Iraq Flexes Arab Muscle

In 1976 Christopher Hitchens saw Saddam as an up-and-coming secular socialist who would transform Ir

From The New Statesman 2 April 1976

Hitchens, now an American citizen, remains one of the fiercest and most unrepentant enthusiasts for the US-British overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But, back in 1976, when working for the New Statesman, he took a more admiring view of the Iraqi dictator, as this article shows. Young Hitchens saw Saddam as an up-and-coming secular socialist who would transform Iraq into a progressive model for the rest of the Middle East.

Selected by Robert Taylor

An Arab country with the second largest proven oil reserves, a fierce revolutionary ideology, a large and recently-blooded army, and a leadership composed almost entirely of men in their thirties is obviously a force to be reckoned with. Iraq, which has this dynamic combination and much else besides, has not until recently been very much regarded as a power. But with the new discussions in Opec, the ending of the Kurdistan war and the new round of fighting in Lebanon, its political voice is being heard more and more. The Baghdad regime is the first oil-producing government to opt for 100-per-cent nationalisation, a process completed with the acquisition of foreign assets in Basrah last December. It was the first to call for the use of oil as a political weapon against Israel and her backers. It gives strong economic and political support to the ‘Rejection Front’ Palestinians who oppose Arafat’s conciliation and are currently trying to outface the Syrians in Beirut. And it has a leader — Saddam Hussain — who has sprung from being an underground revolutionary gunman to perhaps the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser.

Dining with an old man on a houseboat moored in the Tigris. I discovered that he inadvertently embodied the history of modern Iraq. He had been imprisoned in 1941 for opposing the British, again in 1959 for hostility to Kassem’s pro-Russian line and finally in 1969 by the present regime. The last of these had, he said, been easily the worst. He was personally interrogated by Nadim Kzar, then head of the secret police and since executed for his crimes. There had been torture and brutality of a far worse sort than his previous incarcerations. And yet he declared that he thought the present government the best Iraqi Administration he had seen. Why? ‘Because it has made us strong and respected.’ There seems no getting round this point. From the festeringly poor and politically dependent nation of a generation ago, Iraq has become a power in every sense — military, economic and ideological. Currently, it is pressing for a more aggressive Opec pricing strategy in order to raise more cash for its development projects, and envisages a doubling of oil production from 2m. barrels per day to over 4m. within the next ten years.

Strangely, its ally in this push against the Saudis is none other than neighbouring Iran, with which Iraq has only recently ceased a near state of war over Kurdistan. The Shah and his ‘White Revolution’ also need quick money to finance internal development, enormous military expansion and foreign aid programmes. The difference is that while the Shah ranges himself against communism and sends troops to the Gulf to fight Arab guerrillas, Iraq is dedicated to the idea of a single socialist Arab nation from Gibraltar to the Indian ocean; the original Ba’athist dream.

In their different crusades, both Iraq and Iran take a distinctly unsentimental line on internal opposition. Ba’ath party spokesmen, when questioned about the lack of public dissent, will point to efforts made by the party press to stimulate criticism of revolutionary shortcomings. True enough, there are such efforts, but they fall rather short of permitting any organised opposition. The argument then moves to the claim, which is often made in Iraq, that the country is surrounded by enemies and attacked by imperialist intrigue. Somewhere in the collision between Baghdad and Teheran on this point, the Kurdish nationalists met a very painful end. We now know, from the US committee of investigation, chaired by Congressman Otis Pike, that there was a Nixon- Kissinger strategy of arming and encouraging a Kurdish revolt, not for the purpose of creating a Kurdish state (which would have horrified the Shah) but for the purpose of de-stabilising Iraq. It was specifically argued, by those who planned the operation, that the Kurds should not be allowed to win.

They were allowed to take heavy casualties and suffer appalling refugee problems; and then were dumped unceremoniously when it became clear that the Iraqi government was not going to crumble. ‘Even in the context of covert action,’ says the report, ‘ours was a cynical enterprise.’ As one who had, on previous visits to Baghdad, scorned the argument that the Kurds were foreign puppets, I should say that ‘cynical’ is the mildest adjective that could be used about this latest triumph of the Secretary of State.

The Kurds now have a very attenuated version of autonomy, and former members of the Barzani armed forces are being moved to the South. At least, however, Iraq constitutionally recognises that she is a partly Kurdish state, which is more than Iran or Turkey do. Further tests for the regime lie ahead. The quarrel with Syria, which involves differences over Ba’athist ideology as well as a dispute over Syrian damming of the Euphrates river, has now extended to the Lebanon, where Syrian troops have attacked newspapers and buildings controlled by Iraqi-sympathising Palestinians. Relations with Iran are still far from cordial. In response to requests for criticism in the party press, some demands were raised for a constituent assembly, and other complaints voiced about the tightness of the regime. All these remain to be acted on, and as the situation grows more complicated Saddam Hussain will rise more clearly to the top. Make a note of the name. Iraq has been strengthened internally by the construction of a ‘strategic pipeline’ which connects the Gulf to the northern fields for the first time. She has been strengthened externally by her support for revolutionary causes and by the resources she can deploy. It may not be electrification plus Soviet power, but the combination of oil and ‘Arab socialism’ is hardly less powerful.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.