It’s possible that playing a game of gotcha with Donald Trump for the sin of saying that Saddam Hussein was good at killing terrorists is the most boring thing ever. Over 250 Iraqis were killed in Baghdad on Sunday when a lorry exploded in a busy shopping area of the city. The area is mostly Shiite and the Sunni extremist group Islamic State took responsibility. Believe it or not, this was the single worst loss of life since the invasion in 2003. Here’s how Jermey Bowen of the BBC put it:
Saddam Hussein’s regime was harsh, and it could be murderous. He led the country into a series of disastrous wars and brought crippling international sanctions down on their heads.
But with the benefit of 13 years of hindsight, the world that existed before 9 April 2003 seems to be a calmer, more secure place. They have not had a proper day of peace since the old regime fell.
As for democracy, many I have spoken to believe the hopelessly sectarian political system is broken. At least, they say, law and order existed under Saddam.
We need to reckon with this reality. It does no good to keep going back to the old rhetoric about what a tyrant Saddam Hussein was to his own people. What Trump is trying to say in his own awkward way is that Hussein kept the lid on and what we’ve gotten in his place is far worse. And, if he stuck to making that limited point, he’d be on solid footing, which means that it’s just a perpetuation of our national stupidity and infinite capacity to avoid self-reflection to go out and say, “Ooh, ooh, Trump said something halfway complimentary about Saddam Hussein!”
No, the actual valid critique of Trump is that he wants to address our own vulnerabilities to terrorism by emulating the tactics of Saddam Hussein. If the American home front hadn’t enjoyed a proper day of peace since April of 2003, then maybe we’d all be ready to elect a strongman who would restore some law and order. But this is not Baghdad or Fallujah, and we have no good reason to cede our civil rights to Donald Trump.
Trump wants to torture people. He wants to kill the relatives of terrorists. He doesn’t want to read people their rights before summarily executing them. These are the things he’s promising that he can do for us.
There was a time not too long ago that these kinds of actions were considered so loathsome and beyond the pale that they were used as justifications for invading Iraq and toppling the Baath regime there, but now one of our major party presidential candidates is offering to behave the same way.
That’s ironic and sad, but the lesson in this is not that no one should ever say one sort of complimentary thing about Hussein. There are other lessons. For one, we now know that governing the factions inside Iraq was no cakewalk and that there were forces threatening to rip the country apart that weren’t so evident to the outsider or even most Iraqis. That doesn’t excuse Saddam Hussein’s ruthlessness and pitiless treatment of dissenters, but it puts that record in some context. It’s a little easier to see now that Hussein was a monster who was fighting even worse monsters, and it’s clearer that our own foreign policy elite did not know what the fuck they were messing with when they decided to single out Hussein as the world’s most malevolent actor and remove him from power. They also didn’t know what they were doing when the empowered these Islamic State types to go fight the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya thinking that they could use their religious fanaticism against the officially atheist Soviet system. They had no understanding that beneath the old Cold War schisms between Arab Nationalists and Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood was a festering Sunni/Shi’a divide waiting to break out on a global scale. Hussein’s regime was like a bathtub plug that prevented the whole region from circling the drain.
In this context, and in retrospect, playing gotcha on Saddam is depressingly beside the point. It’s the equivalent of treating Iran as if the hostage crisis just ended yesterday and the Shiites never took over Iraq. We can’t have a worldview trapped in 1980’s vintage amber. And this is particularly true because we made our biggest mistakes in the 1980’s. Back then we signed off on the Israelis’ invasion of Lebanon (which basically created Hizbollah) and the massive expansion of West Bank settlements (which created Hamas), and we ramped up support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan (which created thousands of radicalized military veterans), and we actively abetted the stalemated Iraq-Iran War (which left two war-torn and embittered countries), and we didn’t think about the blowback potential from our military alliances with Saudi Arabia and Egypt (which created the bin-Laden-Zawahiri Al-Qaeda alliance).
We have blundered at every step and yet the best we seem to be able to do is to score political points when someone points out that Iraq was better off under Saddam than it is today.
If we can’t even learn the tiniest bit from this history, we are going to wind up electing a strongman eventually, simply because we’re too stupid to keep ourselves safe any other way.
Our elites want to know why no one is listening to them, and it’s because they go around scolding people for not understanding basic things when their own recent record has been disastrous. Trump is tapping into this, and the way to keep him at bay is not to nitpick him for saying something politically incorrect about Saddam Hussein.
I am going to read the long-awaited Chilcot Report. You should, too. If the Brits can hold their elites accountable, then so should we. One of our presidential candidates voted to authorize the fiasco in Iraq and the other falsely claims to have opposed it. This is not where we want to be as a country.
We need our elites to do their jobs well. And that’s not going to happen if our discourse about Iraq is stuck on Saddam Hussein being a uniquely bad guy.