When the invasion of Iraq took place, many left-liberal commentators—particularly those in Britain and Europe—had a curious response. Of course they detested Saddam, they assured us, but might it not be the case that Saddam—a strong man—was the only person who could govern “a place like that”? This stunning suggestion that human rights and basic freedom might not be for everyone, that some human beings are just better off under despotism, was shocking then and its shocking to consider now. But for the most part these arguments faded from discussion as a jittery democratic reality got off the ground in Iraq. What good liberal would want to consign the Iraqi people back to the dark days of Saddam? Besides, one got the impression that most of these voices weren’t actually that favorable toward the Baathist regime, they just hated the thought of the use of Western power far more.
Now, however, with Iraq descending into chaos once again—arguably as much the result of the strength of Islamism as the weakness of democracy—these “liberals” are dusting off those old arguments and wheeling them back out in another attempt to bamboozle a public they’ve already spent over a decade misleading. Yet, one voice has gone much further. Chris Maume, an editor at the UK Independent, who by all accounts spent much time in Iraq during the glory days of Saddam, not only takes this opportunity to sow doubts about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, but even does so by mounting the most astonishing defense of life under Saddam.
Whitewashing the poverty suffered by most Iraqis compared to the obscene wealth enjoyed by the Saddam’s ruling clan, Maume reflects, “Baghdad was noisy and mucky and full of building sites, but it was bustling and thriving. There wasn’t a huge amount in the shops, but people had all they needed to get by.” Perhaps they did, but you can’t imagine writers for the Independent ever insisting that the underprivileged in Western countries have long “had all they needed to get by.”
Maume writes particularly glowingly about the healthcare available in Iraq, as well as the order and stability compared to today. Back in the good old days it was “a fully functioning state in which it was possible to live a fulfilled life.” Of course Maume wouldn’t be so callous as not to spare a thought for Saddam’s victims; “If you were Kurdish, or a dissident, life wasn’t like that, and I’m not suggesting for a second that we should forget their suffering. But by and large, life was OK in Saddam’s dictatorship.” And of course to the estimated 180,000 Kurds murdered by Saddam, one should also add the oppression of the marsh Arabs. But it sounds as if Maume accepts what happened to them as the price for the “benefits” that other Iraqis enjoyed under Saddam. And yet it isn’t hard to think of other despotic regimes where, provided you weren’t the wrong ethnic group, perhaps for a time life was perfectly pleasant for everyone else.
But of course that wasn’t the case in Saddam’s Iraq. Those who point to the violence and anarchy that succeeded Saddam all too easily forget the wars and turmoil that Iraq suffered during Saddam’s rule. In addition to the terrible losses suffered in the course of the lengthy Iran-Iraq war, there was also the blood-letting and mayhem of the Shia part of the 1991 uprising. Indeed, sectarianism in Iraq was not some invention of post-Saddam era. Yet Maume wistfully recalls, “It was a secular state, and Sunnis and Shias seemed to bump along together.”
But even if Baathist Iraq had been a rather more peaceful and prosperous place than it actually was, that doesn’t get around that minor matter of liberty. Maume himself alludes to the censorship, although he doesn’t appear to think truth a necessary ingredient for Iraqi wellbeing: “True, all we had to go on was the English-language newspaper the Baghdad Observer, with its daily cover stories about Saddam’s latest visit to an adoring Kurd village…..but national misery is difficult to keep off the streets, and people seemed happy.”
Whatever one thinks of what has gone on in Iraq post-Saddam, nowhere in the piece does Maume give the impression that in an ideal world the Iraqis should enjoy democracy, freedom, or human rights. Indeed, there is a total absence of the suggestion that such things are human goods, for Iraqis or Westerners; “it was possible to live a fulfilled life” under Saddam, remember. The whole piece reads as a defense of autocracy. So long as people have order and social services, what more could they reasonably ask for? And this from a leading “liberal” newspaper.