Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the capture of Saddam Hussein. In the long sweep of history, a decade is a mere second. But for the Facebook-Twitter crowd, whose memories are congenitally short, it's an eternity.

That may explain why the event is largely forgotten and has not received any media attention in Australia. Still, the capture of the Iraqi tyrant is worth revisiting, if only because it helps us heed the lessons of the war that led to his downfall.

On December 13, 2003, US forces found Saddam cowering in a rat hole outside his home town of Tikrit. At the time, foreign policy hawks predicted a turning point in what had been an agonising eight-month campaign since the invasion.

Saddam's capture, we were told, was a body blow to the anti-US insurgency. It would convince all Iraqis — Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish — the dictator would not return to persecute them again. It meant the end of "a dark and painful era" (George Bush). It would "bring about unity, reconciliation and peace between all the people of Iraq" (Tony Blair). And it was "a huge boost for the cause of liberty and democracy in Iraq" (John Howard). You cannot read those words without wincing. For post-Saddam Iraq, far from becoming a viable state and flourishing democracy, has proved an unmitigated disaster.

Leave aside the costs in blood (at least 200,000 Iraqis and 5000 coalition troops) and treasure (more than $1.5 trillion). Leave aside, too, the tarnished image of the US in the torture rooms of Abu Ghraib and the CIA's secret prisons. Iraq is sliding into chaos and internecine conflict, which means the nation state itself may unravel.

Militia killings and car bombings take place almost daily. Women are more repressed than ever. Most of the country's Christians have been driven to exile. Iraq's police force is full of sectarian thugs. "Liberation" has attracted jihadists like flies on a dying animal: in July, al-Qaeda raided a prison in Baghdad, releasing hundreds of convicted terrorists.

All up, it is a terrible humanitarian catastrophe and egregious strategic blunder. And that's not to mention the flawed justifications for the war: weapons of mass destruction, al-Qaeda links, human rights.

One can recognise Saddam was a murderous gangster and still believe this Sound of Music-loving secularist, denounced by Osama bin Laden as an "infidel", had been kept in his box via the tried and tested policy of containment (sanctions, naval blockade, no-fly zone).

At home, as even many former death-row prisoners have acknowledged, Iraq was a better place under Saddam. After all, controlling the warring ethnic and tribal factions meant fewer people died or were maimed every day; and the country was not on the cusp of civil war.

The horror of what has happened in Iraq is a serious reminder not to claim success too quickly. It also reminds one of the adage that a truly bad idea never dies.

Many of the cheerleaders of what the eminent historian Tony Judt called "the worst foreign policy error in American history" today clamour for intervention in Syria and Iran. But the lesson of the Mesopotamian misadventure is that Jeffersonian democracy is not an export commodity. Nor is preventive war the right response to despots with weapons of mass destruction. Unlike terrorists who can run and hide or who do not fear death, rogue states have a return address and want to survive. Deterrence worked against the Soviets; it can work against the mullahs.

There is nothing wrong with the promotion of democracy as one goal among many in foreign policy. But there is everything wrong with imposing it on artificial states and medieval societies and assuming that universal yearning for freedom will translate into universal respect for minority rights.

Under the Ottomans, British, Hashemites and Baathists, the Sunni minority had essentially ruled Iraq, brutally suppressing Shiites and Kurds in the process.

That is why Nouri al-Maliki, the corrupt and authoritarian Shiite Prime Minister, is more interested in seeking revenge than in building a nation. If the Sunnis fear their loss is absolute, they will continue to rebel against the Shiite-run Iraq. Add to this Iran's influence in the Shiite south and Turkey's influence in the Kurdish north, and prospects for Iraqi unity are virtually zero.

So for all the triumphalism that greeted Saddam's demise, remember that the collapse of a brutal regime allowed age-old ethnic and sectarian tensions to resurface. The result is Iraq's descent into anarchy and violence. Not much to celebrate on this 10th anniversary.

This article was originally published at Sydney Morning Herald