Saddam in Court: Who’s on Trial?

With Saddam in U.S. hands, thoughts turn to his future trial. Various pundits have claimed that it won’t be enough to examine Saddam’s crimes. It will also be necessary to probe U.S. and Western support for his regime, during the decade of the Iran-Iraq war and the lead-up to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The late Elie Kedourie, historian and political theorist at the London School of Economics, put the issue in just the right perspective, in an interview granted in June 1992. (This was less than three weeks before his untimely passing.) Kedourie, it will be recalled, was a native of Baghdad, and an acute observer of Iraq’s troubled history. The interviewer told him that a Paris-based scholar had declared Saddam to be a “creature of the West.” Kedourie’s reply:

I do not understand what he means by that. If he means that it was Western governments that put him in power, then that is not true. If he means that from 1980 to 1990 the American and French governments and German firms did their best to help him, this is perfectly true. But you have to look at what their intentions were….The Americans believed, mistakenly I think, that if they did not do something in order to stop Khomeini, he would sweep over the whole of the Middle East. I think there was little prospect of that, but that is what they believed and therefore they chose to support Saddam. Again, within its own terms it was a rational if mistaken calculation. It was a terrible mistake, which lay at the back of the invasion of Kuwait and the war that followed, which I consider an unnecessary war. It was the result of policies that the Americans had followed vis-à-vis Saddam for ten years and that made him think that he could invade Kuwait with impunity.

A calculation went wrong. But I do not think that there was anything else there. Saddam is not a creature of the West. He is not a creature of anybody.

There are two crucial points here. First, Kedourie knew far too much about Iraq to regard Saddam as the West’s creation. He understood precisely which tectonic forces, by their immense internal pressures, had combined to produce him.

Second, Kedourie did not rail against the United States for its best-guess policies of the 1980s. He regarded the U.S. decision to back Saddam against Iran as a mistake and a miscalculation. But as a thinking historian, who never stopped reading in diplomatic archives, Kedourie thought it perfectly legitimate for states to calculate and act on self-interest. (This was always preferable to action the name of ideology. Ideological states, Kedourie believed, were intrinsically dangerous to their peoples and their neighbors.) Kedourie also knew and expected that states, working in a fog of partial knowledge, were bound to make mistakes in pursuing their interests. He never set himself up in Olympian judgment of policymakers for these sorts of errors.

But while he could understand errors of calculation, he could not pardon failures of will. For Kedourie, support for Saddam before 1990 was an error, but the decision not to remove him in 1991 was a failure. U.S. leaders lacked the will to act in pursuit of the U.S. national interest, and so fell down on their sworn duty. In a May 1991 lecture, Kedourie said this:

The American campaign stopped in its tracks by order of the president. Given this aggression by Iraq, and given that Iraq had to be stopped, one would have thought that it would be quite meaningless simply to liberate Kuwait and leave untouched the structures of the Baathist regime which had organized and committed the aggression. Iraq is a very populous and a rich country. If the regime remains in place, there is no way it can be prevented from reestablishing itself and acquiring new supplies of weapons of all kinds….It may not be possible next time around to organize an expedition of half a million troops and an armada in order to deal with this recurrent situation. So as things look to me now, the aftermath of the Gulf war seems a tremendous failure for the U.S.

As usual, Kedourie shows us the way. Saddam was no one’s creature. It would be an affront to justice to diminish Saddam’s criminal culpability by invoking U.S. policy mistakes, however egregious. Mistakes are not crimes.

The decision that left Saddam in power in 1991 was a monumental failure, and one that history has already judged severely. But at least credit those who did organize an expedition and an armada in 2003, and who did their duty despite the criticism of feckless “allies” and the absence of “international legitimacy.” Some of those who launched this expedition were party to the previous mistake and the earlier failure. By their actions this year, they have balanced the books—and then some.