The Blood-Spattered Despot Has To Go

New Zealand Herald, March 20, 2003

Denis Dutton

Saddam Hussein — butcher, torturer, and megalomaniac. No matter where people stand on the wisdom of a military strike against Iraq, they usually agree that Saddam’s eye-gouging, blood-spattered, electric-shock despotism is one of extraordinary cruelty.

In fact, his regime is intolerable by any decent human standard. The question is whether toppling him might not be even more intolerable.

For the opponents of the Bush-Blair-Howard initiative, the answers are easy. The war is really about oil, the opponents say. Attacking Iraq would kill countless innocents. The West gave Saddam his power back in the 1980s, and the West must live with the result. There’s no absolute proof he has biological or chemical weapons, or is trying to build an atomic bomb.

Do these answers justify opposing an attack on Iraq? Consider the question of oil. The world is awash in oil. Today Russia nearly rivals Saudi Arabia in pumping capacity, and countries as far-flung as Mexico and Angola are major oil players. The days when oil meant all-powerful Opec, and Opec meant the Gulf states, are long past. Iraq is not a crucial element in the world oil supply.

I wonder if it ever occurs to oil-obsessed commentators that for the average American, having watched hundreds of their fellow citizens commit suicide out of tall buildings on a clear autumn morning is more important than the price of crude oil.

It is the spread of terror and violent death that more exercises the Americans. In any event, the easiest way to ensure cheap oil is to leave Saddam in power and lift the United Nations sanctions.

The West, including the United States and its allies, shored up Saddam in the 1980s when he was regarded as a counter to Iran’s fundamentalist revolution. France sold him a nuclear reactor (bombed by Israel), and along with the Germans and Russians enjoyed vastly lucrative contracts from Iraq, contracts for which they are still owed billions. The Americans, to their shame, also supplied him and later stood by silently when Saddam killed thousands of Kurds in poison gas attacks.

None of the Western powers has clean hands in this. Which means the West must now shoulder responsibility in freeing the Iraqi people. It helped to create the monster Saddam, and it must help to destroy him.

As for the question of whether Saddam has come clean with his anthrax, poison gas and nuclear bomb projects, that is simply laughable. Khidhir Hamza, a former director of Iraq’s nuclear-weapons programme, asks: “How can a team of 200 inspectors disarm Iraq when 6000 inspectors could not do so in the previous seven years of inspection?”

The whole of Saddam’s programme, he says, is based on deception. He has had years to perfect ways to avoid detection.

Hans Blix has made it clear that Iraqi co-operation has been partial and reluctant. This was because Saddam holds weapons and wants to keep them, to brandish before his neighbours, and to control his own peoples, not only Kurds but the Shi’ites who make up 62 per cent of the population of Iraq and who despise him.

Those of us who enjoy the prosperity and happiness of living free should extend the benefits of constitutional democracy to peoples who through historical circumstances do not share the fruits of liberty. This is for their benefit, and ultimately for the benefit of the whole world.

For decades the Cold War excused the tactical support of dictators, so long as they were aligned with the West. That excuse is gone, and good riddance.

The most frequently heard justification for failing to confront Saddam, among other despots of the Middle East, is that to do so threatens stability in the region. But there is no virtue in the stability of brutal but efficient oppression. Dictatorships are inherently unstable. Real stability for the Middle East will come only when free citizens are able to choose their governments in constitutionally regularised elections.

Romania languished for years, an impoverished land under a brutal dictator. The assassination of Nicolae Ceausescu did not result in everlasting mayhem, but paved the way for Romania to move, however haltingly, toward democracy. Today it is knocking on the door for membership in the European Union.

Perhaps the most vicious idea lurking beneath the debate over Iraq is the assumption that in some sense Arabs are unfit, culturally or in their religious tradition, for democracy. This is a racist, cynical presupposition shared by some peace supporters on the left and isolationist right-wingers within the U.S. itself.

This implication was directly addressed by George W. Bush when he said: “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world, or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim, is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life,” by which he meant freedom and democracy.

Freedom and democracy are not uniquely European cultural artefacts, and of all the countries in its region, Iraq, with its education and relatively secular traditions, is the most ripe for a true, democratic revolution. An intervention in Iraq could bring to the Middle East an inspiration for liberal reformers, the so-called moderates, all over the Arab world.

Were Iraq to join Turkey and Israel as a democracy, the whole political picture of the region could ultimately change toward peace, a fairer distribution of oil wealth, education for all, including women, and political freedom. We could ultimately see a democratic Palestinian state co-existing in prosperity with Israel.

These are not unrealistic ideals for the world to strive toward. It is much to our shame that we have all turned our backs on Iraq for so long.

But against this dream of freedom stands an ominous nightmare. Imagine that Saddam were able to get away with indefinite stalling and hang onto power for the next 10 years, working on uranium enrichment and the development of powerful biological warfare agents.

He could directly threaten his neighbours, and supply weapons with catastrophic capacities to terror groups or other rogue states. The Iraqi population would continue to suffer in oppressed silence. That is the most intolerable outcome of all.

The West must wake up to a better life for Iraq, the Middle East, and the rest of the world. First step: get rid of Saddam Hussein.