By Kevin Toolis, a documentary film-maker and terrorist expert (THE TIMES, 11/11/06):
OH WHERE ARE YOU now when we need you Great Leader, Lord of the Earth, Knight of the Arab world and Leader of the Muslim people? Without you our cities burn, murderers and brigands roam the streets, random death is everywhere and Babylon is engulfed in blood. Chaos has come again.
How easily we in the West can now afford to chortle at the petty defiant antics of Saddam Hussein as he struts his final hours on the Baghdad courtroom stage. And hollowly congratulate ourselves on the triumph of justice. For who could argue about the absolute moral rightness of deposing a dictator like Saddam?
A few, like President Bush, have sought moral consolation in the overthrow of this monstrous tyrant who murdered tens or hundreds of thousands of his subjects in his two decades in power. Without irony Bush declared the death sentence a “milestone” in Iraq’s “young democracy” from the rule of terror to the rule of law. When the regime we have installed in Baghdad strings Saddam up, at least something will have gone right in our “liberation” of Iraq.
But nothing has or will go right now for the West in Iraq. We have needlessly replaced one ailing, flabby dictator with mankind’s worst enemy — chaos. And in that chaos we have spawned a thousand mini-Saddams all eager to pursuit their morbid goals in ever-greater butchery. And our only hope now of escape from Iraq is to find a convenient replacement tyrant, possibly the blood-drenched Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to restore a semblance of order.
In Saddam’s vast police state the Leader’s eye, and his network of informers, was everywhere from schools to barber shops and on to the vast army barracks of the million-strong army he allegedly created to threaten his neighbours. His control was maintained by a myriad of competing intelligence agencies, soporific state bureaucracies, secret prisons, and torture chambers. His rule was absolute and overrode all tribal, nationalist or religious loyalties.
The red lines, the limits of tolerance of dissent, were predictable and clear. Saddam was survivable if you kept your mouth shut and were deemed no threat.
For all his faults Saddam Hussein’s Iraq imposed order. The water, the electricity, the oil wells faltered but largely kept going. The roads and streets were safe. The terror inspired by his henchmen suppressed the seething rivalries of clan and religion that now engulf Baghdad and Basra.
Chastened by his rout in the Gulf War, Saddam abandoned his biological and chemical weapons programmes in 1995 but was unable to face his own humiliation and kept pretending he could threaten the rest of the world. Surrounded by sycophants and buried away in his bunkers, he badly misread the 9/11-changed world and President’s Bush’s need for a suitable defeatable Arab enemy. But then dictators are rarely equipped with a decent political reverse gear.
But Saddam had a more intuitive grasp of Iraq’s complex sectarian and tribal divisions than his democratic American overthrowers. Running a tyranny is always a delicate political balance between oppression and bribery. Saddam, a minority Sunni, did not just rule Iraq for 24 years by abject terror alone. There was always a scattering of Shia generals around the Revolutionary Council table. He co-opted Kurds and Shia and dressed his regime up under a secular, nationalist banner.
The million-strong phantom army, membership of the Baath party, along with the cumbersome stultifying Civil Service ministries, were a means in themselves of buying the loyalty of millions of Iraqis.
For every victim there is an oppressor. Beneath Saddam stretched a downward pyramid of collaborators all willing to draw their monthly salary and thus pay their mother-in-law’s medical bills. Who bites the hand, even blood-stained, that feeds your family? Saddam or Stalin, it makes little difference.
On the surface the glories of the “Light of the Muslim World” never ceased, but beyond the façade the regime tottered towards collapse, drowning in Saddam’s political paralysis, economic sanctions and the bloated security/Civil Service bureaucracies.
Blinded by its hubris, the cardinal fallacy of the Bush Administration was to believe that mere tyranny was the worst state of Man. As we all can see nightly on the television news, dictatorship, cruel and merciless, is easily outshone by the depravity of civil war and chaos. President Bush said he was fighting the War on Terror. Instead he has unleashed the horsemen of the Apocalypse. In this calculus of blood it is Saddam not the West who is the moral victor.
The Western democracies are the last, best hope of mankind; but, as the corpses of Baghdad’s mortuaries prove, those values cannot be so easily transferred to the world beyond. Saddam’s Terror, like Tito’s Yugoslavia, suppressed greater horrors. It is hardly a novel notion but that painful recognition has only now, it seems, been re-discovered by the Bush Administration and Tony Blair.
Sometimes we need to praise tyrants rather than depose them. No one deserves a dictator, but in the real world the vast majority of mankind will have to endure one. The very least the Western powers can do is not to replace the devil the oppressed know with the madness of the death squads that now rule Baghdad.