Play along with the tyrant or bring him to justice? Let’s face the facts

By David Aaronovitch (THE TIMES, 07/11/06):

ON MARCH 10, 1988, or so his diary recalls, Woodrow Wyatt, confidant of Margaret Thatcher, dined with the Iraqi ambassador. Dr Mohamed Sadiq al-Mashat was described by Wyatt as being “very dapper in a beautifully cut suit and blue handkerchief in his breast pocket”, and as speaking in an intense manner on the subject of his country’s never-ending conflict with Iran, which it had invaded a few years earlier. Lord Wyatt was unwilling to arrange a meeting between the ambassador and “Madame”, but “I said I would write an article in The Times, when I could find a convenient moment, about the Iran-Iraq war and probably say that I wanted Iraq to win.”

Had the restaurant in Hertford Street been somehow magically connected to real events in Iraq, then both men might have gagged over their malooga, frothed lightly at the mouth, suffocated and expired into their place-settings. For, at that moment, the regime represented by His Excellency was in the middle of an authentic act of genocide — the Anfal campaign — which (according to Human Rights Watch) killed up to 100,000 Iraqi Kurds between late February and early September of 1988. And, six days after the London meal, Iraqi planes dropped chemical bombs, comprising mustard gas, sarin and the nerve agent VX, on the town of Halabja. This attack, unlike others, was widely publicised, but even so there is no record of it in Lord Wyatt’s subsequent diary entries. On the day of the bombing he was at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

I mention this partly because there is a second, uncompleted part of the trial of Saddam Hussein — for committing genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan — and partly to remind myself, amid all the recriminations about what has happened since the invasion, of the price of good old-fashioned realpolitik, such as that which we and Lord Wyatt used to pursue before the bad, mad days of neoconservatism.

Naturally, musings like this seemed to go unreflected in yesterday’s questioning of the Prime Minister. In a settled determination to miss the big point in pursuit of the small one, Mr Blair was invited repeatedly by the convocation of journalistic cardinals to condemn the Iraqi authorities for sentencing Saddam to death. Of course he was in a difficult position, because (a) he doesn’t like the death penalty, but (b) he wasn’t going to go to the wall to try to save the life of a man whose continued existence on Earth promises more trouble than good. There is, therefore, a minor and forgivable hypocrisy at the heart of the Government’s response to the news of the sentence: please don’t kill him, please don’t listen to us telling you not to kill him.

The big point, of course, is our complicity, by commission or omission, in Saddam’s crimes. I don’t want to exaggerate this, as some anti-war campaigners routinely do, and it has to be balanced against the fact that if it weren’t for America and Britain he’d almost certainly still be in power. As the journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote just before the war: “Popular resistance widespread enough to threaten a regime is almost impossible, and when dissidents themselves cannot be found their families can be arrested and tortured.” But for 11 years, between 1979 and his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, at best the West tolerated Saddam and at worst assisted him, because we felt it was in our interests to do so. The results, arguably, were four wars and hundreds of thousands dead through massacres, purges, armed conflict and economic sanctions.

Saddam’s Government, conceived in local brutality, became one of the two or three most compete police states in the world, one of the regimes most contemptuous of international norms and probably the most aggressive. Saddam’s security apparatus used extraordinary physical and psychological techniques against real or imagined opponents. The BBC journalist John Simpson this week recalled meeting a man who had been sentenced to death for writing a phone number on a bank note with Saddam’s face on it. “His prospective executioners,” wrote Simpson, “listened to his story, sympathised with him and merely dipped him in the bath (of acid) for a few seconds. He had some of the most hideous scars I have ever seen.” Saddam became a constant and unpredictable threat to regional peace, came within a year, in 1990, of developing nuclear weapons, would send his assassins abroad to murder his enemies and sponsored suicide terrorism in Israel and the occupied territories.

For the first ten years of Saddam’s reign — from 1979 onwards — his main arms suppliers were the Soviet Union and France. In 1980 the Carter Administration, embroiled in the hostages row with Iran, began to send out feelers to Iran’s enemy, Iraq. (In a minor personal footnote this was also the year when, as the national secretary of the National Union of Students, I was first approached by Iraqi students saying that they were being spied upon and threatened by Baathist goons stationed in British universities.)

In September 1980 Saddam invaded Iran and realpolitik was never more real. By 1982 Iraq was off the US “sponsors of terrorism” list despite sponsoring terrorism. In 1983 Saddam was sold ballistic missiles by Russia, jet planes by France and helicopters by the US. In December Donald Rumsfeld, President Reagan’s Middle East envoy, went to Baghdad, and George Shultz, the Secretary of State, met Saddam’s urbane counsellor, Tariq Aziz. German companies assisted the Iraqis in creating VX — a bizarre irony in view of Germany’s refusal to send troops abroad because of its militaristic past — and in 1984 the US Embassy in Baghdad reopened. In the war with Iran, the West, according to one biographer of Saddam, “publicly professed a policy of studious neutrality while privately backing the Iraqis”. And went on doing it through the Anfal, and while Saddam planned — if necessary — to fire chemical warheads into Iranian cities. In 1988 there was a prohibition placed on US government officials from even meeting Iraqi opposition figures.

Saddam rewarded this neutrality by invading Kuwait. A year later in 1991, with the Iraqi Army in retreat and rebellions breaking out in the north and the south, the West refused to help Iraqi rebels. “Who told you we want democracy in Iraq?” one Iraqi exile was told by a US official. “It would offend our friends, the Saudis.” Or as Dick Cheney, then the Defence Secretary, said a year later: “Assuming we could have found him (Saddam) . . . what kind of government are you going to establish in Iraq? Is it going to be a Kurdish government, or a Shiite government or a Sunni government? . . . How many casualties are you going to take during the course of this operation?”

The alternative was the “containment” of Iraq by UN resolutions, as a result of which — for a decade — economic sanctions impoverished the Iraqi people while enriching Saddam and his cronies, including those implicated in the Oil for Food scandal. Unicef estimated an excess mortality over trend of as many as 500,000 children, and that too was realpolitik.

Realpolitik, its many current fans should realise, no more guarantees you a quiet life than does interventionism. But at least the latter puts the tyrant in the dock.