.

Husain Haqqani is Director of Boston University's Center for International Relations, and Co-Chair of the Islam and Democracy Project at Hudson Institute, Washington D.C. He is author of the book 'Pakistan between Mosque and Military'

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