National Security & Defense

Donald Trump Gets Saddam Hussein — and the Mideast — Wrong

(Darren McCollester/Getty)

Speaking Tuesday night to Brett Baier, Donald Trump sounded more like Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and Dennis Kucinich than like the Republican front-runner for president. Asked whether he stood behind his 2008 interview where he said it would have been a “wonderful thing” if Nancy Pelosi had attempted to impeach President George W. Bush, Trump said this: “I think he was a disaster and I think it was one of the worst decisions ever made. [He] has totally destabilized the Middle East. If you had Saddam Hussein, you wouldn’t have the problems you have right now.”

I’m sorry, but this is nonsense. The Middle East was not stable with Saddam in power, and the present instability is far more related to the Arab Spring and the American pullout from post-Surge Iraq than it is to the initial decision to invade. In 2009, Barack Obama inherited a Middle East where American and Iraqi forces had crushed the al-Qaeda insurgency, Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi was effectively neutralized — agreeing months after Saddam fell to abandon his own WMD stockpiles — and Iran’s power was checked in part by the presence of American combat troops next door.

First, let’s dispense with the absurd notion that with Saddam Hussein still in power, “you wouldn’t have the problems you have right now.” From 1980, when he launched his war with Iran, until the fall of his regime in 2003, there were few greater agents of instability in the world (much less the Middle East) than Hussein. He invaded his neighbors, gassed his people, built up a vast stockpile of chemical weapons, supported terrorism, and triggered multiple military confrontations with the U.S., including Operation Desert Storm — the largest American military deployment since Vietnam.

Even when he was allegedly “contained” — walled in by no-fly zones, hampered by sanctions, and subject to periodic bombing raids — he still fomented regional discord. He was a prime financial supporter of the Palestinian suicide-bombing campaign that caused more Israeli civilian casualties — on a relative basis — than American casualties suffered on September 11. He hatched a terror plot to assassinate George H. W. Bush. He fired on American planes and pilots who were lawfully enforcing the no-fly zones. He interfered with lawful weapons inspections. And we now know — thanks to comprehensive New York Times reporting and the stories of countless Iraq vets — that he maintained secret stockpiles of chemical weapons.

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If these historical facts don’t persuade, then why not the example of Hussein’s Ba’athist comrade in Syria, Hafez al-Assad? No Western power invaded Syria, yet the nation is the site of the world’s bloodiest war, it’s the incubator of ISIS, Syrian migrants are now swamping European shores, and U.S. and Russian forces now find themselves in combat in the same country and in dangerous (and hostile) proximity.

#share#​Trump’s statement also discounts the Arab Spring — a movement that had little (if anything) to do with Iraq. In December 2010, a young Tunisian grocer set himself on fire to protest his treatment at the hands of local police. Within days, protests swept the nation, and by January 2011 the government was overthrown. Less than two weeks later, Egypt erupted in protest. The first Syrian protests started in January also. In February, Libya was torn apart by violence.

The Obama administration did worse than fail — it kept choosing to back the wrong side.

While no one should pretend there was an easy or obvious American diplomatic or military response to the Arab Spring, the Obama administration did worse than fail — it kept choosing to back the wrong side. It launched a war on behalf of a ragtag group of jihadist militias in Libya — jihadists who soon enough transformed into violent enemies of the U.S. It backed the revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt — even to the point of sending it advanced American weapons – even as it violated the Camp David Accords, persecuted Christians, and supported Hamas. Then, when the Brotherhood was overthrown in one of the world’s largest political protests, the Obama administration incredibly imposed an arms embargo on the new, allied government that took power. 

The Obama administration’s history of incoherence and weakness in Syria is by now well-known, but we can’t overlook the single most destabilizing thing that the Obama administration did during the Arab Spring — complete its withdrawal from Iraq. At perhaps the most strategically critical moment in the Middle East since the Arab-Israeli wars, the Obama administration created a yawning power vacuum — one that has since been filled, with gusto, by ISIS, Iran, and now Russia.

#related#For Trump to look at this recent history and declare that it would all be better if only Iraq still had its 78-year-old genocidal dictator in power — complete with his history of invading other nations, manufacturing and using chemical weapons, and supporting terrorists — is simply astounding. No one is denying that serious mistakes were made in Iraq, beginning with the invasion and continuing until our decisive tactical and strategic shifts during the Surge. But facts are facts, and by 2010 even the Obama administration was bragging about Iraq’s prospects, with Joe Biden declaring that it would be “one of the great achievements of this administration.”

Trump’s foreign-policy reasoning is not only dangerously simplistic, it plays directly into Democratic hands. Faced with the disasters on Obama’s watch, their response is to blame Bush. It’s a shame that the Republican frontrunner is reading from that same, tired playbook.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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