Those opposed to the US/UK intervention in Iraq are obliged to ask, "Would the country, or the region, or the world be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power?" Sure, the intelligence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was wrong, but wmd's were only one reason for the invasion and occupation. On the 10th anniversary of the war, some argue that Iraq, the United States, and the world, would be better off if Saddam were still in power. Saddam's Sunni brethren are merging with opposition groups in Syria, and organizing in opposition to the central governments of both Syria and Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reports. To stop civil war and stabilize the country, the Iraqi prime minister may become a dictator like Saddam, many predict.
This may be shocking, but as someone who encountered everyday people in Russia -- bus drivers, clerks, even school teachers -- who longed for a leader like Stalin, it's not terribly surprising to me. Saddam idolized Stalin and modeled his regime on Stalin's, biographer Said K. Aburish said in an interview for a PBS Frontline broadcast in 2000.
"Stalin is his hero. (Like Saddam) Stalin came from a humble background. Stalin was brought up by his mother. Stalin used thugs. Stalin used the security service. Stalin hated his army. And so does Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein models himself after Stalin more than any other man in history."
Imagine if the US had invaded Russia, toppled Stalin and tried to establish democracy in Russia in the early 1950s. What a backlash that would have created. Some citizens favor a strong-man form of government, even if it's a dictatorship, because they value "law and order" -- security and stability -- above all else.
Unlike Stalin, Saddam had "no ideology whatsoever." He was "into realpolitik. He wanted to take Iraq into the 20th century. But if that meant eliminating 50 percent of the population of Iraq, he was willing to do it," Aburish observed.
The argument has special relevance because of what's happening in neighboring Syria. "Saddam was probably 20 times as bad as Assad in Syria," former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a recent interview justifying the toppling of Saddam. "Just think (if Saddam) was trying to suppress an uprising in Iraq. Think of the consequences of leaving that regime in power."
If the US/UK had not intervened in Iraq, once the Arab Spring came, Saddam would have either slaughtered his people or there would have been a long, bloody war to topple Saddam (or his successor sons) like the war to topple Assad in Syria. In the first two years, more than 40,000 Syrians have died in civil war. The death toll in Iraq from a campaign to topple Saddam would probably have been far worse, many believe. And the United States, as well as the international community, would have faced enormous pressure to intervene in Saddam's Iraq, just as they do today in Assad's Syria.
Yet in all likelihood, Saddam would have survived the Arab spring, reporter Bobby Ghosh wrote for Time magazine, because of his ruthless brutality and willingness to restrict access to the outside world.
Even some Western analysts wonder if Western interests would be better served if Saddam were still in power. Toby Dodge, a British strategic thinker on the Middle East, told Thomas Ricks of Foreign Policy magazine:
Well, you used to have an oppressive dictator who at least was a bulwark against Iranian power expanding westward. Now you have an increasingly authoritarian and abusive leader of Iraq who appears to be enabling Iranian arms transfers to Syria.
Dodge writes elsewhere that "the trajectory of Iraqi politics clearly is heading towards a new authoritarianism with the concentration of power in the hands of one man, Nuri al-Maliki." Dodge fleshes his argument out in a new book out, Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism.
Nostalgia for Saddam can still be found in Iraq, especially in his hometown of Tikrit, Salam Faraj of Agence France reports. The country was relatively stable when he was in power, secular in outlook, and independent of Iranian influence, Tikrit residents say.
Iraqis still come to Saddam's hometown to pay homage, though his gravesite is now closed. "Most visitors said they recalled days under Hussein when their children could go to school without fear of improvised explosives on roadways and when the electricity stayed on far longer than it does these days," Aaron Davis reported for The Washington Post in 2011. “He was a dictator, but he was one dictator; now we have many,” said one Sunni.
Joost Hiltermann, who has studied the Iraq conflict for the International Crisis Group, said the increase in visitors to Hussein’s grave represents only a swath of Iraq’s population. “There are many Shias and Kurds who say, ‘The dictator is gone and we live more freely now.’ But Iraq is still an unhappy place,” Hiltermann said. “A significant part of the population is nostalgic for strong leadership, unhappy about the endemic instability, and fears growing influence by Iran and senses that Iraq as a regional power is weakened.”
In Baghdad, residents recalled that they had full electricity under Saddam, and the regime ran a substantial food-for-the-poor program.
Banen Al-Sheemary, an Iraqi-American student at the University of Michigan, asked her parents what Iraq was like in their youth, during Saddam's early reign. She blogs:
During the seventies and eighties, Iraq was a powerhouse of academia, with a thriving economy. In 1979, an Iraqi dinar was equal to $3.20. Nowadays, an Iraqi dinar is practically worthless. Saddam’s effort to lead in the Arab world led to many positive reforms, especially for women. My mother enjoyed free transportation to work as required by the state and a six month fully paid maternity leave. Despite his cruel methods of subjugation and obsession with monopolizing and maintaining power, his push to make Iraq the leader of the Arab world, meant economic and social reform.
It was after the first Gulf War, particularly with international sanctions against Saddam's regime, that life in Iraq deteriorated greatly for Banen's parents, and they fled the country for the US.
During Saddam's reign, Iraq had about 1.5 million practicing Christians. But after the American invasion, Christians were targeted as an "alien and infidel minority supposedly in league with the West," David Blair reported for the (UK) Telegraph. About 85 percent of Christians fled the country, leaving only about 200,000 struggling to survive. While Shia and Sunni clerics have issued a rare joint fatwa forbidding attacks on religious minorities, Christians are still under a lot of pressure in Iraq.
Some Sunnis, particularly in places like Fallujah, say Saddam's government treated them more fairly than the current Shia-led government. The government of Nouri Al Maliki is increasingly allied with the Shiites and Iran. The Sunni vice president was arrested on terrorism charges, and the Sunni deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, told the BBC's Robin Lustig that "he regards Mr Maliki as a worse dictator than Saddam Hussein."
Yes, Saddam ruled by autocracy, and fear if not terror -- those who did not obey Saddam were ruthlessly oppressed, tortured or killed. One cannot really say that life was better under Saddam until one reads the full litany of the crimes he committed, as exposed in his trial. A PBS Frontline documentary, "The Survival of Saddam," aired in 2000 and explored the secrets of his life and leadership.
In the run-up to both the first Gulf War and the American war in Iraq, U.S. propagandists portrayed Saddam as either stupid or crazy, a megalomaniac as dangerous as Adolph Hitler. But in reviewing the archives of Saddam's reign, historians are coming to a different conclusion. Mark Stout of Johns Hopkins University and co-editor of The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant's Regime 1978-2001, told reporter Omar Karmi that Saddam was "a very capable leader."
"He was neither stupid nor crazy. He was very good at what he did, which was to survive in a cut-throat political environment."
If Iraq cannot establish stability, another totalitarian like Saddam may be in its future.
Which begs a difficult question:
Ten years after Assad goes, might there be Syrians and international historians who argue that Syria was better off when he was in power?