Even the harshest Bush-bashing pundit tends to qualify his or her criticism of the war in Iraq with the line, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was an evil man and we should all be thankful that he and his cronies have been deposed, but ”
In fact, you can already envision neoconservative columnists insisting a year or two from now that despite the fact that we weren’t successful in establishing a democracy in Mesopotamia, we should appreciate the “legacy” that President George W. Bush has left behind.
Our grand ambitions of making Iraq and the Arab world safe for political freedom weren’t fulfilled. But at least we don’t have another bloody dictator around anymore, right?
To respond to that question, one should press the rewind button of 20th-century history.
One hundred years ago, liberal intellectuals in New York, London, and Paris were united in the certainty that the most anti-democratic and corrupt regime in Europe was czarist Russia.
Czar Nikolai II and his cronies were considered leading reactionary figures who were opposed to reform, oppressed their people, launched anti-Jewish pogroms and dominated a huge empire.
It was not surprising, then, that the abdication of Czar Nikolai II in 1917 produced a sense of euphoria among liberals everywhere. Now that the evil tyrant was gone, they expected Russia would enter an age of political and economic progress.
All things considered, the Russian people were expected to be better off without Czar Nikolai II.
Cleaning Up Germany
Such reactions also followed the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in World War I. Most Western observers regarded the authoritarian and militarist Kaiser Wilhelm II as a warmonger responsible for the outbreak of the Great War.
His exile and replacement by a republican system committed to democratic principles was seen as great progress.
Hindsight Is 20/20
Together with the end of the czarist rule in Russia as well as the collapse of the despised Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires the kaiser’s removal was another step in the worldwide march toward a better future.
The world was supposedly now better off without all these autocrats and despots.
In hindsight, we can vividly spot the weaknesses of these assumptions.
History has exposed the revolting personalities of Hitler and Stalin and the horrific images of Auschwitz and the gulag, the bloody battlegrounds of World War II and the protracted history of the Cold War.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Following the terror of the civil war in Yugoslavia and the continuing mess in the Middle East, some may even feel nostalgic toward the Austro-Hungarian emperors and the Ottoman sultan.
This is not to dispute that Hussein was a monster like Stalin and Mao he certainly was. However, the more relevant point to consider is whether whatever or whomever replaces him will be an improvement over the status quo ante.
No Safe Bets
Might we and more importantly, the Iraqi people feel a similar sense of nostalgia toward Saddam Hussein years from now? Let us hope not.
But if the country degenerates into a bloody civil war à la Afghanistan with weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of warlords and terrorists then all bets are off.
If parts of Iraq come under the rule of a theocratic Shi’ite regime, women and Christians wouldn’t even enjoy the limited freedom they had under the secular Ba’ath rule.
Will the times and actions of Saddam be sanitized if Iran, equipped with nuclear weapons, becomes the hegemonic power in the entire Persian Gulf?
A Hazy Picture
What will happen if Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia become embroiled in a regional war in which they would carve up Iraq?
Finally, how will the past be reinterpreted if the United States is forced into a lengthy and costly occupation to prevent these scenarios sketched above?
Bearing the Burden
We should recall, however, that Czar Nikolai II was forced out of power by the Russian people and not by an outside power.
And, notwithstanding President Woodrow Wilson’s slogan of “making the world safe for democracy,” World War I resulted from political and strategic considerations and was not aimed at “regime change” in Russia or Germany.
The United States ousted Saddam Hussein, a man known for brutality against his own people and for his threats against his neighbors, in a war of choice.
As a result, we Americans have become responsible for whatever scenario might unfold in Iraq or its remnants, for better or, more likely for worse.