Global Policy Forum

Better Saddam than Dead


By David Corn*

August 16, 2006

Better dead than Red. During the Cold War, that was the rallying cry of the diehard anti-communists, many of whom never had to face the choice. During those years, hundreds of millions of people—in the Soviet Union, in China, and elsewhere—did not adhere to such an extreme slogan. They may not have fancied living in lands without freedoms, but they believed it was preferable to reside under repression than to die trying to topple tyranny. There have always been brave souls-the rebels of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the members of Solidarity in Poland, the dissidents of the Soviet Union, the champions of Tiananmen Square—willing to sacrifice their own existence to achieve freedom for their fellow citizens. But let's face it; most of us would rather be red—or any other color—than dead. And that's hardly an irrational choice, for even in a dictatorship, one is often free to enjoy family and friends and some of the mundane pleasures of life.

Which brings us to Iraq. The chaos and mayhem there has reached (or surpassed) a point when it may not be unsound to say that Iraqis were better off under Saddam Hussein. Think of it this way. In the years since George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. The most recent statistics are staggering. In May and June, according to the United Nations, six thousand Iraqis were slain. Recently, the health ministry noted that 1,850 Baghdad residents were killed in July alone and 3,438 civilians were killed throughout the country. That is, in a three-month period, about 10,000 Iraqis have lost their lives in the troubles the invasion—and the poorly planned occupation—gave birth to. Yet despite these harrowing numbers, President Bush, according to The New York Times, is befuddled by the lack of public support among Iraqis for the American mission in their country.

As we all are aware, pre-invasion Iraq was a nasty place in terms of human rights and political freedoms. But in the years prior to the invasion, there was not this level of slaughter. Amnesty International's 2002 report (PDF here ) notes that "scores of people, including possible prisoners of conscience and armed forces officers suspected of planning to overthrow the government, were executed." Scores of suspected government opponents were arrested, and their fates and whereabouts were unknown.

Scores of people killed-that's what now happens on a daily—rather than annual—basis. Of course, there were brutal and horrific acts of mass murder during Saddam Hussein's reign. The Anfal campaign of the late 1980s-which included chemical weapons attacks on Kurdish villages-led to the deaths of tens of thousands and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands. Saddam's repression of the Shiite rebellion of 1991—which came at the end of the first Persian Gulf war after President George H.W. Bush called on Iraqis to overthrow the dictator and then did nothing to support the uprising—resulted in about 30,000 Shiite deaths. Since the invasion, the discovery of mass graves has reminded the world of these atrocities.

But the United States took no action at the time of these nightmares to stop the killings. And in the years since the Gulf War, a weakened Saddam had not repeated such genocidal acts. That is hardly praise. But let's be blunt: Far many more Iraqis have died due to the war Bush started than were killed by Saddam in the years prior to the invasion. The total number of civilian Iraqi deaths may well be more than 100,000. (The equivalent loss for the United States would be more than 1 million people.) This is much more than the recent death counts in Lebanon and Israel-which spark justifiable outrage on each side.

I imagine that hardheaded advocates of the war will say that such is the price of liberty, that eggs must be broken. Yet here's the rub: The Iraqi people did not decide that such a cost was worth bearing. They had it imposed upon them. In the examples of anti-communist rebellions cited above, freedom fighters in those countries were willing to take the risk and put their own lives at stake. They could determine if they wished to be dead rather than red. In Iraq, there was no such indigenous calculation. People in another country decided they knew what was best for Iraqis. And they then botched the job.

The Saddam regime is gone; that's true. But given what has taken its place, it would not be an irrational choice for many Iraqis to prefer the Iraq of 2002 rather than the Iraq of 2006. Think about it. Most Iraqis before the invasion-like most citizens in most repressive states-managed to get by. They may not have had freedoms, but they had their friends and relatives. They still fell in love, had sex, had families, played with their kids, followed sports. The lucky ones-like the lucky ones in all countries-had meaningful work. Now millions of Iraqis have lost a loved one. And in return, they have a country that is unstable and on the brink of collapse, and their daily lives are marked by crime and deep uncertainty involving life and death. It's a different sort of terror than what George W. Bush speaks of.

Is it better to be free in an environment of violent chaos than safe in circumstances without freedom? I'm not arrogant enough to say that I know the answer. I might well choose a life without political freedoms rather than lose my wife or children. Live free or die, they say in New Hampshire. But how many people really believe that? In any event, that choice should be left to those who are actually willing to die to make the point. The 100,000 or so dead Iraqis cannot tell us what they would prefer.

Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and the other supporters of this war are responsible for the consequences of their actions-or they ought to be. One result is that tens of thousands of Iraqis are now dead who would not have been had the invasion not happened. Given that Bush hails the preciousness of each life when the subject is embryonic stem-cell research, I wonder why the Iraq war is not judged—and acknowledged—an abysmal failure by its creators. Do they not believe Iraqi lives are as valuable as frozen embryos?

Before the war, Bush and his aides said the primary rationale for the war was neutralizing a direct WMD threat to the United States. That turned out to be bogus. They also claimed that bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq would have a positive effect on the entire Middle East. Strike that, too. Additionally, they claimed the war would save the Iraqi people. Instead, it has created a hell for many Iraqis. The carnage that has come about due to Bush's invasion is unforgivable. In defending the war, Bush often points to the fact that a brutal dictator has been removed from power. But so profound is Bush's failure in Iraq that there is increasing merit to the argument that this single positive achievement was not worth the cost.

Let's ask all the dead Iraqis what they think.

About the Author: David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). Read his blog at

More Information on Iraq
More Information on the Justifications for War
More General Articles on the Occupation and Rule in Iraq


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