There’s one mantra that is thoroughly embedded in all the debates surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Everyone seems to agree that, whatever one might think about that military adventure, at least it got rid of Saddam Hussein. This is embraced equally by proponents of the invasion, bent on bolstering their argument that the invasion was a good idea; and by opponents, seeking to counter suggestions that they are heartless and can’t see a tyrant when one is staring them in the face.
But the fundamental question isn’t whether Saddam’s fall and death was a positive good (the answer is obviously yes) but whether getting rid of him was worth the price that came due once that invasion was unfurled. Here, the answer is no. The world is a messy place, and one messy reality that emanates from it is that the positive benefit of Saddam’s demise is far outweighed by the negative costs inherent in destroying him. This is clearly true for the United States and the surrounding Middle East, and probably true for the Iraqi people as well.
To understand the U.S. interest involved, it helps to cast our attention back to the period immediately after the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on America and the celebration that ensued in various quarters of the Middle East. Those events made clear that America was at war with Islamic fundamentalism, which was bent on destroying American interests and American lives wherever possible. It was, in the words of the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, a “clash of civilizations.”
But the clash was with Islamic fundamentalism, not all of Middle Eastern Islam. And there were leaders in the region who, for their own reasons, also wished to thwart the emergence of those Islamist forces. One was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Another was Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant and thug who maintained his position through the manipulation of fear and greed, and he was willing to kill on whatever scale was necessary to remain in power. But he was not a prime enemy of the United States in its war with Islamic fundamentalism. His brand of nationalism was incompatible with the cultural zealotry of al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Indeed, since his interests weren’t colored by Islamic fundamentalism but rather by real-world considerations of power and wealth, he conceivably could have been enlisted in the West’s war against radical Islam.
When President Richard Nixon was planning his trip to Beijing in 1972, he wrote out on one of his famous yellow legal pads three columns, with headings: “What They Want”; “What We Want”; “What We Both Want.” It proved to be a good foundation for what became a successful diplomatic exchange. Had President George W. Bush done the same after 9/11 on Iraq, he would have noted that Saddam wanted an end to the U.N. sanctions that were crippling his country and guaranteed markets for his oil; the United States wanted guaranteed flows of oil, intelligence on al-Qaeda and a bulwark against Islamist fervor. It also wanted a tamer Iraq, but that already had been largely achieved through the First Gulf War and the sanctions. Within those realities lay a potential exchange.
Some will ask how America could possibly do business with such an evil dictator, even if he could be helpful. Consider: By the time Nixon traveled to China, to wide acclaim throughout his country and the world, Mao Zedong had killed more than 50 million people. Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt’s ally in World War II, was responsible for some 23 million deaths through his intermittent purges and the government-induced Ukraine famine. Saddam’s magnitude of brutality was commonplace in comparison to those men, with whom America seems to have had no difficulty in doing business. One reality of our time is that it’s very difficult to engage in civilizational clashes while remaining ascetically pure.
Then there is the question of Iran, with its 65 million people, significant industrial base, large oil reserves and unlimited natural gas. Iran is by far the most powerful state in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. And for centuries, Iraq served as a counterweight to Iran—first under the Turks, then the British, then the British-created monarchy and then under a series of dictators all the way to Saddam Hussein. What they all had in common was their Sunni faith and their resolve to prevent Iraq’s Shiite majority from aligning with Shiite Iran. Bush destroyed all that and, in the process, upended the delicate balance of power in the region. Now, Iran is better positioned to create problems in Iraq, Syria and the ministates along the Gulf that are majority Shiite but governed by Sunnis. Iran’s growing power has rattled Saudi Arabia and led to growing tensions with the West. It can be argued as well that those tensions, and the beating of war drums they generated, have retarded any natural move toward more democratic institutions in Iran, as the theocratic autocracy fans the flames of nationalism in the face of a perceived Western threat.
Saddam was key to maintaining that old balance of power and keeping Iran somewhat hemmed in. Iraq will not become the Western-style democracy Bush had in mind when he invaded, but south of Kurdistan it has become, and will remain, dominated by Shia. That is the greatest geopolitical gift handed to Iran since the Turks invaded Iraq in the sixteenth century.