Irene might be interested in the current issue of the U.S. News & World Report. The lead story is “Endangered Places, How Humans are threatening the existence of the world’s most precious destinations.” I was more interested in something else. This is the “75th Anniversary Issue,” and they picture one of the issues from almost every year. 1952, for example has a picture of Joseph McCarthy and gives the title of the lead story as “What’s McCarthyism?” 1968 has a picture of a smiling Richard Nixon and the title, “What Nixon Will do as President.”
But the issue I was most interested in was June 4, 1990. It pictured a glowering Saddam Hussein and showed the lead story to be “The Most Dangerous Man in the World.” We are provided with an outline, or perhaps the meat of the story: “Like most good stories, this one started with a hunch. Lief, who speaks fluent Arabic, had followed Saddam’s eight-year war with Iran and was alarmed by his continuing military buildup and aggressive troop deployments along the Kuwaiti border. She also took his escalating rhetoric against Kuwait, Israel, and others quite seriously. ‘The context was this was a guy who had a very warped understanding of the outside world and his own judgment,’ says John Walcott, who was U.S. News’s foreign editor. ‘You could tell he was heading for trouble.’
“Separately, some of the magazine’s reporters were tracking a pattern of Iraqi weapons purchases, many with the involvement of western governments and companies. Over nearly a decade Iraq had systematically been gathering technology and ingredients needed for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. ‘Everywhere we turned, it appeared that some of the most dangerous material being procured illegally around the world, and in some cases inside the United states, was being shipped to Iraq,’ recalls Peter Cary, who was covering the Pentagon. ‘All roads were leading in the same direction – to Baghdad.’
“Even many in the U.S. government had failed to piece together the full extent of the threat – perhaps, in part, because of their occasional complicity. When Brian Duffy, then the magazine’s intelligence reporter informed a top U.S. intelligence official that U.S. News was about to label Saddam Hussein ‘the world’s most dangerous man,’ the official simply said, ‘Oh, Saddam’s not going to like that.’”
Some of the “complicity” referred to undoubtedly pertained to the playing off of Saddam against the Ayatollah during the Iraq/Iran war. Realpolitik was in full bloom during that period. But the flower withered and almost died after the fall of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War we “did whatever was in our best interest” which often meant cozying up to some pretty unsavory dictators like Saddam. The man in the street may not have approved of Realpolitik as a permanent principle, but he understood it when it was applied to the Soviet Union. We were in a life-and-death struggle with the Soviet Union, or so we believed, so if we needed to pretend to like some brutal dictators to keep them from going over to the Dark Side, then we’d better do it. Iran had gone over to the dark side (was getting arms from the Soviet Union) and so we supported Saddam, but
the Soviet Union fell in 1989, and in the same year the Ayatollah died. Yeah, lots of people thought the Ayatollah was “the Most dangerous man in the World,” but by 1990 he was dead.
Which meant that we didn’t really need to do Realpolitik any longer – at least we didn’t think we did. Saddam left a very bad taste in our mouths and whatever leverage he had over us, Realpolitik-wise, died when the Ayatollah did.. But as the writer said, Saddam “had a very warped understanding of the outside world and his own judgment.”
I picked up Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, Explaining World War I, the other day to see if I could read a few more pages and couldn’t. But I recalled that Ferguson loved to play with “counterfactuals.” What would the world be like today if we had let this June 4, 1990 “most dangerous man in the world,” have his Kuwait and his head? His ambition was to create an Arab Ummah that would be the equal of the U.S., Europe, or China.. What would the world be like if we’d let him do it – even encouraged it? Yeah, he was a brutal dictator, but we’d been dealing with those in the Soviet Union for years. Yeah he killed a bunch of his own people, but so have the Chinese. Irene likes to insist that Ahmadinejad is really a reasonable rational person, why couldn’t we insist the same thing about Saddam? I’m not being ironic here, I’m really considering the idea.
As soon as I wrote that, I realized I wouldn’t be believed. Certain people will insist on believing I’m being ironic even while saying I’m not, but if we’d allowed Saddam to go ahead and do his thing, we wouldn’t be worrying quite so much about Iran today. In fact, Saddam probably wouldn’t have been as long suffering and patient as the UN & US have been about Iran’s nuclear build up. He would have already knocked their nuclear facilities out.
And what would we have to worry about from him directly? Irene would be telling us that he is really a reasonable and rationale person and wouldn’t actually bomb anyone, and maybe he wouldn’t actually do that because we could then threaten to bomb Baghdad as soon as he bombed Israel. Would that be enough for Israel? Maybe.
One of the pretexts for Osama bin Laden was American soldiers in the Islamic Holy Land, but the only reason those soldiers were there was that Saudi Arabia was afraid they were the next domino Saddam was interested in knocking over, and that was probably true, but so what? As long as we’re doing a counterfactual, let’s let Saddam have Saudi Arabia as well. Now he has enormous wealth and we have to deal with him forever, or until the oil runs out, but Saddam wants a lot of things and has to sell his oil. Maybe that would work out.
Maybe if there had been no First Gulf War, and Bush hadn’t mistakenly counted on his popularity after giving Saddam his comeuppance, he would have realized “it’s the economy, stupid,” and done what was necessary to get elected to a second term.
Is what we have now better than what we would have had if we’d allowed Saddam to dominate the Arab World? I don’t know.