Ten years after Saddam’s death

Sunday 29/01/2017

It has been ten years since the hanging of Saddam Hussein following months of legal drama and sophistry in a courtroom that, at times, resembled a circus.
Saddam remains a divisive figure both in the West and on the Arab street. Despised by many as a vicious and greedy dictator, abhorred by neighbouring Iran for the near-decade-long war that crippled both countries and feared by the Gulf Arab states as a loose cannon following his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, there was much rejoicing at his demise.
Saddam’s downfall began in 2003 and culminated in his death December 30th, 2006. It should be highlighted as the event that changed the modern Middle East from its old ways. The tenth anniversary of Saddam’s death should have made front pages in mainstream media outlets across the West.
In Britain and the United States, there was hardly a mention — barely a whisper. Why? Was this not the tenth anniversary when the Middle East received justice for a vile dictator? Was this not the tenth anniversary of the West bringing parliamentary democracy, good governance and stability to the Arab world? Was this not the tenth anniversary of the new Iraq — one that is a safe place to all its people?
With all that progress delivered — and on a silver platter by the Americans to the Iraqi people — one would have thought that such an event would have been celebrated all over Western media. The silence is almost deafening.
The fact is that the fall of Saddam Hussein did not bring about any of the above but the complete opposite.
Saddam’s downfall was followed by the largest waves of sectarian turmoil, violence and upheaval in Iraqi history as well as a complete destabilisation of the region.
On the wider geopolitical stage, a militarily weakened and divided Iraq has left a gaping power vacuum in the region that has enabled Iran and Saudi Arabia to embark on its own unique version of the cold war with proxy battlefields elsewhere — in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
It was not so glaringly apparent then but Saddam’s Iraq acted as a silent secular arbitrator to the region’s two most powerful theocratic forces. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia could not attend to each other because they had one eye on the novel-writing dictator.
Internally, the picture is no less bleak. Iraq’s economy has been on its knees and its people divided. During the last ten years, there has even been growing talk of the possibility of a three-state partition of Iraq along sectarian lines. Such talk would have been unthinkable before the US-led invasion in 2003.
The reality on the ground is not so much damning as the inability of Washington policymakers, even today, to put their finger on what went wrong and how Iraq, by 2014, faced an existential threat with the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS). Even today, there is no consensus as to the strategy that should have been adopted following regime change.
The legacy and outcome of all this is some sort of decision-making paralysis in Western corridors of power. The failures in Iraq and the harrowing fear of their repetition heavily influenced the decisions of former US president Barack Obama and Britain’s Westminster not to intervene militarily on the ground in Syria.
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, built his presidential campaign in part on pledges that his administration would never seek regime change or nation building anywhere.
The failures in Iraq must not linger indefinitely so that every call for intervention, particularly on humanitarian grounds, is denied. That is the legacy left by the West’s Iraqi project and Saddam’s downfall.
The failure of a situation in which no intervention was needed in 2003 now serves as a reasoning against intervention even where intervention may be genuinely and legally required. The real tragedy is not political. It is human.
The removal of Saddam from the Middle Eastern chessboard has, rather than bring any real democracy, changed the balance of power to create a plethora of proxy wars and proxy sub-wars involving the United States, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon and Yemen as well as several non-state actors.