Popping Open Pandora's Box:Were We Better Off with or without Saddam Hussein?
Which Tired Adage Comes to your Head, or Wraps Itself Around your Neck?
Because there is absolutely nothing that we can do now to resuscitate Saddam Hussein; to unearth his rotting corpse from the tomb, give him back his corrupt crony thugs and say "Go fix it!" then this article really falls into the category of crying over spilt milk, closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, etc.
On the other hand, if we examine the errors that were made in Iraq from the beginning of its long history of internecine conflict and bloodshed, then perhaps examining these mistakes can help politicians to make better foreign policy decisions, and can help individual Americans to make better choices about the politicians we vote for. In other words, perhaps we can all learn to avoid that other overused aphorism of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Do not confuse the conclusions laid out in this article with any kind of admiration or affection for Saddam Hussein. The man was a brutal beast and a cold blooded murderer. But he was also the rather rancid glue that held together the shaky, explosive, unnatural house of cards called Iraq that was created by us wise folks in the West by arbitrarily drawing lines on a map, apparently with our eyes closed.
The modern day state of Iraq is a crude hodge-podge of conflicting cultural groups, the three dominant being the Kurds in the North, the Sunni Muslims scattered throughout the center, and the dominant Shia Muslims everywhere else. However appalling his atrocities may have been, Saddam managed to keep this volatile collection of mutually inimical peoples in a state of uneasy peace for roughly 30 years, something that was not accomplished before or since. By ousting Hussein in 2003 we popped the lid off Pandora's box and have not yet been able to get a grip upon the evil forces unleashed in the process.
The purpose of this article, therefore, is not to extol the virtues of this deposed monster, but to remind people of another tired adage, this being that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. In short, next time we choose to forcibly remove a bad government we should be damn sure we have something better to replace it with.
What does an Internet Radio App have to do with Saddam Hussein?
For some of you younger readers the word Pandora may just bring up thoughts of an Internet radio app, but when I was coming up they were still teaching us a thing or two about mythology, so I learned the tale of Pandora and her fateful box at a very young age.
For the sake of the mythologically challenged, the Greek myths tell us that Pandora was the first woman. As a token of appreciation for her beauty, Zeus gave Pandora a beautiful jar as a wedding gift, along with strict orders never to open it. Naturally Pandora's female curiosity got the better of her, she took Zeus's warnings as a challenge rather than a safety tip, and barely had she set the box upon the mantel before deciding to crack the lid. As a consequence all of the evils which now run rampant throughout the world came pouring out, and that is why the human race is in so much misery today.
In modern times Pandora's box is still used as a metaphor to point out an action that seems enlightened enough at the time, but has far reaching negative consequences. In my opinion, Saddam Hussein was the evil lid holding back the greater evils stored in the Pandora's box of Iraq. In removing him we unleashed an incalculable litany of woes and miseries onto the Middle East and the world in general that eleven years and a trillion dollars haven't been able to get a lid on yet.
Who Made this Mess?
If you study Greek mythology you soon realize that the Greeks blamed women for everything. It was Helen whose face launched the thousand ships that set out to fight the disastrous Trojan war, and it was the insatiable feminine curiosity of Pandora that was responsible for unleashing evil into the Universe. In our more enlightened modern society we can place the blame for our Pandoras boxes not on the ladies, but squarely upon the shoulders of "good old boy" politicians and their cronies that buy them into office. It is misinformed, unenlightened men that not only pry the lids off, but are responsible for building the toxic containers in the first place.
The history of the modern Iraq Pandora's box goes back to WW I, which found the English set against the German-allied Ottoman Empire. With the assistance of English officers such as THE Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame, the Arabs were able to throw off the Ottoman yoke that had controlled them for roughly 500 years. Lawrence's close association with King Faisal, the leader of the Northern Army of the Arab revolt, was certainly instrumental in setting Faisal upon the throne of Iraq. 40 years before David Lean's immortal film, the flamboyant Lawrence was already the star of a travelling documentary that glamorized his role in the conflict, and he skillfully used this fame to get his Sunni Muslim friend Faisal imposed over the Shia Muslim majority in Iraq.
In deciding how they were going to divvy up the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the British and French drew lines on a map that corresponded more to realms of economic exploitation and less to the long term prosperity of the people living within these fanciful borders. All that the British needed was a good puppet to enforce British policy, and since Lawrence's Faisal seemed as good as any they put him in charge of the portion of the British mandate that became Iraq.
Saddam was Once our Buddy
The end of the British mandate in Iraq came in 1958, followed by a very unstable democracy that lasted about ten years, after which the Arab nationalist Baath party took control. Saddam Hussein was an instrumental army officer in the coup that put the Baathists in power, and he consolidated his authority by sneaking Sunnis from his hometown of Tikrit into high positions. Saddam remained the power behind the throne until 1979, when he was formally installed as Iraq's ruler.
Saddam took over at about the time that the pro-American Shah of Iran was overthrown and theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini seized power. Khomeini stirred the pot with sympathetic Shia groups in Iraq who wished to create their own Islamic state, and in order to forestall this undesirable situation the United States supported Saddam as a buffer against the expansion of Muslim fundamentalism. In a brutal 8 year war against Iran US President Ronald Reagan gave money and intelligence to Saddam in hopes that he would defeat the Ayatollah. The brutal dictator of Iraq was removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though he had most definitely not become a good boy scout overnight.
