Like much of what he says, Donald Trump’s comments about the Middle East this past weekend were quick to grab headlines. Unlike much of what he says, his comments were coherent—and even made a good point.
Discussing the current state of affairs in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, Trump made the case that any one nation would be happier with their previous or standing despots still in power—and his remarks have since gone viral. “It’s not even a contest,” Trump told Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet The Press. “You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there—it’s a mess—if you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there—it’s a mess—[Syria’s] going to be same thing.”
Reading that statement might be like hearing a third grader voice his thoughts on a book he hasn’t read, but despite some outrage on Twitter over his opinions, Trump is not entirely wrong.
By all accounts, Iraq is not the safe and free bastion of democracy those who deposed Hussein had promised us it would be. When Saddam was handed over to the Iraqis by U.S. forces in 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney famously called it the beginning of “the arrival of a free and sovereign Iraq and an emerging democracy with the United States to be able to call a friend.”
The history of Iraq over the last decade has presented a country that is anything but the vibrant ally Cheney promised. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and perpetrator of war crimes, one whom history will rightfully lay in the trash heap of so many other tyrants. But Trump, like many other more serious foreign policy minds, are right to question the value of his sudden removal and the instability it invited.
Saying Iraq was “better” off under Saddam Hussein is a dubious claim, certainly. For whom, exactly, was it better for? The tens of thousands of Kurdish families hunted and slaughtered by Hussein in the 1980s? The middle-class Iraqi families that struggled to survive in an oppressive culture and torrid economy? Or the American diplomats, generals, and lawmakers who would go on to pave a path to hell for these Iraqis with their own good intentions?
While the answer for each differs, it reveals our own intentions in the Middle East—as well as Trump’s own policy priorities.
In his foreign policy prescriptions, Trump is more realist than neoconservative. He's right regime change has failed http://t.co/mrWxyWQcNE— Max Abrahms (@MaxAbrahms) October 4, 2015
For the Kurdish people, the answer might have been an unequivocable “yes”—as recently as two years ago. On the 10th anniversary of U.S. troops invading Iraq and deposing Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from power, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg talked with Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdish regional government and former deputy prime minister of Iraq. He was optimistic about Iraq’s chances for building a peaceful democracy.
“Ten years on from the demise of Saddam Hussein, we’re still discovering mass graves across Iraq,” Salih said. “The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein.”
But since then, the Kurds have been at war with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS—which is likely the “mess” Trump means to reference in his statements. ISIS would have been an impossible dream of any violent extremist under Saddam Hussein, a dictator eager to monopolize power for himself.
And as Reuters journalist Samia Nakhoul wrote in June, a great deal of ISIS fighters are the leftovers of Hussein’s loyalists. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, largely deemed the leader of ISIS, networked with former Ba’athist generals during his time in prison in the 2003 U.S. occupation of the country. As Nakhoul puts it, “it is clear that the secret of [al-Baghdadi’s] success is the army and state he has built from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s military and the allegiance he has won or coerced from alienated Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and beyond.”
ISIS would have been an impossible dream of any violent extremist under Saddam Hussein, a dictator eager to monopolize power for himself.
Yet even the rise of the Islamic State has provided a unique strategic advantage to the Kurdish people. Kurds have fought for decades for the international recognition of their own homeland, a 150,000 square mile strip of land encompassing 28 million people and territory of three different nations. As Kurdish warriors help the U.S. and the government in Baghdad ward off the Islamist State, they also win legitimacy for independence.
“After a century of being ignored,” writes Naval War College professor Dr. Burak Kadercan, “the Kurds have captured not only the international spotlight, but also near-unanimous ideational support in the eyes of the Western audiences.”
For Iraq’s Sunni and Shia populations, however, things have been less rosy, as the wave of attacks from ISIS has left an indelible mark on post-U.S. Iraq.
Writing just last year in the Washington Post, Saif Al-Azzawi, a lifelong Iraqi citizen who entered the U.S. as a refugee in 2009, declared: “I despised Saddam, but I don’t think an extremist group like the Islamic State would exist under his rule.” Even if Hussein had returned to his genocidal tendencies, says Al-Azzawi, “it wouldn’t be anywhere near the number who have died since he was overthrown.”
Wael Al-Sallami, another native citizen of the country, does not see the situation as so black-and-white. In a popular Quora post, Al-Sallami explained that the question of whether Iraq was better or worse under Hussein is “misguided.” He writes, “Instead of living safely in poor conditions, Iraqis became somewhat wealthy, but lost all measures of personal safety.”
Putting a mark on the entire argument, Al-Sallami argues, “Where once they just had one tyrant to be afraid of, now they have hundreds more!”
A great deal of ISIS fighters are the leftovers of Hussein’s loyalists.
In many ways, however, the question of whether Iraq is better off with or without Hussein is a false dichotomy and a flawed way of seeing the country’s dilemma—as Al-Sallami and many historians and strategists have pointed out. If the Iraq War of 2003 was a success in its goals—which is a dubious proposition—it only helped Iraq recover from a damage the U.S. already did when it helped Hussein gain power in the region by arming him with the same weapons he’d end up using to gas Kurdish civilians. As early as 1982, the Reagan administration supplied Hussein with arms and intelligence during the nearly decade-long conflict with Iran.
In many ways, whether Iraq would be better off today with Hussein is an irrelevant question—both situations were horrible for the average Iraqi, and both were created by U.S. involvement. Donald Trump likely made the statement to take a jab at his competitor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who stands by his brother’s decision to depose Saddam Hussein, calling it “a pretty good deal.”
But argument between the two men ignores the futility of the debate. At this point, it’s time to accept that when it comes to Iraq, we don’t have the answer—and we never did.
Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai