War and execution - Lessons Saddam has taught the West

Someone thought they saw fear in his eyes, but it was hard to be sure. Saddam Hussein went quietly to the gallows. Given the momentous nature of the execution, the event was almost an anticlimax. If the great tyrant and mass murderer seemed diminished in the moment of his death, then so were the first architects of his demise.

Beyond the spectre of his atrocities lies the flawed evangelism of the invaders. They have succeeded, but few tombstones have been more dearly bought. Up to 655,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion began. As one more bloody dawn broke over Baghdad, Saddam’s last post and requiem were the echo of bullets and the laments of the bereaved. Many of his former subjects recalled another hanging day. It was April 2003 and many thought the war was over. Instead, the crash of his image symbolised other endings and beginnings: the death of hubris and the neo-con world vision; the birth of lawlessness and unimagined danger; the slow erosion of precious tenets of justice.

Saddam should not have hanged. Ending his life with a variant of the inhuman punishment he once meted out so lavishly was just another kick against human rights. But in the end, his death seemed more pointless than cruel. Saddam’s death is less a righteous judgment on his bloodlust than an epitaph to Western folly. The ghastly truth: He taught us more than we taught him.

Saddam Hussein made his attackers forget the limits of their influence. The wish to destroy him erased the fact that Iraq has never been moulded to British will and that enemies cannot easily be vanquished when history and logic are fighting on their side. And now his long shadow hangs over a New Year crowded by much else that the West forgot to remember.

The post-Saddam world splits down many fracture lines. Regions of Africa are facing terrible wars, partly because ancient crises simply slipped out of Western minds. Ethnic cleansing, torture and mayhem in Darfur and Somalia have been airbrushed away by chaos in Iraq, peril in Afghanistan, war in Lebanon and a deepening crisis in Palestine. Of the ‘axis of evil’ states, North Korea, has the bomb and Iran races towards a nuclear deterrent.So how curious that 2007 is to be a softly-softly year. The doctrine that threats should be eliminated, not managed, is more or less defunct, though nostalgic neocons do not rule out a strike against Tehran. But the watchword is realism, larded with national interest. In America’s case, that means co-existence.

By bitter irony, it took Saddam to drill home that reciprocity and compromise are far preferable to the delusion that Western military power can conquer all. The West is contemplating a switch to tea-and-cake diplomacy at the very moment when parts of the world cry out in vain for muscular solutions. Take Darfur, where rape and slaughter pass for social dialogue: As many as 300,000 people have died in three years. The conflict has spilled over into Chad, and the world stands impotently by, in the hope that President Bashir might graciously put out the welcome mat for the peacekeeping force mandated by the UN.

Take Somalia. The Islamic grouping that maintained rough law and order has fled before the Ethiopian Bush-backed troops. Warlords are moving into the vacuum at the heart of one of the most anarchic capitals on earth, and the cornerstone of a new war of Christian versus Muslim has been laid. Mogadishu urgently needs all-party talks and UN peacekeepers.

We get the UN we deserve. When resolutions are reluctantly passed and rarely implemented, then transgressors can kill with impunity. The old, great powers are effete and cowed by the dead Saddam. When leaders talk of victory in Iraq, they mean: never again. And so humanitarian intervention, so vital against genocide, becomes unthinkable. In Africa, in 2007, such cowardice will not suffice. The sheer scale of bloodshed has anaesthetised sorrow and stopped tears. Who weeps for the Darfurian child whose mother left to pick up firewood and never came home?

War zones need more money, more and better peacekeepers and less of the military force that is either useless or unusable. That means scaling down Western nuclear weapons and redrafting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Britain, for all the influence it has squandered in Iraq, can help force change in 2007. It can band with Europe and demand concerted action to help Darfur and Somalia. It can lobby for the permanent membership of the UN Security Council to be extended. Its Parliament can and must stop Trident Two, which would renew the UK’s nuclear arsenal.

These are the lessons of Saddam and of a war that should never have been fought. If the West can reacquaint itself with humanity and history, then some debacles of the past year may yet be laid to rest alongside a dead dictator. As Saddam Hussein has gone to his grave, it is time to remember who to help, and when to fight, and what to mourn. —The Guardian