Before the invasion of Iraq, when America was still dazed by 9/11, and stories of Taliban brutality were page-one news, the New Yorker ran a 16,000-word piece by reporter Jeffrey Goldberg on the Iraqi genocide against the Kurds. The tone of “The Great Terror” captures that time perfectly. Saddam is portrayed as a vile and evil dictator, every bit as bad as a J. Stalin or an A. Hitler. Goldberg’s story is rife with tales of mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing, poison gas factories, rape rooms, and nuclear ambitions. Everything a bloodthirsty tyrant could want.
The essay — now called a “major chunk of agitprop” by The Nation‘s Alexander Cockburn — ends on this ominous note:
The Germans also feel?[a] desire to expose Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs?”It is our estimate that Iraq will have an atomic bomb in three years,” [German intelligence chief August] Hanning said. There is some debate among arms-control experts about exactly when Saddam will have nuclear capabilities. But there is no disagreement that Iraq, if unchecked, will have them soon, and a nuclear-armed Iraq would alter forever the balance of power in the Middle East (emphasis added)? There is little doubt what Saddam might do with an atomic bomb or with his stocks of biological and chemical weapons. When I talked about Saddam’s past with the medical geneticist Christine Gosden, she said, “Please understand, the Kurds were for practice.”
Next Wednesday (Oct. 19) the Iraqi Special Tribunal will put Saddam Hussein and seven of his obersturmfuhrers on trial for the murder of 143 Shiites in the village of Dujail, in 1982, following an assassination attempt. Prosecutors say this is only a test case. There are as many as 500 possible charges against Saddam. If convicted one hopes some industrious Iraqi will be “selling postcards of the hanging.”
Depending on whom you ask, Saddam was responsible for the murder of between 300,000 (U.S. government figures) and one million Iraqi civilians (Iraqi politicians’ figures), in other words, for the extermination of as much as 10 percent of the Iraqi population, according to the Iraqi Forum for Democracy. This doesn’t include the Iranian deaths due to Saddam’s poison gas attacks during the Iraq-Iran War, and certainly doesn’t include his other assorted barbarisms: his rape rooms, torture chambers, live burnings, ethnic-cleansing campaigns, attacks on neighboring countries (Israel and Kuwait), to say nothing of the nearly four million Kurds still suffering the effects of chemical weapons exposure.
DESPITE THE THICK YELLOW STREAK Saddam displayed at his capture as he crawled meekly from his spider-hole hideout, and his continuing denial of wrongdoing — “This is all theatre. The real criminal is Bush,” he said recently — the former Iraqi president still ranks with the most savage of mass murderers of the 20th century, the bloodiest of all periods. If Saddam failed to keep pace with Stalin and Lenin (62 million killed), Mao (32 million), or Hitler (20 million), it was not for lack of trying. In fact, if the antiwar gang had gotten their way, Saddam would still be piling up bodies, well on his way to surpassing the totals seen in the Armenian genocide of 1909-18. “Over the past decade and a half, I have seen the aftermath of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the death pits in Rwanda,” writes Andrew S. Natsios, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. “I can attest to Saddam’s tenure as President of Iraq as being equally savage and murderous.”
Even Human Rights Watch, the organization that has put so much effort into documenting Saddam’s war crimes and crimes against humanity, objected to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. HRW now claims, in hindsight, that the U.S.’s justification for war was mistaken if not misleading, and that the invasion, now partly justified on humanitarian grounds, gives “humanitarian intervention a bad name.” To HRW, timing is everything. Had the U.S. invaded Iraq during the 1988 murder spree — that would have been okay. But waiting until America had a president with a backbone and a moral conscience and wasn’t distracted by an intern’s plump thighs — that’s criminal. “Better late than never is not a justification for humanitarian invasion,” says HRW’s Ken Roth. Saddam’s victims would beg to differ.
Many who tend to parrot what they hear on the evening news and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart insist that Saddam did not pose a serious threat to the U.S. He had, they maintain, no connection to al Qaeda, no nuclear weapons, no intention of threatening the U.S. (Here I usually proffer my copy of Stephen G. Hayes’s The Connection, which they inevitably decline.) That Saddam was a very real threat to his own people, and that he sponsored international terror is of no concern. Half the world’s leaders are threats to their own people, they say. Asked about Iraq’s more than 270 mass graves, they are struck silent and dumb.
As for next week’s proceedings, one question remains to be seen: will the mainstream media make as big a deal over Saddam Hussein’s trial as it did over, say, Scott Peterson’s? Or as it doubtless will over Tom DeLay’s hearings?
Far from the concerns of the street, there is a debate in the nation’s think tanks over when the U.S. should intervene in the affairs of foreign nations. The realists, like the Cato Institute’s (and sometime TAS contributor) Christopher Preble, reject values-based foreign interventions (sometimes disparagingly called international social work), and maintain that the U.S. should intervene only to defend its vital national security interests. I find this complete negation of values to be morally reprehensible. One has only to recall how the victims of Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Kurdistan waited expectantly and in vain for the world’s lone superpower, and the world’s “moral and political leader” (George Frost Kennan’s phrase), to come to their rescue. To do something. Anything. This time, to the eternal gratitude of the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, and Iraqi Shiites, America kept its promise. We have Saddam in the dock. And he will pay with his miserable life.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor and runs the Existential Journalist website.