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It’s 2003 again – and we’re still fighting over Saddam

The world has suddenly returned to 2003. Once again, the politics of much of the English-speaking world are dominated by the question of how to deal with Saddam Hussein.

In 2003, it was a question that furiously divided opinion on both the right and the left. And the answer, delivered that March, was a military invasion that led in turn to occupation, hasty trial, botched hanging and imposition of a sectarian government. It was so wrongly conceived, inappropriately timed and executed that it obliterated the original question.

Starved of meaning, it has now returned to haunt us.

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Britain's Chilcot Inquiry has made it abundantly clear, in its 12-volume report this week, that the problem of Saddam Hussein could not have been dealt with in a worse possible way.

There was no imminent threat, no reason to go into Iraq so hastily, with so little support from neighbouring countries and without United Nations backing, and without a viable post-invasion plan for a transition to a new government.

The civilian death toll in Iraq probably exceeded the worst Saddam would have done to his people, rendering the whole thing pointless. The imposition of a Shia government created a de facto civil war and the cast-out remnants of the old Iraqi army were the prime movers behind the creation of the terrorist army Islamic State.

And it caused U.S. forces to descend into humanitarian abominations almost equal to those of their opponents.

And now we're feeling another consequence: Because it was so unjust and so botched, there now exists a generation of people, on both left and right, who believe that if the United States and its allies were so wrong, Saddam Hussein must have been right.

We heard a lot of that this week – from the anti-war movement, from the many on the right who once again argue that Arab strongman dictators are a good idea.

And, most influentially, from Donald Trump.

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"You know what he did well? He killed terrorists," Mr. Trump told his supporters this week. "He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists. Over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism."

Those words were almost identical to the ones he uttered in February ("Saddam Hussein understood and he killed terrorists.") and in November ("Look at Iraq. Iraq used to be no terrorists."), when he also said the world would be "100-per-cent better" with Saddam still in power.

Saddam did kill and otherwise eliminate people whom he labelled "terrorists." But he used that word to describe not people who blow up planes, but rather entire ethnic, racial and religious groups he felt were threats to his rule.

And he certainly did kill them. In fact, he killed his own citizens in greater numbers than any leader since Pol Pot, for no other reason than their ethnicity. Between 1989 and 1991, he murdered more than 100,000 Iraqi citizens simply because of their Kurdish ethnicity, a large proportion of them women and children, entirely because he felt that Kurds were insufficiently loyal during his horrific war with Iran. This includes between 5,000 and 9,000 villagers who died horribly in the terrible nerve-gas attacks of the Anfal campaign.

Then, in 1991, he slaughtered tens of thousands of his citizens simply for being Shiite, after some led an uprising, expecting international support in their overthrow of the world's worst living mass murderer. None was forthcoming, and half a million were driven from their homes, into refugee camps or death.

These were the "terrorists." And these twin slaughters led the world to react, albeit awkwardly and wrongly. A decade of UN-imposed sanctions and no-fly zones led Saddam to crush and starve his citizens harder. An easing of the sanctions, credible observers feared, would lead to a third, far worse ethnic-slaughter campaign.

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At some point, some form of international military intervention to stop Saddam Hussein was going to occur, either before or after a genocide. The fact that it was done at the wrong time, by the wrong people, for the wrong reasons (entirely fictitious reasons), using the wrong methods, is the root cause of much of the world's misery today – and part of that misery is the popular fallacy of the benign dictator.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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