Global Policy Forum

Saddam's Cruelty Is Only Half the Story


By Rami G. Khouri

Daily Star - Lebanon
November 8, 2006

There was an appropriate irony to the fact that the day after Saddam Hussein was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder and torture of many Iraqis, the former American ruler of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, published a commentary in The Wall Street Journal applauding this show of justice and rule of law in a land once terrorized by Baathist dictatorship. The irony stems from the juxtaposition of these two very different men who shared a common terrible legacy: their rule over Iraq resulted in mass human suffering amidst systematic violence.

These American and Iraqi rulers of Iraq are cut from very different cloth, and used very different means to pursue their policies. Bremer's assertion that "America did a noble deed in liberating Iraq from this evil man" will long be debated around the world, but it will not change the hard realities of Iraq today. History's verdict will, in due course, be passed on both Saddam and Bremer and their peculiar reigns. In their own very different ways, they reflect the dire convergence of the two most destructive forces that have plagued the Middle East in modern times: Arab despotism and Western militarism. Pain, fear and injustice come in many forms.

Paul Bremer and Saddam Hussein are the epitomes of that tradition, despite their dissimilarities. Bremer drove Iraq into the ground and sparked terrible internal conflict and mass suffering in the name of a noble mission to promote democracy, freedom and the rule of law. His motives and those of his country for Iraq were lofty, idealistic and slightly romantic. They were also always well intentioned, if we give Bremer and the US the benefit of the doubt and take them at their word.

Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq was an evil display of systematic human cruelty and institutionalized repression. The overthrow of that regime has exposed the full extent of its torture and violence against its own citizens. It is clear that most Iraqis are pleased with that overthrow and the court trial of Hussein and his top officials.

Yet history is measured in consequences as well as motives. The consequences of the American-led military removal of the Baathist regime have been costly indeed, with tens of thousands dead or injured, and hundreds of thousands displaced. The country is wracked by chronic violence that is now stoked by internal ethnic and religious feuds. The coherence of Iraq as a country is in question, and if it breaks up as a unified state the repercussions in the region could be momentous.

The growing strength and influence of Iran is another consequence of US policy in Iraq, with unclear implications for the region and the world. Terror in Iraq merely changed place with the transfer of power from Saddam Hussein to Paul Bremer; instead of the state terrorizing its people as happened under Baathist rule, terror is now used by a variety of Iraqi and other Arab factions seeking to throw out the Americans, take control of the government, and hurt rival communities.

Bremer, in his commentary this week, like the policies of President George W. Bush's administration, would have us judge the US proclamation of liberty by contrasting it with the Baathist legacy of despotism and torture. There is no possible debate if the issue is framed in this way. Liberty will always be the preferred choice. But is this the correct framework? Or is it more useful to ask: Have the consequences of Arab autocracy been more or less terrible than the consequences of Western militarism?

The more useful question that Bremer and others should consider is whether Western power can be used more effectively and legitimately by being applied, in collaboration with like-minded Arabs, to gradually erase the tradition of Arab autocracy and police states. This is more relevant than ever, because many Arab autocrats remain in power and continue to torment their citizens.

It is unclear if incumbent Arab autocrats feel more or less secure these days in light of the Iraq precedent. The American experience in Iraq suggests that more such regime changes are unlikely to occur through the medium of the American armed forces. At the same time, American support for Arab autocrats remains relatively steady.

The inconsistent American record on promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East has left Arab democracy activists in the awkward position of shunning any associations with the US, because Washington's policies are so widely opposed throughout the region. So the US finds itself in the doubly awkward position of not being able to promote democracy by using its military, and unable to connect with partners in civil society to promote democracy through peaceful means. This, too - the immobilization of America as a credible promoter of democracy - is a consequence of Washington's policy in Iraq.

The important issues related to the trial and conviction of Saddam Hussein are neither the technicalities of the trial's fairness and legitimacy (as critics say) nor the power of example of removing an Arab dictator and holding him accountable for his crimes (as supports say). The core issue is the juxtaposition of Western militarism and Arab dictatorships as twin plagues on the modern Arab world. It is good that Saddam's regime is no longer in power to brutalize its people; but it is bad that Iraq remains convulsed by new forms of suffering, death and mass fear that have been sparked by the American invasion.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Current Leaders and Occupiers in Post-War Iraq
More Information on Previous Leaders and Occupiers in Post-War Iraq
More Information on the Coalition Provisional Authority
More Information on the Iraq Tribunal


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