13 August 2004
You could call it the "Saddam defence". Whenever advocates of the war in Iraq sense that they risk finally losing the argument, they whip out their trump card - the ultimate rhetorical question: Would Iraq be better off if Saddam were still in power? Of course not, comes back the obedient chorus.
Tony Blair, even more than George Bush, is a master of the "Saddam defence". He invokes it whenever the questioning of his judgement becomes too threatening. "For any mistakes made ... in good faith," Mr Blair said in response to the Butler report, "I of course take full responsibility, but I cannot honestly say that getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all."
With the past week of fierce fighting for control of Najaf, hundreds of Iraqis killed and the terrifying prospect of a wholesale Shia revolt, the "Saddam defence" should no longer be allowed to clinch the argument. It should be answered. And it is no longer absurd to argue that, yes, on balance, Iraq and Iraqis might have been better off under Saddam Hussein.
The two most persuasive arguments for the removal of Saddam Hussein were the two threats he represented: the one, through his supposed weapons of mass destruction, to the region and the world; the other, as a reckless war leader and ruthless tyrant, to his own people. As the first argument evaporated and Saddam's weapons became mere "intentions", so the second argument grew into the retrospective justification for war.
By ousting Saddam Hussein, the invading powers said they had "freed" Iraq and its people, opening a future of democracy and prosperity (from oil). From the moment the first US forces into Baghdad orchestrated the toppling of Saddam's statue right in front of the hotel used by most journalists and at prime television viewing time in the US, it should have been apparent that this most optimistic scenario was unlikely.
What actually followed was the total breakdown of law and order. It was not civil war, with faction fighting faction. It was the failure of the invaders to fulfil their first responsibility as occupiers: to ensure law and order. Normally law-abiding people were forced to defend what little they had: their property and their children, against their less law-abiding fellow-citizens. They were forced to become law-breakers, too.
Not only personal security was lost, but professional security and any modicum of financial security also, as hitherto safe, if low-paid, jobs vanished. The disbanding of the army threw hundreds of thousands into penury - and millions into further peril as idle ex-soldiers and weapons flooded the country.
The modest personal comforts available under Saddam Hussein also declined. The occupying powers were long unable to restore vital utilities, such as clean water and electricity. It was not until this April that electricity generation was back to pre-war levels - though many Iraqis dispute even this. The occupiers' declared ambition had been to increase provision, to show that they could achieve something and to win public trust. They said at the outset that uneven provision of electricity and clean water was because the previous regime had skewed distribution to favoured areas. Many, though, felt worse off than they had been before.
But what of freedom, you ask. Talk of security and personal comfort is all very well, and the occupation forces did not do a good job there, but surely such material deprivations are more than offset by new freedoms - of speech, faith and assembly? For some, these may indeed outweigh the deterioration in the material quality of their lives. Only the most cerebrally inclined, though, are likely to place the freedom of the spirit above the value of a safe home.
The response to the safety question from foreign defenders of the war is to reel off a damning list of Saddam's undoubted crimes against his own people: the gas attacks, the torture chambers, the political killings - for which the incontrovertible evidence is in all the mass graves we have been shown on television. Even here, though, the real extent of Saddam's brutality remains to be proved. The new Iraqi authorities say that 1.3 million people are missing. Mr Blair said that 400,000 bodies had been found in mass graves, a figure Downing Street later retracted. So far only 5,000 bodies have been found.
Any mass graves are too many. But the vast range of figures affords ample opportunity for interested parties to exaggerate - or minimise - the ruthlessness with which Saddam imposed his rule. It is also possible, though little acknowledged, that the hesitant welcome accorded to the occupying forces reflected not only fear that Saddam might return, but the awareness of many Iraqis that they had more than chains to lose.
Perhaps it is just coincidence, but the "Saddam defence" has recently undergone a subtle change in wording. "It is very difficult to look at Iraq today," Mr Blair said, "to look at Iraq under Saddam and say we would be better off, the world would be safer, we would be more secure, if Saddam was still in charge of Iraq." Maybewe are better off - but can the same be said of Iraqis?