The current disintegration of Iraq makes me reflect on the nature of Saddam Hussein's rule. Beyond the American invasion in 2003, which was the proximate cause of Iraq's current instability, there was something more fundamental, more essential to be considered: the very totality of his regime, which was anarchy masquerading as tyranny. Saddam controlled Iraq as though it were his private prison yard, where he was the warden who could do what he wished with the inmates.
The word suffocating does not begin to describe the atmosphere in Saddam's Iraq as I experienced it. When on occasion I would travel to Iraq and then to Syria in the 1980s it was like coming up for liberal humanist air. For in the Syria of Hafez al-Assad there was only terror in the public space; in Iraq the scent of terror invaded the home. I remember diplomats telling me to watch my step in Baghdad, since if I attracted the attention of the security services, there was little anyone could do to help me.
Indeed, even among tyrants there are distinctions. Some tyrants are worse than others. It is important that we recognize such distinctions. Without them the many intricate details that make up ground-level reality and history become distorted. Lately I have seen writers, who are in favor of intervening in Syria but were opposed to intervention in Iraq, argue that while Saddam was brutal, he wasn't as bad as Bashar al Assad. This is nonsense. Intervening in Syria in 2011 might have made more sense than intervening in Iraq in 2003. I'll admit that. But that does not give anyone the right to distort the internal reality of the two countries.
The argument that the younger al Assad is more brutal than Saddam is based upon the number and nature of the casualties in the ongoing Syrian civil war, which are now in the vicinity of 150,000. Well, in the late-1980s, Saddam killed in the infamous Al-Anfal campaign an estimated 100,000 Kurdish civilians alone. That was but one chapter in a blood-curdling, bestial rule that lasted from the mid-1970s to the beginning of the 21st century. Saddam likely killed tens of thousands during the repression that followed the post-Gulf War I rebellion in 1991. He created a nation of informers and interlocking intelligence agencies that maimed and tortured truly a countless number of victims. He initiated the Iran-Iraq War, which killed hundreds of thousands. The total number of his victims, depending upon how you count, may reach upwards of a million. Saddam was beyond "brutal." The word brutal has a generic and insipid ring to it: one that simply does not capture what Iraq was like under his rule. Saddam was in a category all his own, somewhere north of the al Assads and south of Stalin. That's who Saddam Hussein was.
Furthermore, the young al Assad killed his victims in the course of a full-fledged sectarian civil war that was a direct challenge to his rule. Saddam's atrocities were committed without the need of a civil war -- without such a direct challenge to his rule. This is not to excuse al Assad, but merely to maintain distinctions, without which analysis cannot function.
Nobody can know what would have happened in Iraq if President George W. Bush had not invaded and Saddam was still in power to face the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was, as its name suggests, an exclusively Sunni Arab affair, whatever its pretensions to universalism. But Sunni or not, it spread its magic by way not only of social media and electronic communications, but by way of the Arabic language. For example, demonstrators in Yemen were inspired by demonstrators in Tunisia. And because Iraq's Shiites are also Arabic speaking, it is likely that they, too, would have been inspired to revolt against a totalitarian and Sunni system that Bush, in this scenario, would have left in place.
A Shiite revolt against Saddam would have had one of two results: either Saddam would have crushed it with his trademark level of brutality that would have left tens of thousands dead; or, the revolt would have succeeded, with a sectarian war and the break-up of Iraq as a consequence. That, too, would have led to a scale of bloodshed comparable with the Syrian conflict. The idea that a soft landing was possible in Iraq following Saddam is probably naive. Fiercely secularizing Baathist regimes that use utter brutality to contain explosive ethnic and sectarian rivalries do not result in a soft landing.
Here is a paradox to consider: if George W. Bush had not invaded Iraq and the country violently blew apart in the course of the Arab Spring, Bush would have been blamed for not ridding Iraq of Saddam when he had had the chance. As someone who supported the Iraq War, this is a convenient paradox for me to entertain, even if I have to live with the facts as they exist, which declare the Iraq War a mistake.
Erasing the difference in brutalities between the Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq is actually not all that unusual. We are forever rewriting history to serve the needs of the present. Just look at our shifting judgments on American presidents. Eisenhower was seen as a dull and average president during the Kennedy presidency, only to be reinvented as a great pragmatist after later presidents led the country astray. Truman was hated in his time by those who couldn't get over their infatuation with Franklin Roosevelt, only to be resurrected as a great president in succeeding decades. George H.W. Bush was seen as an average, forgettable one-term president, until the mistakes of his son made it necessary to see the elder Bush as a great one-term president. Likewise with Saddam, who was compared to Hitler during the build-ups to both the first and second Gulf wars, only to be relegated to being merely "brutal," in order to focus our hatred on the younger al Assad.
The popular mind can and will continue to revise the past according to its current needs. But it is the job of historians -- and journalists -- to provide a reality check whenever such revisions are unjustified.