Correlli Barnett, a long-standing critic of the Coalition overthrow of Saddam’s Ba’ath dictatorship, gives us this in this week’s Spectator:
“In Saddam’s strictly secular Iraq, al-Qa’eda and other forms of Islamist extremism were ruthlessly put down. Is it not plainer every month that we would all (including Iraqis) now be much better off if Saddam Hussein had been left in power,but under continued allied air surveillance?”
The regular trope that Saddam was a “strictly” secular leader won’t wash. The “strictness” was in fact pretty variable. What is Barnett trying to say, that Hussein kept copies of the complete works of Voltaire and Richard Dawkins under his bed? Surely, to be serious, Saddam was capable and willing to use and invoke religion when it suited his purposes; I have no idea whether he thought there was a supreme being or not, but frankly, what consolation would it be to the tens, hundreds of thousands of people who were brutalised by his rule to be told that he was “strictly” secular? The Marsh Arabs, the Shiites, the Kurds and other groups may want to ask Mr Barnett what benefit they had from being oppressed by a “secular” ruler. Stalin was “strictly secular”, as was Mao, at least as far as I know.
In fact, this argument is so silly that it got me wondering about what exactly is so marvellous about “strictly” secular regimes that cause havoc on a mass scale; Stalin’s Russia, for example, with its attendant mass famines, the Gulag, and the rest, surely drives a stake through the notion that the absence of revealed religion automatically brings a better state of affairs. I am a lapsed Christian, and no admirer of much that goes under the name of religion (that’s puttting it mildly, ed), but there are so many examples of evil, secular regimes, that it is hard to summon breath to point this rather obvious fact to someone like Barnett.
Then there is this claim that Iraqis and others would have been “much better off” with the old brute in power. That is frankly impossible to judge, and sitting here in the comfort of my apartment, is not one I feel fit to make, but then neither does Mr Barnett. I guess the henchmen who ran Saddam’s torture chambers and his security services feel that their circumstances have taken a big turn for the worse; George Galloway and the various other lowlifes clearly may mourn his passing; arms dealers in the West, East and elsewhere may rue the missed orders and deals no longer struck (that includes Britain, I am ashamed to say), but if Barnett wants to make this claim with seriousness, he needs to weigh the costs of what is now happening in Iraq with the toll of the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, the gassing of villagers in northern Iraq, etc. And he needs to consider whether, and for how long, Saddam’s regime could have lasted, even without sanctions, and what would have happened thereafter.
The other problem I have is Barnett’s casually thrown-in comment about the Allied air surveillance – he means the “no-fly zones” in the north and south of Iraq. They cost money to enforce, there was exchange of fire between the airforces and the Iraqi forces on the ground (breaches of the 1991 Ceasfire, for those who bleat about the “illegal” invasion of 2003). It is naive to imagine those flights could have remained indefinitely, or have been enforceable beyond a certain point. Sooner or later, the air cover would have been reduced, leaving those in the north and the south to the tender mercies of Saddam’s/his son’s forces on the ground. Not a happy prospect.
There are good arguments to be made against the war: Saddam posed us no immediate threat; his armed forces were degraded after 1991 and there were more serious threats around which required more of our attention. There are also prudential grounds to avoid war if possible, starting with the old adage, which ought to be familiar to libertarians: the law of unintended consequences. I have found myself, more than once, rueing the entire enterprise as an object lesson in the folly of interventionism and chided myself from falling off the wagon in this respect. But the only problem is that I start getting those neo-con urges as soon as apologists for dictatorship like Barnett put pen to paper. The anti-war folk may have many arguments in their favour, but so many of them give me the creeps.
(Update: topic heading changed: this article has nothing to do with Korea!)