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Harm & Foul

On September 10, 2001, Saddam Hussein was the secular dictator of Iraq, loathed and feared by citizens and neighbors, scorned by the Bush Administration, and diminished by a near-decade of corrosive sanctions. A Middle Eastern Ceausescu-cum-Tito with a pinch of Stalin, he held his sect-laden country together through coercion, brutality, and bluff.

On the same day, Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, a refugee from Saudi Arabia and a veteran anti-American rabble-rouser, awaited the outcome of an unusually bold tactical strike against New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For years, he had warned that if the United States persisted in its presence in the Arab holy lands and in its unconditional support of Israel he would mobilize violent opposition under the rubric of jihad. He did, succeeding beyond his wildest dreams.

Five years later, Saddam is dead, hung by the U.S.-supported government of a feral nation following an unprovoked invasion four years ago.

Osama, meanwhile, hides where he always has, in moveable caves, his precise whereabouts immune to the longstanding blood money placed on his head.

From most perspectives it’s opera noir.

In fact, Saddam is the first high-level casualty of the New York and Washington attacks, and its most pathetic one — a man excavated from a ditch and sent to the gallows by partisans wearing ties. Recklessly ambitious, never particularly religious, and typical of the warped nationalists his region, he’s dead mostly because he could be killed, and because two groups (vengeful Iraqis and vengeful Americans) wanted it so.

The fairness of the trial and the appropriateness of the sentence are for human rights groups and partisan ideologues to debate.

What’s been categorically exposed, however, is the atrociously opportune lie linking jihadist terrorism to Saddam’s cause, a lie so self-serving it casts aspersion on motivation of the execution. As does American pass-the-buck eagerness ensuring the verdict and the execution were Iraqi-managed on paper.

That Iraqis killed Saddam as payback makes raw sense: he was a contradictory generalissimo made more virulent by his suspect region (Franco, Nasser, Salazar, Ceausescu, Pinochet had communism or anti-communism as a smokescreen), a builder of roads and hospitals who also vindictively murdered foes. He treated the Kurds much the same way Ataturk suffocated the unwanted Armenians; only one of the two men is a hero.

The United States encouraged the verdict to mend an old debt and gloss over a newer mistake, the invasion. It also fulfilled a long-overdue pledge to the wary Saudis, who 15 years ago saw Saddam staring at them from Kuwait.

None of it, however, has much to do with restraining Islamic extremism. Anything but.

In the Reagan 1980s, Saddam behaved toward newly-zealous Iran in the vein of an anti-communist Latin American proxy: he drew Ayatollah Khomeini into a decade-long fight hoping to break Shiite influence and extend Iraq’s eastern borders, a goal Washington inaudibly shared. A million dead later the fight ended in a stalemate, embittering his ambitions (which he’d hoped the United States would support more actively). He then turned to hectoring Kuwait and spent much of late 1989 and 1990 warning (as Osama did about terrorism) that he’d overrun its northern oil fields to which he’d previously laid claim. No one listened. Finally, he called Kuwait’s bluff and the response — “Desert Storm” — demonstrated how oil and Saudi bashfulness to fight tanks can get the West’s attention.

The execution, while circumstantially understandable, remains a little surreal.

A tyrant responsible for rebuilding of a nation’s infrastructure is executed under the aegis of an occupying power that has helped provoke the demolishing of that structure with no sensible plan to make it right.

The Nuremberg Trials were global morality plays because Nazi Germany was subdued. Same with Eichmann’s trial, in which one man stood in for regime. Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia was backed away from its onslaught by the time he was arrested. The seeking of justice, of redress, fit into a process of repair.

But killing Saddam at this moment and in these conditions repairs nothing. It’s a counterfeit act to fit all sizes. For those who filmed the hanging and peddled the images, it’s cynical television. For those who pined for a pariah, Saddam fits the bill. For those demanding Hatfield and McCoy’s revenge, consider the demand fulfilled (though it’s of limited worth to those unable to walk the streets of Baghdad).

Now that it’s over, though, a favor: Let’s once and for all drop the charade of noble intentions. Justice and Iraq are for irreconcilable. Whatever its shortcomings, Saddam’s Iraq was a nation; occupied Iraq, under a shaky government, is a notion at best.

Notions are petty tyrannies in their own manner and do their best by doing what’s loudest: kill. Same with insurgents, who like Leftists of old keep attacking in hopes the edifice will collapse, which it may in time.

Just don’t be surprised if in five years or in 10, when the smoke thins, Iraq again finds itself in the hands of a prime minister-turned-strongman, only this time someone strategic partners believe they can shape.

Until of course the new man does what Saddam once did: lifts a fist and, under the pretense of benevolent rigor, slams it down hard.

Christopher P. Winner’s email address is cpwinner@theamericanmag.com