Friday, 31 May 2013

The Middle East: bring back Saddam Hussein?

If it weren't for the God-awful mess in Syria, I suspect we'd be paying a great deal more attention to the God-awful mess in Iraq.

We should be, anyway. This month alone, more than 500 people have been killed in almost daily bomb attacks, and last month was reported to be the most violent the country has seen for nearly five years.

Perhaps you remember the so-called pottery barn rule that was said to have been used by former US secretary of state Colin Powell in his discussions with George W Bush: "You break it, you buy it, you own it." Maybe the US, UK and their allies don't exactly own Iraq after the invasion of 2003, but it's not difficult to argue that at the very least they were responsible for breaking it.

Let me be clear: I do not wish to argue that Iraq would have been better off with Saddam Hussein still in power. That, even after the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the years after 2003, is a judgement that only Iraqis are entitled to make.

I visited Iraq during Saddam's time; I also visted Libya under Gaddafi and have visited Syria under Assad, so I have no illusions about the nature of their regimes. I am a convinced democrat, but I also recognise that dictatorship brings with it a degree of stability that enables many people to live their lives in a way that simply hasn't been possible in the turmoil of the recent past.

When I returned to Iraq in 2004, on the first anniversary of the toppling of Saddam, I wrote that the message from most Iraqis I spoke to could be simply summarised: "We’re glad Saddam Hussein has gone; we wish the Americans would go too; but we’re desperately worried about the future of our country."

They could see what was coming, because when you remove the lid from the pressure cooker, you discover all kinds of things that have been bubbling away inside. In Iraq, dangerous fault-lines between Shia and Sunni Muslims, cynically exploited by outside powers, and in Libya, tribal and territorial tensions that have made the country post-Gaddafi virtually ungovernable.

So no one should be surprised if Western governments are reluctant to repeat the mistakes of the past. If you wanted to put a positive gloss on their Syria inertia, I suppose you could say that at least they've learned something from the experience of the past decade.

Ask yourself this: are most Iraqis better off now than they were pre-2003? Are most Libyans living better lives than they were under Gaddafi? And, hand on heart, how confident are you that most Syrians would be better off with Bashar al-Assad gone?

So here's a little test for you. Who said this? "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Throughout the Middle East the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."

It sounds like something Barack Obama would say, doesn't it? Or maybe Hillary Clinton? In fact, it was Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Cairo in 2005. And you could argue, perhaps, that the hundreds of thousands of Arab Spring revolutionaries who built the barricades on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria five years later were simply taking her at her word.

But make no mistake: when the royal rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar pour millions of dollars into Syria to help topple Assad, it's not because they've discovered a deep love of democracy. It's because they see Syria as the battleground on which they will finally defeat Iran, Syria's most powerful regional ally, and, of course, a Shia state which the Sunni royal families of the Gulf regard with deep suspicion.

Which brings us, if you're still with me, back to Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a secular Sunni ruler in a country where most citizens are Shia. Now, the Shia are in control, closely allied to Iran, and uncomfortably neutral in Syria. And it's beginning to look as if Iraq could soon be sucked back into the bloody sectarian mayhem of 2007-8, as it is pulled into the same abyss in which the people of Syria are now being slaughtered.

And if all that's not bad enough, add to the mix poor little Lebanon, once again under the cosh of regional power rivalry, and an increasingly jittery Israel, watching nervously as the latest Russian weaponry turns up on its doorstep. The match is getting perilously close to the tinder box.

If George Bush and Tony Blair still believe, as they used to argue so passionately, that the Middle East is clearly better off with Saddam Hussein gone, it'd be interesting to hear their evidence. But evidence, of course, was never their strongest point.


Gaye Berry said...

If terrorists succeeded in spreading something "dirty" throughout the US that ended up causing hundreds of thousands of cancer cases & birth defects over a period of many years, they would be guilty of a crime against humanity far surpassing Sept. 11th attacks. With its legal war, US & its Coalition of the Willing, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have done just that. If the physical environment is so unsafe and unhealthy that one cannot safely breath, then the outer trappings of democracy have little meaning. At least under Saddam, the Iraqi people could stay healthy & conceive normal children. Few Americans are aware that in getting rid of Saddam, we left something much worse in his place: white phosphorus, depleted uranium, etc.

Gaye Berry said...

American response bombings has been to delay plans for withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Obama’s election promise was to withdraw troops from Iraq by May this year. Not only is that obviously not going to happen but we learned after his election that “withdrawal” meant leaving 50,000 troops as ‘trainers’ as well as 4,500 special forces + tens of thousands of para-military contractors.
These attacks are providing the US with an excuse for delaying even its token withdrawal however, we need to think about who is behind them.
My guess: US, CIA, using local groups. US will never leave Iraq while there is oil in the ground. US didn’t go there in the first place, nor build its mega-embassy in order to leave. Attacks are not the work of a small group. It’s a large, well disciplined, well financed group with substantial support.
Accuse Al-Qaeda, but I don't think so. Al Qaeda is standard US scare story. Accuse Iran, but I don't think so.
All propaganda – like Saddam’s nuclear programme, his weapons of mass destruction, his collaboration with Al-Qaeda, his mobile chemical laboratories: All now official lies.
This is certain: the US invasion caused extraordinary devastation in Iraq and its continued presence is THE problem for Iraqis. It’s most likely that because they have no intention of leaving, it’s the US itself that is behind the attacks, or maybe the Israelis on their behalf. Yes, the Israelis are in Iraq and they have no love for Arabs. In 2005 they were reported to be training Kurds in northern Iraq, now a semi-autonomous region. With the Israeli-US axis operating in Iraq anything is possible. The Israelis, CIA, US and UK military all regularly assassinate suspected militants along with innocent men, women & children. They consider no-one to be innocent. Nor would false-flag provocations be beyond the US-Israeli axis. On 8 June 1967 the Israelis attempted to sink the USS Liberty in an attack that left 34 American sailors dead & 173 wounded.

Unknown said...

Democracy in Iraq - and by extension the rest of the Middle East had to start at some point.

If Saddam had not been toppled, it's quite possible that Syria would have not retreated from their occupation in Lebanaon, and that the whole Arab spring may not have even happened yet, or to the extent that it has.

And it's a fair question to ask whether the people of the Middle East would be better off under dictators rather than on the path of democracy, given the explosive nature of Islamist politics and the black hole that its removal creastes - but really had Saddam been left in charge all it would have done is to delay the invetitable, the Arab spring, until some unknown future point.

So, in the short term, it could be argued that the Middle East is not necessarily much better off with the Arab Spring, but in the long term, it's the only way.