The United States remained on good terms with Saddam after the Iran-Iraq war ended, even after the Iraqi dictator killed thousands of Kurds with mustard and nerve gas. This attack was blamed on Iran and the US accepted the explanation, looking at the Middle East as we were through anti-Ayatollah rosy colored glasses. Relations with Saddam went along splendidly, even after missiles fired by Iraqi planes struck the USS Stark in 1987, an act which had your young bluejacket author patrolling the Persian Gulf a couple of weeks later.
Bush League Decisions - George the First had it Right
After his business with Iran concluded and the Kurdish mess had been gruesomely disposed of, Saddam continued to chase his wispy dictator's dreams of territorial expansion by invading Kuwait. This resulted in the Persian Gulf War, in which Iraqi forces were handily defeated by the United States and allies and the road to Baghdad lay wide open.
President George H Bush was roundly criticized later for not "finishing the job" by rolling straight on to the Presidential Palace and removing the Butcher of Baghdad once and for all. Instead, he held the coalition forces back to endure the sadistic caprices of this madman for another 12 years.
A lot of theories have been offered to explain why a triumphant George Bush the First suddenly became skittish before the gates of Baghdad, including the following: House to house fighting in the interior of Iraq would have resulted in severe US casualties, the UN security council only authorized enough force to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait, the United States led coalition would have fallen apart, there would have been senseless collateral damage to the lives and property of Iraq's citizens, a bloody counterinsurgency war would be necessary to put down Iraqi rebellion, George Sr was sensitive to the foreign policy of the Turks, who were involved in their own counterinsurgency efforts against the Kurds and didn't want the US to remove Saddam Hussein, their best weapon in that conflict. All of these ideas have been expounded by the academic talking heads, and they look nice when laid out on the lines of research papers.
With the accumulated wisdom of years under our belts and the bloody events of Fallujah, roadside and suicide bombs, and thousands of body bags being shipped home on cargo planes to American shores, we can more calmly and reflectively analyze the elder Bush's decision not to take out Saddam. Unlike his more impulsive, hot-headed son, perhaps he simply understood that Iraq was a rotten house of cards that would collapse at the slightest nudge. Saddam was the only putrid cement holding it up.
So it was left to his son, George W, to move in 12 years later and blow the lid off of Pandora's box.
Filling the Void
If the decade long Iraq war initiated in 2003 by George H's less prudent offspring proved one thing to the US, it was that the artificially and arbitrarily created nation state of Iraq could only be held together as an entity through sheer brute force. Saddam held onto power for some 30 years by recognizing this cruel reality. Despite the United States' more noble hopes for a smooth transition to democracy, an unquenchable undercurrent of unrest demonstrated that maybe Saddam was right; maybe centuries of tribal tensions among ethnic groups that historically hated one another could not be put to rest by purple fingered voters alone.
There wasn't a stove hot enough anywhere to get all the mutually incompatible ingredients in the Iraq melting pot to stir together smoothly. All the same the US declared victory after 10 bloody years and the withdrawal of US troops from this combustible Mesopotamian mixture was finished in 2011. Maintaining the unpopular government elected by the hopeful purple fingered public had required an enormous host that peaked at 170,000, but still was not big enough to subdue this bristly beast laying astride the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Without the support of US troops the Iraqi government lingered on in shaky peace for a couple years more. Then in June of 2014 the unstable edifice began to show signs of imminent collapse when the nation lost control of its borders and militants of a heretofore relatively unknown group known as ISIL, sometimes ISIS, began to take control of huge swaths of Iraqi territory. Advancing distressingly close to Baghdad, the ISIL militants captured oil fields and dams and pursued a policy of executing everyone who did not practice the same flavor of Islam as they did. This is not quite the Utopian vision of Iraqi democracy that the policy makers painted when the US and her allies invaded in 2003, but this is where Pandora's box stands on the eve of 2015.
Was it Worth it?
Roughly 4,500 US Servicemen and women died in the Iraq War, if you round off. Approximately 32,000 were wounded. 500 soldiers came home amputees. Depending on the political spin of the source, the Iraq War cost the United States between 750 billion to 1.7 trillion dollars.
What was the result? What was our return on investment for the lives and the heavy financial debt we created for our children, grandchildren, probably great grandchildren to pay off? Did we win the war? Did we create a stable democracy in Iraq, did we install a government in which the governed are free from the threat of arbitrary death, torture, and terror? Do we really care about proliferating cute little carbon copies of US democracy and protecting human rights across the globe, or did we simply pay lip service to these ideals to provide the American people with a digestible justification for this costly conflict? If an outpouring of American altruism really was our goal, is the average Iraqi happier than before the "Shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad took place on March 21st, 2003?
You might say that at least we got rid of a bad dictator, and I say big deal. The United States has traditionally supported and befriended a long litany of dictators; some as bad, some worse than Saddam, who was also our buddy once. If we deployed US troops everywhere democracy and human rights are lacking, our forces would be engaged on every continent except Antarctica, and I wouldn't be surprised to see us bombing the penguins there too.
In the meantime, the whirlwind of evil forces that Saddam was holding back has swooped in like gangbusters. ISIL is eating huge chunks off of the Iraqi map, and the current US presidential administration is softening up the public for a return trip. More billions, more body bags. Would it have been wiser to just leave the lid on Pandora's box? I don't know, ask the families that the flag-draped coffins coming back from Baghdad belong to.