London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Ten years, already. Yes, the people of Iraq have completed their first decade without a despot who had invaded every aspect of their life with a mixture of brutality and cynicism. And, yet, many Iraqis have not yet succeeded in filing away Saddam Hussein’s 35-year long reign of terror, first as “strongman” and then as president, as an historic nightmare. In the history of nations, there are wounds that require generations to heal.
The tenth anniversary of the war has triggered a torrent of comment and debate across the globe.
Since 2002, Iraq has been the most divisive issue of foreign policy in the West pitting right and left against one another.
The right presents the removal of Saddam as a “victory” for the West and a reaffirmation of its “superior values” of democracy and human rights.
To the left, the US-led invasion was an example of imperialist aggression and a violation of Iraq’s “national sovereignty.”
Is a third view possible?
The right’s analysis should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Saddam’s fall could hardly be described as a victory, in its commonly accepted sense, for the US and allies. The US and its 31 allies in the “coalition of the willing” lost almost 6000 men and more than 50,000 wounded. The war cost around USD 1 trillion, six times more than the far bigger Korean War. The “coalition of the willing” has also pumped billions of dollars into Iraq’s moribund economy to restore the dilapidated infrastructure, so far with meager results. The “coalition” ended with few material gains. It did not obtain any bases on Iraqi soil. Nor did it secure the lion’s share in Iraq’s oil. Even in diplomatic terms, the “coalition” has scored few gains. In the UN and its affiliated organs, post-Saddam Iraq has behaved like an average “developing” country.
The “victory”, assuming there was one, did not prove the superiority of Western values. Had the “coalition” not enjoyed overwhelming superiority of firepower, no fustian rhetoric about democracy and human rights would have broken the back of the beast.
More importantly, perhaps, to a large degree, “victory” was achieved thanks to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, cutting across ethnic and sectarian boundaries, refused to fight for Saddam Hussein. General Tommy Franks’ three-week push from Kuwait to Baghdad was even faster than what the inventors of Blitzkrieg dreamed of. The only element that halted Franks’ incisive push for a couple of days was a sandstorm in Nasseryiah.
By not fighting for Saddam Hussein, the people of Iraq became co-authors of their liberation.
The analysis of the left is equally problematic.
The invasion had none of the features of imperialism. Empires are created when a militarily stronger power expands its territory, plants settlers and colonists in newly captured lands, and exports capital to dominate the economy there.
None of those happened in the case of Iraq. The US annexed no Iraqi territory or secured a base there. There are no American settlers in Iraq. (In contrast, over the years, some 400,000 Iraqis have settled in the US, becoming American citizens.) American capital investment in Iraq remains negligible.
The left’s reference to “national sovereignty” is also misplaced. Under Saddam, that concept became a vulgar shibboleth. Far from being sovereign, the Iraqi nation had no control over its affairs.
The invasion that started on the eve of Nowruz in 2003 was a move against a despotic regime, not Iraq as a nation-state.
The Saddamite regime had transgressed all limits of behavior. Arab and Middle Eastern culture in general has always accepted a measure of despotism as an unfortunate fact of life, like the region’s harsh climate. Even when “reformers” such as Jamaleddin al-Afghani started talking of a different type of government, they could not dream beyond an “enlightened despot”. There is even historical consensus that despotism providing a measure of security is more tolerable than sedition (fitnah), which could cause disorder and chaos. However, that consensus is coupled with the caveat that the despot should respect limits set by religion, ancestral values, traditions, and common sense.
Saddam violated all those limits.
In the name of Socialist “secularism” he ignored Iraq’s Islamic faith. He violated tribal codes and, in his later years, struck by hubris, abandoned common sense. He drained the marshes making a million homeless and destroying a unique ecological treasure. Tens of thousands were executed and buried in mass graves. He killed 5000 men, women and children with chemical weapons in Halabja. Over a million Iraqis died in internal and external wars triggered by Saddam.
Saddam ended up killing even his close relatives, including a cousin and his two sons-in-law. He destroyed Iraq’s rich political culture that included parties and groups from across the ideological spectrum. He ended up even dismantling the Ba’ath, supposed to be his party. More Ba’athists were murdered by Saddam than by all previous rulers combined. During Saddam’s reign an estimated four million Iraqis, a quarter of the population, were either pushed into exile or became “displaced persons” inside the country.
Saddam cast himself as the new Hammurabi but, unlike the Babylonian legislator, broke every law in the book. As the new Saladin the only “holy war” he fought was against the Kurds, Shi’ites and the Juburi Sunni tribes, not to mention Muslim Iran and Kuwait. He donned the mantle of Pan-Arabism but never transcended the contours of his Takriti clan. He praised Josef Stalin as his model but when the war came, unlike “Koba”, he hurried to hide in a hole near his village.
Samir Al-Khalil dubbed the Saddamite regime the “Republic of Fear”.
Saddam became a twisted version of Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” who suddenly discovers that he is absolutely free of all limits. “If there is no God, everything is allowed,” Raskolnikov asserts. Free of God, culture, tribal tradition, and human decency, Saddam was transformed into a killing machine. “I kill, therefore I am”, became his motto.
Someone or something had to stop the infernal machine. Ten years ago, it was stopped.
Today, Iraq is slowly recovering from a long and potentially deadly illness, a convalescence that may take longer than many hoped 10 years ago.