Fighting Words

The Iraq Effect

If Saddam Hussein were still in power, this year’s Arab uprisings could never have happened.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the  Libya conflict

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari

The most heartening single image of the past month—eclipsing even the bravery and dignity of the civilian fighters against despotism in Syria and Libya—was the sight of Hoshyar Zebari arriving in Paris to call for strong action against the depraved regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Here was the foreign minister of Iraq, and the new head of the Arab League, helping to tilt the whole axis of local diplomacy against one-man rule. In May, Iraq will act as host to the Arab League summit, and it will be distinctly amusing and highly instructive to see which Arab leaders have the courage, or even the ability, to leave their own capitals and attend. The whole scene is especially gratifying for those of us who remember Zebari as the dedicated exile militant that he was 10 years ago, striving to defend his dispossessed people from the effects of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons.

Can anyone imagine how the Arab spring would have played out if a keystone Arab state, oil-rich and heavily armed with a track record of intervention in its neighbors’ affairs and a history of all-out mass repression against its own civilians, were still the private property of a sadistic crime family? As it is, to have had Iraq on the other scale from the outset has been an unnoticed and unacknowledged benefit whose extent is impossible to compute. And the influence of Iraq on the Libyan equation has also been uniformly positive in ways that are likewise often overlooked.

On the first point, I admit that Egyptian and Tunisian and other demonstrators did not take to the streets waving Iraqi flags, as if in emulation. (Though Saad-Eddin Ibrahim, intellectual godfather of the Egyptian democracy movement, did publicly hail the fall of Saddam as an inspiration, and many leaders of the early Lebanese “spring” spoke openly in similar terms.) This reticence is quite understandable since, apart from the northern Kurdish region of Iraq from which Foreign Minister Zebari hails, the liberation of the country was not entirely the work of its own people. But this point has become a more arguable one since the Arab League itself admitted that there are certain regimes that are impervious to unassisted overthrow from within. Qaddafi’s is pre-eminently one of these, and Saddam’s was notoriously so, as the repeated terror-bombings and gassings of the Shiite and Kurdish populations amply proved. Meanwhile, Iraq already has, albeit in rudimentary and tenuous form, the free press, the written constitution, and the parliamentary election system that is the minimum demand of Arab civil society. It has also passed through a test of fire in which the Bin Ladenists threw everything they had against an emergent democracy and were largely defeated and discredited. These are lessons and experiences that are useful not just for Mesopotamia.

As for the Iraq effect on Libya: Here is what I was told in confidence by the British diplomat who helped negotiate the surrender of Qaddafi’s stockpile of WMD. Not by any means a neoconservative (a breed in any case rare in her majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office), he emphasized three factors. First, and on this occasion at least, the West had extremely good intelligence and was able to astonish and demoralize Qaddafi by the amount it knew about his secret programs. Added to this, and acting cumulatively over time, was the adamant persistence of the Scottish courts in the matter of the Lockerbie atrocity. (Don’t mess with Scottish law, a maxim imperfectly understood by the sort of people who style themselves “king of kings.”) Third, and very important in the timing, was Qaddafi’s abject fear at watching the fate of Saddam Hussein. This has been amply reconfirmed by many Libyan officials in the hearing of many of my friends. He did, after all, approach George W. Bush and Tony Blair, not the United Nations. So now Qaddafi’s stockpiles are under lock and key in Oak Ridge, Tenn. —their trace elements having successfully incriminated the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan—and who can conceivably wish it had been otherwise?

But even with his fangs drawn, Qaddafi remained a filthy nuisance. As the New York Times reported in a brilliant dispatch last week, he forced Western oil companies to pay the $1.5 billion fine levied on him for Lockerbie. He continued to deprive his people—just look at how poor and scruffy everybody is when seen on television—while squandering Libya’s immense wealth on personal prestige projects. His bloody interventions in Liberia and Darfur and Chad—where yet another civilian airliner was blown up, this time a French one—should long ago have earned him an indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Like Saddam Hussein, he has flagrantly and hysterically insisted on defining himself as the problem, the fons et origo of Libya’s misery and the region’s woes. Why, then, do we coyly insist on the pretence that we are targeting “his forces” but not him?

In Britain, for example, the argument has reached farcical proportions. Nobody really doubts that it was a British cruise missile that plastered Qaddafi’s Bab-al-Azizya “compound” the other day, but while Prime Minister David Cameron says that the dictator might conceivably be considered a target at some stage, his chief of defense staff, Gen. Sir David Richards, says “absolutely not,” because the U.N. resolution does not cover the contingency. In Washington, President Barack Obama rightly says that Qaddafi “must go,” but the mission itself is described as one with the objective of protecting civilians from massacre. Even in straight or quasi-technical military speak, this is incoherent. If the words command and control have any meaning, they surely identify the slobbering monarch who has commanded and controlled Libyans for far too long.

Hoshyar Zebari happily cited as precedent the no-fly zone that for a long time protected northern and southern Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s helicopter gunships. But he knows perfectly well that the logic of this is inexorable. Every day, Saddam’s ground forces fired on those planes. Every day, the post-Kuwait cease-fire agreement became more frayed and breached. Every day, it became plainer that Iraq was the miserable hostage to the whims of a single tyrant.

The immediate task now is to assimilate those lessons, shorten the time in which the knowledge gained can be applied, call the evil by its right name, and face Qaddafi with a stark choice between his own death and his appearance in the dock. It is morally unthinkable that he should emerge from this episode with even a rag of authority to call his own, and it is morally feeble not to say so out loud. The ugly and clumsy words mission creep take on a sudden beauty all of their own. When the Arab League meets in May, it should welcome a new Libyan provisional government on the soil of a free Iraq. Then we will have closed the circle—and vindicated all those brave people who fell in bringing down the first and worst bastion of the ancien regime.