Sometimes in politics the moral high ground can only be reached by wading through the lowlands of public amnesia.
Reacting to the capture of Saddam Hussein on 13 December, Prime Minister Howard declared his enthusiasm for a public trial:
“I believe he should be tried in Iraq. I think it should be an open trial. I think the details of what he did should be spelled out, detail-by-detail, slaughter-by-slaughter, death-by-deaths.”
Saddam’s arrest also vindicated the Man of Steel’s decision to commit Australia to war:
“If the alternative advice had been taken, “Saddam Hussein would still be running Iraq, he would still be murdering people, he not only would not be in captivity but he would have others in captivity in Baghdad.”
Denuding such an important discussion of its historical context and narrowing the focus to Saddam’s moral turpitude will induce self-righteousness in Western leaders every time. On the question of Iraq, however, such lofty sentiment lacks authenticity.
Isolating Saddam’s capture from the consequences of his removal from power is a clever polemical device which Mr Howard likes to employ. However such a strategy is unlikely to persuade the families of the 9,500 innocent Iraqi civilians killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq that their sacrifice was worth the cost. Or the recently unemployed, the victims of street crime and those who depend on essential services for their survival. These Iraqis don’t matter and aren’t counted in the West – literally.
History is the great antidote to public amnesia and it suggests the Prime Minister’s distaste for Saddam’s tyranny has not always been so passionately expressed.
Before the war Mr Howard’s humanitarian concerns for the people of Iraq were insufficient to support ‘regime change’ in Baghdad. He told the National Press Club in March that Saddam could stay in power, and therefore keep tormenting his people, providing he gave up his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
Given the Iraqi leader had evidently disposed of his WMD several years before, according to the Prime Minister’s logic – now derided as “alternative advice” – Saddam should still be in power.
This ‘change of course’ is dramatic, if unsurprising. A search of Hansard for the period when Saddam was committing the worst of his crimes – gassing Iranian soldiers in 1983-4 and the Kurds of Halabja in 1988 – fails to turn up any expressions of concern in the Parliament by either John Howard or Alexander Downer. It’s not until the WMD pretext falters in the weeks before the invasion that Canberra discovers human rights violations in Iraq.
There were certainly no expressions of humanitarian concern while Canberra supported a vicious sanctions regime which, over a decade, must have been responsible for the deaths of hundred of thousands of Iraqis, while strengthening Saddam and compelling the population to rely on him for their survival.
It is hard to believe that either Washington or London would relish the prospect of an open trial. They would not want Saddam to adumbrate their support for him – credit-by-credit, pathogen-by-pathogen, weapon-by-weapon – during the 12 years before he became an official enemy by invading Kuwait in August 1990.
Saddam’s worst crimes, when presumably many of the mass graves now disingenuously “discovered” by the West were dug, had been committed when he was the West’s favoured ally and trading partner. At the time, his crimes against humanity, for which charges should now be laid, elicited little if any concern in Western capitals. Quite the opposite.
Historian Gabriel Kolko notes that:
“The United Stares supplied Iraq with intelligence throughout the war [with Iran] and provided it with more than $US5 billion in food credits, technology, and industrial products, most coming after it began to use mustard, cyanide, and nerve gases against both Iranians and dissident Iraqi Kurds.”
After he poisoned over 5000 people in the Kurdish city of Halabja on 17 March 1988, Saddam was rewarded by George Bush 1 with new lines of credit and praise from Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State, John Kelly, as “a source of moderation in the region.”
Twenty months after this horrific crime, Washington was still providing Baghdad with dual-use licensed materials, including chemical precursors, biological warfare-related materials and missile guidance equipment – enabling Saddam to develop his WMD programs. It’s difficult to believe that either George Bush 2 or over 150 companies in Europe, the United States and Japan which provided components and know-how needed by the monster in Baghdad to build atomic bombs, chemical and biological weapons, want this information publicly aired.
During the worst decade of Saddam’s rule (1980-90), the UK sold Iraq £2.3 billion in machinery and transport equipment and £3.5 billion in trade credits, supporting the creation of a local arms industry and freeing up valuable resources for the Iraqi military.
London responded to the atrocity in Halabja by failing to criticise Saddam (ditto for Washington), doubling export credits to Baghdad and relaxing export guidelines making it easier to sell arms to Iraq.
This behaviour is difficult to reconcile with the West’s belated concern for humanity in Iraq today. There will be no expressions of regret for the support he was given at the peak of his crimes. When Saddam comes to trial, the West will just be hoping that he too has joined the culture of forgetting so pervasive amongst his captors.