The 2010 question

2010-02-10 00:00

AT the Iraq inquiry in London on January 29, former British prime minister Tony Blair found a new way to defend his decision to join George W. Bush in invading Iraq in 2003: the what-if defence. What if they hadn’t invaded­ Iraq, and Saddam Hussein had remained in power?

“What’s important is not to ask the March 2003 question, but to ask the 2010 question,” Blair said. “Supposing we had backed off this military action, supposing we had left Saddam and his sons, who were going to follow him, in charge of Iraq — people who used chemical weapons, caused the death of over one million people … If we had left Saddam in power, we would have to deal with him today, where the circumstances would be far worse.”

Blair obviously thought that this was the one argument nobody could disagree with. Maybe he’d cooked the intelligence about Iraq, maybe Saddam actually had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — Blair admits that nowadays — but if he had left this evil monster in power, we would all be sorry now.

Cut to the chase: what would the world be like if Saddam were still in power in Iraq? Much the same as it is now, in all likelihood.

Many people asked exactly the same question in 1991, after the first president Bush decided not to overthrow Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War. The answer is that in the next 10 years, until 2001, Saddam attacked no neighbours, built no weapons of mass destruction, did nothing that gave the world reason to regret that he had been left in power.

Many Iraqis regretted it, partly because the United Nations sanctions against Saddam were impoverishing their country. The sanctions had been imposed to ensure that Saddam could not rebuild his armed forces, most of which had been destroyed in the Gulf War, and that he could not re-start the projects for developing weapons of mass destruction that had been dismantled by UN inspectors during the early nineties.

The sanctions were still working well in 2003. The proof is that no weapons of mass destruction were found, nor even any evidence that Saddam was trying to revive his pre-1991 WMD programmes, after the invaders arrived in 2003 and ransacked Iraq looking for evidence to justify their actions.

I could have told you that. In fact, if you were a reader of this column seven years ago, I did tell you that. It was obvious to any reasonably well-informed person in 2003 that Saddam no longer presented a military threat even to his neighbours. There is no reason to believe that sanctions would have ended if the United States and Britain had not invaded Iraq in 2003, or that Saddam would be any more dangerous today than he was then.

But what about the million people he killed? The great majority of those million people died on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties, and Saddam only “killed” them in the same limited sense that Blair “killed” several hundred thousand people by invading Iraq in 2003.

The people who actually died at the hands of Saddam’s secret police­, or in his suppression of revolts­ like the Shia uprising of 1991, were much less numerous. The mass killings only happened in response to direct threats to the regime, and none occurred after 1991. The number of people killed in Saddam’s jails in a normal year was probably in the low hundreds. He was just another vicious dictator, not a “monster of evil”.

So why did Bush and Blair invade­ Iraq? Maybe for U.S. strategists it had something to do with oil, but for Blair, at least, it was pure ignorance. If anybody ever explained to him that Saddam had nothing to do with the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on September 11, he didn’t listen.

Blair didn’t realise that Saddam was a pragmatist who had been happy to accept U.S. support during that war that killed a million people, not some hater of the West on principle. He didn’t understand that Baathists like Saddam were the sworn enemies of religious fanatics like the al-Qaeda bunch, each killing the other whenever they got the chance. For him, they were all Arabs. They were all Muslims. They were all the same.

It’s all history now, and maybe it’s not worth bothering about. Except that people just as ignorant as Blair are now peddling us the same kind of nonsense about Iran.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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