eyes on the U.S.

Origins Of ISIS, Imagining If Saddam Was Still In Power

Many now blame the U.S.-led Iraq invasion of 2003 for the spread of terror in the Middle East. But what would the region look like today, if the Iraqi dictator hadn't been ousted?

What if...?
What if...?
Daniel-Dylan Böhmer and Clemens Wergin

BERLIN â€" That’s what victory looks like: Saddam’s bronze-colored hand up in the sky, greeting his people, his metallic eyes wandering over Baghdad. But at the huge statue’s feet in the Iraqi capital hundreds of men riot. A hundred meters above, a U.S. marine covers the fallen dictator’s head with an American flag.

Kasim al-Dschaburi, who was an opponent of the regime and spent 21 years in Saddam’s prisons, traces the past decade-plus of troubles to the fact that it wasn't the Iraqi flag in that image instead. "Under Saddam we had safety, water, electricity and gas," he says. "Today there’s nothing but burglary, murderer and violence between Sunnis and Shias."

In America, some of the military veterans from Iraq, have come to the same conclusion, as have much of Germany and other countries in Europe who evoke the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as the origin of today’s chaos throughout the region.

Rise of ISIS

There was of course no mandate from the United Nations Security Council for the operation. George W. Bush’s government claimed that Saddam was cooperating with al-Qaeda and was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, but this was never proven. Saddam was gone soon after the invasion, but the blood began flowing between the competing Islamic confessions.

Now these same critics say that today’s bloodshed in Syria comes straight from the chaos created by the U.S. in Iraq. But this inevitably leads to a more direct question: Would the situation be any better if Saddam was still in power? To search for an answer, we have to start by looking at the period before the invasion.

Wilfried Buchta, an expert on the Middle East and Islam, began visiting Iraq in 1990. Even well before the U.S. invasion, he says, the state structures were being dismantled by Saddam’s policy. The war against Iran in the 1980s, the failed invasion in Kuwait and the subsequent sanctions â€" taken together meant that Iraq had no real hopes for modernization.

Buchta explains that "this combination of socialist elements, as well as the claim to unify the Arabic world, by force if necessary, had lost all of its power." Saddam, the Sunni who reigned over a Shiite country, had to look for a new power base.

But in many parts of the country, he had already lost power: in the north the Americans protected the Kurds from Saddam’s bombs by establishing a no-fly zone, in the south, the Shiites were working with their neighbor protector state, Iran.

An Iraqi Arab Spring?

Without a U.S. invasion, Buchta says, "Saddam could have remained in power for a couple more years, but he wouldn’t have recovered his influence over Kurds and Shiites."

Saddam would have been well past 70 years old when the Arab Spring was unleashed, as popular movements rose up and revolted against their autocratic rulers from North Africa to the Middle East. His sons were reckoned to be cruel and violent, but their political qualities doubtful. The regime, we can say, would have become extremely vulnerable during the revolts of 2011.

"In Iraq there would have never been an Arab spring like in Tunisia and Egypt, with peaceful demonstrations and social media," says Buchta. "Any riot would have turned into civil war right away."

The researcher doubts that an extremist sect such as ISIS could have expanded under Saddam. That it has become this strong, is partly due to the dictator’s downfall, partly to the policies of the American-led occupying forces.

Toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad on April 9, 2003 â€" Photo: U.S. DoD

America’s responsibility when it comes to ISIS’s rise has also become a political question. A democratic terror expert says that without George W. Bush’s war, ISIS would have never emerged. ISIS’s predecessor organization in Al-Qaida in Iraq, is a product of Bush’s war.

Obama’s fault

The conservative U.S. former diplomat Eliott Abrams says that when Bush left office in 2009, ISIS had been eradicated. "It’s a phenomenon of the Obama era," he says.

Truth probably lies somewhere in between. Bush’s war had helped the ascension of the terror group led by Abu Masab al-Zarqawi and its transformation into ISIS. Obama’s premature distraction from Iraq in 2011 allowed the terror groups to spread quickly and unobstructed.

And yet, one decisive factor would have been different without Bush’s war in Iraq: the choice of his successor in the White House. Things would have been a lot easier for Hillary Clinton or John McCain, since Obama’s victory was largely based on American battle fatigue that followed the long occupation and spreading chaos in Iraq.

Situation in Syria

Saudia Arabia was no friend to Saddam, but they were always worried that his country might fall into the hands of the Shia majority and thereby extend the area of influence of Iran.

Again, the scenario resembles the current Syrian proxy war. With one significant difference: In Syria, positions are pretty clear. Russia and Iran support the regime, Gulf Arabs and the West collaborate with assorted rebel groups, and they all in theory are fighting ISIS. The Iraq scenario on the other hand was more complicated, each party facing its own dilemma.

Public appeals for peace but discrete financial aid and arms delivery on all sides would have been the consequence. That’s what has now been happening for years in Syria. But because of the controversial interests in Iraq, the slaughtering could last even longer there, resulting in the division of the country. If the U.S. hadn’t taken down Saddam in 2003, there would probably still be civil war. But the pressing question today: would ISIS never have flourished?

"Maybe ISIS wouldn’t have existed, but something similar," says Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya, "The war was a complete failure. The Americans have made every mistake possible, there’s no doubt about that."

But Makiya quickly adds: "The biggest mistakes of all have been made by, we Iraqis, especially the Shia. The religious battle was bound to drive the Sunnis into the arms of ISIS." Even ISIS’ world view had been co-shaped by the Shias: "The whole ideology of the end of the world, that makes ISIS so brutal, emerged among Shia militia under Saddam."

War infects through the veins of madness. Syria shows how radical groups grow stronger the longer a conflict persists. A second, even longer confessional war in Iraq, would have been an even bigger tragedy. Even without ISIS, and with Saddam.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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