There Is No Denying It: Post-Saddam Iraq Is A Disaster
Donald Trump’s candidacy has been no stranger to controversy from day one when he descended a gilded escalator in the ostentatious atrium of Trump Tower and declared Mexico was sending rapists and murderers across the border and pledged to build a big, beautiful wall to stop them. Since then there has been no shortage of additional episodes of the New York real estate mogul courting outrage and condemnation through various off the cuff insults and attacks against those who draw his ire; indeed the list has grown too long to count. In the latest such incident of outrage, Trump went so far as to seemingly compliment none other than Saddam Hussein, the now dead former dictator of Iraq, by praising him as being good at “killing terrorists”.
And for a wonder, Trump actually does have a point here.
Now before going further, let me make something clear: Saddam Hussein was no humanitarian by a long-shot. He was a murderous tyrant who led a hideously corrupt regime and viciously oppressed his people while he and his family lived an opulent lifestyle on the spoils of their rule. Saddam was an aggressor against his neighbors, at one point actively sought the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and used chemical weapons against his own people. The world is a better place without him. None of this is disputable or arguable.
Unfortunately, what is also undisputable is that the Iraq that has emerged in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall from power at the hands of George Bush’s “coalition of the willing” is an unmitigated disaster. What began as an insurgency by deposed members of the former regime and Sunni tribes (which were favoured under Saddam’s rule, him being a Sunni himself) has since morphed into sectarian civil war. A third of the country ruled by the Kurds has all but seceded, while another third has fallen under the sway of ISIS (possibly the most murderous organization to haunt the world since the Khmer Rouge), and the final third is controlled by Shiite militias that increasingly answer to the Islamic Republic of Iran; the aforementioned theocracy has become newly emboldened following the collapse of their long time regional rival and possesses all of the faults of the Saddam regime with none of its mitigating factors.
On that point, while oppressive Saddam’s regime could at least be credited with providing basic institutional stability. More importantly, the regime was largely benign to the non-political. Christians, Jews and other religious minorities were not discriminated against. Women had equal access to education and opportunities in the work force and in all other aspects were equal to men. In contrast, the Iraq of today is led by a central government that in many parts of the country exists in name only. Christians and other minorities have all but disappeared from what is their ancestral homeland, having been either killed or hounded into exile. Outside of the Kurdish controlled areas, women’s rights have taken tremendous steps backwards under either the creeping influence of Shiite fundamentalism imported from Iran or the outright seventh century barbarity of the Islamic State’s Sunni Wahhabism. Talk to the actual Iraqis themselves and many of them will quite willingly share Trump’s view that the country was better off before.
None of this justifies or excuses the brutal acts of oppression and abuse committed by Saddam Hussein, or the incidents of outright sadistic cruelty done by the hands of his sons. It is an unfortunate fact of the real world, however, that we are often forced not to choose between good and bad but instead bad and worse. However condemnable the Saddam regime was, anyone faced with the question of whether they would choose to refrain from deposing him if they could travel back in time and do so would honestly have to answer yes.
It’s a conclusion I am forced to admit to myself, and I will fully admit was an initial supporter of the war when it first began (well to be honest for the first year or so I was rather stridently opposed, being in my rebellious teenager phase at the time and so stridently anti-American that if the United States declared it to be Monday I would immediately begin making the case it was Tuesday….but that phase thankfully passed rather quickly). For all my hawkishness, however, when faced with the grim realities listed I have no choice but to concur that those arguing against the invasion were right and I was wrong. Had the United States refrained from toppling Saddam Hussein, Iraq and very likely the wider Middle East would likely be in a more stable state than it is today.
Trump’s analysis of this miscalculation which was the decision to topple Saddam Hussein, while crudely communicated and a tad simplistic, is part of an overall attitude towards foreign affairs that is on the whole a welcome break from both the liberal internationalism of the left and the neoconservatism of the right; it is a rejection of the great weakness of both camps that is a blind desire to see the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. It was that blindness that led to the disaster in Iraq. Democracy on the whole is a desirable thing, the idealist would think, so it follows that it should be installed throughout the world and that the world will be better for it. Unfortunately, democracy installed at the point of a bayonet merely proved to be a house built upon quicksand, and the end result was merely the destruction of what institutions that did exist for the Iraqi people and the spread of chaotic contagion throughout the greater region. Out of that gaping chasm of anarchy came the Islamic State, and the rest truly is history.
The United States has tolerated, and even worked, with loathsome individuals for much of its history. Cooperating with bad people to prevent bad things from happening to people is an unfortunate necessity of realpolitik. FDR himself, one of this century’s most celebrated progressives, joined forces with Joseph Stalin, one of its most evil, in order to defeat the one who was likely the most evil of all time. Facing the challenges that confront the West in this upcoming century will likely require us to do the same again.
One of the great tasks of coming of age is the putting childish things, and one of them is the fantasy that badness is always punished. Quite often evil individuals never are never given their due and instead live out their lives in peace and contentment. Admitting that the world as a whole, especially the Middle East, would have been a better place if this fate had befallen Saddam Hussein is to state a bitter but also true reality. For all its coarseness, Trump’s willingness to acknowledge this is just the latest example of the welcome change in foreign policy direction he has advocated.