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THE WRONG QUESTION

The secretary of state of the United States of America, Colin Powell, did a good job at the United Nations last Wednesday of laying out the evidence that Saddam Hussein has kept some of the chemical and biological weapons that he had before the Kuwait war of 1990-91, and maybe even made more since then. If you doubted it before, then you should not doubt it any more. But it was the right answer to the wrong question.

Saddam should be forced to destroy all those weapons, but if you are planning to launch a war next month that will snuff thousands of lives, then you have to answer a different question. Is there a big enough risk that Saddam will use those weapons in the near future, or give them to terrorists to use, to justify pulling the inspectors out and killing all those people now'

No, there is not. Saddam Hussein has had these weapons for at least 20 years, and he hasn’t given them to anyone in all that time. And why would terrorists need to get these weapons from Iraq anyway, when they could just steal their poison gas from the huge, poorly guarded stocks in Russia or mix them up in the kitchen sink like the Aum Shinrikyo cult did for its attacks in 1995'

Besides, Saddam Hussein is no friend of al-Qaida. He is the kind of Arab leader the Islamists hate most: a secular, Westernising socialist who liberates women and makes deals with the West. Saddam is a thoroughly nasty dictator, but he is neither mad nor expansionist. In fact, if you were looking for a European parallel to Saddam’s regime, it would be something like Nicolae Ceasescu’s long reign in communist Romania — except that Ceasescu never had a war with his neighbours.

Modern dictator

Saddam Hussein, who is 66 this year, comes from the Arab generation that believed in modernization through revolutionary socialism on the eastern European model. During the Seventies, he behaved like a classic communist leader, eliminating his rivals but taking the task of raising people’s living standards quite seriously. With abundant oil revenues, he built an Iraq where most people had jobs, the children were all in school, and women were freer than anywhere else in the Arab world. Then came the war with Iran, and everything went wrong.

He signed a treaty with Iran in 1975 settling the dispute over the Iraq-Iran border, but after the Shah was overthrown in 1978, the new Islamic government of Ayatollah Khomeini began inciting the majority of Iraqi Arabs, who share Iran’s Shia religious heritage, to throw off Saddam’s godless socialist rule. In the great blunder of his life, Saddam went to war with Iran in 1980. Iranians outnumber Iraqis three-to-one, and without huge amounts of US aid and those chemical weapons we keep hearing about he would not have survived.

Why blame him now'

Iraq emerged from that war in 1988 with hundreds of thousands dead, the welfare state in ruins — and $60 billion in debt to its Gulf Arab neighbours. Saddam asked them to cancel the debt, since Iraq’s sacrifices had “saved” them from revolutionary Iran. When they refused, he invaded Kuwait (which all rulers of independent Iraq have claimed as part of Iraq) in 1990. He thought he had cleared this with his American allies, but neither party understood what the other was saying in his famous conversation with the US ambassador in Baghdad.

When Saddam Hussein contacted President George H.W. Bush four days after the invasion and offered the US unlimited Kuwaiti oil at one-third of world market price in return for a deal on Kuwaiti sovereignty, Bush senior ordered him out of Kuwait. He refused, the Kuwait war followed, and he has been under United Nations sanctions ever since. He has been a disaster for Iraq, but he is not the new Hitler. He is not even a visceral anti-American, though US-Iraqi relations have been bitterly hostile since 1990.

So the right questions are: is Saddam likely to give chemical or biological weapons to Islamist terrorists when he has not done so in the past 20 years' If not, why do we need a war with Iraq now that will kill people with old-fashioned high explosives'

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