If we had it to do over, what would the answer be?
I have given a great deal of thought to the War in Iraq since President Obama announced that all American troops would be withdrawn at the end of this year after he failed to obtain an extension to the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement signed by former President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. I found myself asking a question I thought I would never pose.
Should Saddam Hussein have stayed in power?
The reason I never thought I would ever have entertained such a question is quite simple. Saddam Hussein was one of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century who fancied himself an Arabian Joseph Stalin. Writing in the New York Times in January 2003, less than two months before the start of the War in Iraq, John F. Burns noted:
Mr. Hussein even uses Stalinist maxims, including what an Iraqi defector identified as one of the dictator's favorites: "If there is a person, then there is a problem. If there is no person, then there is no problem."
Burns estimated that nearly a million Iraqis had died under Saddam's rule. Others put the figure closer to two million. Whatever the number, life in Saddam's Iraq was, as Hobbes so famously put it, "nasty, brutish and short." It should never be forgotten that Saddam launched chemical weapon attacks against men, women, and children in the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq in March 1988 killing an estimated 5,000 people. Lest we also forget Saddam's campaign against Kurds, Shiites, and Marsh Arabs in retaliation for their uprising following the 1991 Gulf War. It is estimated that 30,000 to 60,000 civilians were killed by Saddam's forces. To add insult to injury, Saddam also embarked on a campaign to drain the wetlands the Marsh Arabs relied on for their livelihood. As recently as this past spring, mass graves from the Saddam era were being uncovered. A benevolent dictator he was not.
If not for U.S. and Coalition forces, Saddam Hussein would be alive, well and living in the palace of his choice with his reign of terror proceeding apace. Yet as American forces prepare to leave in just over two month's time, Iraq is not a friend, much less an ally of the United States. The Iraqi government regards the United States with little gratitude and much contempt.
Those who opposed the War in Iraq from the outset would make the case that the source of this contempt is the considerable number Iraqi civilian casualties. The anti-Iraq War websiteIraq Body Count estimates between 103,000 and 113,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the start of the War in Iraq. Yet by all appearances a majority of Iraqi civilians killed were deliberately killed by forces hostile to U.S. and Coalition troops. Not that such details matter to the Iraqis.
Now there is an argument to be made that a Commander-in-Chief more nimble than Barack Obama could have persuaded Iraq to extend the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. But any such extension would have been at best short term and fragile and likely only served to delay the inevitable.
As evil as Saddam Hussein was, our removal of him not only strengthened Iran but with its nuclear ambitions might very well unleash an evil even Saddam could not put into action. Even as our troops helped bring about Shiite majority rule, the Shiites proved far more loyal to Iran. Perhaps former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was right when in April 2006 he said, "Most of the Shiites are loyal to Iran, and not the countries they are living in." It is difficult to look upon post-Saddam Iraq as an independent, sovereign democratic country when it is doing Iran's bidding as was the case when it sent $10 billion in aid to Syria this past August to assist Bashar Assad in killing off Syrian dissidents and protesters. As Robert Spencer of Jihad Watchasked back in July 2009, "Was this what we have been fighting for in Iraq all these years? An Iranian Shiite client state in Baghdad?"
It is also difficult to look upon post-Saddam Iraq as a democratic country when you consider the treatment of Iraq's Christians. This isn't to say that life for Iraq's Christians was peaches and cream under Saddam -- far from it. Yet life is not appreciably better for Iraqi Christians since Saddam was deposed nearly nine years ago. An estimated 200,000 Christians have fled Iraq due to anti-Christian violence by Islamic extremists and account for half of its refugees.
Nevertheless, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we must wonder if George W. Bush would have proceeded with the use of force against Saddam Hussein if he knew then what we know now. However, such knowledge probably would not have made his choice any easier than that of Harry Truman when he was faced with the decision of whether or not to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Regardless of what decision President Bush made, innocent people were going to be killed. The only questions would be how many lives and how many of those would be American.
The only silver lining I see is the emergence of a new generation of leaders in Iraq who resent Iran's influence and demand that Iraq be the master of its own house. Of course, a new generation of such leaders might take a at least a generation to make themselves known and if they were to make themselves known the Iraqi leadership beholden to Iran wouldn't just roll over and play dead. There could be a power struggle which might very well result in a civil war. Yet that is the only hope I see for democracy to succeed in Iraq. But those are very long odds.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Aaron Goldsteinwrites from Boston, Massachusetts.