The reported death of former Saddam aide and Iraqi insurgent leader Ibrahim al-Douri on Friday left me feeling a bit nostalgic. Al-Douri was one of the last old bad guys left, the King of Clubs in our card deck of most-wanted Iraqis. His name — like those of Chemical Ali and Uday Hussein — recalls a vastly different time. For a moment, the whole lexicon of Gulf War II phrases came roaring back: shock and awe, last throes, with us or against us, Hans Blix (Hans Blix!), yellowcake uranium. Wolfowitz. Armitage. Ashcroft. But it all happened over a decade ago, and feels like longer.
I’ve never had much patience for those commentators who claim the world today is more complex and challenging than ever before. It smacks of overwhelming conceit, for one thing — as if the problems we are dealing with are the most difficult and important of any human ever. It’s hard for me to understand how our problems are worse than those in the Cold War, when America was facing a hostile, nuclear-armed superpower that openly sponsored terrorism and whose army could sweep over ours like a speed bump. Or before that, when the British were rampaging around Maryland burning our capital. That seems like a tough problem also.
But there is some truth to the notion that a decade ago, the bad guys seemed more predictable. Saddam was a sociopathic thug, and his regime was run by thugs, but these were such unbelievably C-list thugs that it was hard to take them seriously. Even if you did, there was something at least recognizably human about them. They may have fed prisoners into the wood chipper, but they wore uniforms and berets and held press conferences. You could get an Iraqi visa and fly to Baghdad, where they had some decent hotels.
What came after — well, what came after didn’t even have that. Maliki’s Iraq played at being a real state for a while, essentially a less-polite Shiite version of Egypt. But then al-Qaeda in Iraq was back again, post-Zarqawi (Zarqawi! Remember him?), post-surge, and calling itself ISIS. Assad of Syria’s government collapsed next door in 2011, and the Islamic State was off to the races.
In truth, the Islamic State is just one of the hydra heads of this phenomenon we call Islamic radicalism, or Islamism. It is perhaps the cruelest incarnation we’ve yet seen, but liturgically not particularly different from al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shebaab, or any of the other freelance Sunni groups roaring around the Middle East. It’s just more successful.
It’s more alien, also. You couldn’t imagine getting a visa to visit the Islamic State, or flying into an airport controlled by its fighters. Saddam’s regime might hold a Westerner hostage, but al-Baghdadi’s might conceivably eat you. It wouldn’t be that surprising.
All of which gives rise to the question: Would Iraq have been better off if the U.S. had never invaded? If Saddam was still in power and we were still patrolling the no-fly zone, complaining about the Arab League breaking sanctions and haranguing Baghdad about the latest impediment to Hans Blix’s inspections?
Certainly, if we hadn’t, the Islamist hydra would probably have not taken such root among Iraq’s Sunni population. They had Saddam, after all, and had no need to look elsewhere for protection. A Baathist Iraq would probably still be hostile toward Iran, and the Iran-Syria-Lebanon bloc of Shiite states might not have attained critical mass. Al-Douri would still be at his meetings with Saddam and Qusay, plotting how to slip another case of Johnny Walker Blue around the Oil-for-Food restrictions.
Still, we’re playing with counterfactuals, in which anything could happen. There’s good reason to think the region is better off without Saddam. He was a brutal sociopath, for one thing. Truly an evil leader. What would the Arab Spring have been like in Iraq? Surely, if the revolt of the majority Sunnis against Assad in Syria was genocidal and bloody, the revolt of the majority Shiites against Saddam would have been incalculably worse. You don’t often compare Assad favorably with anyone, but his neighbor was worse. Try barrel bombs filled with anthrax.
There was also the very real sense that the Arabs had suffered tyrants for long enough; that they deserved a shot at democracy, free from oil-hungry outsiders who backed their tyrants. All of a sudden the U.S. was talking about democracy and freedom in a region where it had long since contented itself with energy and Israel. It was surely a shock. Had Saddam not fallen, would there have been a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon? A Green Movement in Iran? An Arab Spring at all?
All we know, in any case, is that Saddam is dead. Al-Douri was his last acolyte, and even if he’s given death the slip again, Baathism has not. One more murderous ideology has been left on the ash heap of history. ISIS may be as bad or worse than Saddam, but at the very least, and at a heavy cost, we’ve crossed one more atrocity off the list of man’s political mistakes.
— Andrew L. Peek is a professor at American University and was a strategic adviser to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewLPeek.