When Saddam Hussein first went on trial in October 2005, I wrote a satirical memo from Saddam to his (still living) chief lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi. In it, he explained why he did not want to embarrass the United States during the trial:
We had good times back in the day, we can again. I think in time the Americans will shake the influence of their Zionist masters and come to their senses. They still need someone to hold the line against Iran, more than ever these days. Will the Shiites do it? Not likely! And there was never this level of disorder when I was in power. Order is what they want. I can take care of it. They know this, and they will come to me eventually. If we can draw it out they’ll understand the futility of this exercise. They don’t have to admit failure, I can stand for election or something, however they want to dress it up. We just need some time.
I was only partly kidding in that passage. I knew this really was part of Saddam’s defense strategy. It seemed funny at the time. But now who’s laughing? As Saddam’s probable execution nears and violence in Iraq escalates, the idea of bringing him back to power is starting to simmer.
The rumor that the U.S. has been backing Saddam all along has been out there in one form or another since 2003. It was originally intended to delegitimize the presence of Coalition forces, particularly among the Shiites. We overthrew him, but are keeping him around in case we need him, in case the Shiites grow too powerful. The notion has been hawked by the Iranian press for years, most recently this week in the Tehran Times. The story line is familiar — the U.S. fears a Shiite majority in Iraq that will pursue friendly relations with Iran. The answer is to overthrow the democracy and place the Baathists back in power. “The secret visit to Baghdad by US Vice President Dick Cheney and former secretary of state James A. Baker, who is currently the chairman of the Iraq Study Group, is part of the conspiracy,” the Times speculates. Jomhuri-ye Eslami says a coup against the current government “would be one of Bush’s major achievements to implement American-style democracy in Iraq at the hand of the Ba’thists, and to present a new style of democracy to all the bewildered observers.” Bewildered is right. Hard to see how it constitutes a major achievement to go to all this trouble to wind up where we started.
Meanwhile back home The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, in a piece I am still not sure is serious, makes his case for bringing back Saddam. Everyone agrees that radical de-Baathification was a blunder, so why not try radical re-Baathification? You want order? Saddam invented it. A bulwark against Iran? He’s your guy. Plus, this time around he’ll be grateful and cooperative. If not, we hang him. The people? They will be so shocked and awed by the turn of events they’ll meekly reassume their traditional roles. No more random killings in the streets, but focused, systematic, and orderly massacres in freshly dug pits. No foreign terrorists coming and going as they please, but only doing so on Saddam’s orders. Oil exports up, American troops out. It really would be an ideal solution, if it weren’t for all those lives we sacrificed on our journey back to square one.
Even if we declare the democratic experiment dead and seek regime re-change, I do not understand the fascination with Saddam per se. There have to be many dictators in waiting out there, why bring back one who most likely will be very angry at us for all the trouble we put him through? Saddam does not do gratitude. If you want a strongman, wouldn’t it be much easier just to hand the reigns over to someone else? Sure, Saddam has a proven record of accomplishment, he knows how to use a political party ruthlessly to dominate a government apparatus and establish totalitarian rule buttressed by secret police and an effective cult of personality, but these days who doesn’t?
The “bring back Saddam” plan is a geostrategic way of saying “Oops, my bad.” It seeks to erase the last three and a half years of conflict and start fresh, as though one could do so without consequences. Resurrecting the Baathist regime, even if it were possible, would stand as a repudiation of the entire war effort, its means, its ends, and its ideals. It would be a slap in the face to all the members of the armed forces who have done or continue to do their duty in Iraq, not to mention those who have been wounded, and the families of the fallen. It would signal the emergent impotence of the United States in world affairs, and the death-spiral of the Bush presidency. It would be an admission of strategic failure on a level seldom seen in history.
Other than that — great idea.
– James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation , and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.