The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq eliminated a criminal regime that tortured and killed on a massive scale, used its oil money to buy foreign officials and illegal technology, and did not recently manufacture or stockpile the chemical weapons it flagrantly used 15 years ago on Iraqi Kurds and Iranian soldiers.
All of those elements need to be taken into account by voters as the presidential campaign thrashes its way to resolution. Each campaign urges the electorate to buy its incomplete version of Iraq, past and present, rather than consider the total, uneven reality of that country.
The Bush administration cannot avoid the responsibility for having conflated Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and ties to terrorism into an urgent threat to U.S. citizens and interests in 2003. The final report of the Iraq Survey Group delivered by Charles A. Duelfer establishes that the Bush case was seriously overstated in that respect. The fact that the invasion enabled us to know this conclusively goes largely unmentioned.
But the emerging emphasis on what the Iraqi dictator did not do -- an emphasis being pushed by the Kerry campaign -- rushes past the lasting importance of what Hussein did do against his own people, his neighbors and the international community. He does not deserve next year's Nobel Peace Prize for not providing al Qaeda with operational support that could be detected by a less-than-perfect CIA.
The moral responsibility that the United States, the United Nations and others continue to bear for turning a blind eye to the gangster behavior of Baghdad for so long must not be obscured in the election-year blizzard of self-interested facts, semi-facts and distortions. No statue of limitations, explicit or implicit, should be extended to war crimes and corruption of the enormity of those committed by the Baathist regime.
Those crimes have been a personal obsession since my first visit to Iraq in 1972. So the comprehensive scope of the Survey Group's report is welcome in this corner.
The report headlines the failure to find the weapons of terror that the world's intelligence services had assured their bosses would be found. Then it goes on to detail the cat-and-mouse games of deceit that Hussein played with U.N. inspectors. It also usefully spotlights his gross, visible manipulation of the oil-for-food program administered by the United Nations.
Iraq is an undeniable mess today. But Iraq has long been a mess, one that was getting more uncontrollable with every passing year of international sanctions and implosion. Hussein's inability to stockpile weapons he coveted was a symptom of that mess, not a sign that he was reforming and would sin no more.
The need to recognize that Iraq's present problems are deeply rooted in the past was underscored here last week by Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq's interim finance minister. He was visiting Washington in search of forgiveness for Iraqi foreign debt, the most visible remaining symbol of international complicity with the dictator's bloody reign.
Abdul-Mahdi, once jailed and tortured by the regime for dissident activities, estimated that an average of 10,000 Iraqis faced torture, death or both every year during Baathist rule. Many more died in the wars the dictator launched.
Saddam Hussein was raking in loans and payoffs from Arab states and amassing credits from French banks and U.S. grain export programs during his days of untelevised atrocity. He ran up more than $120 billion in foreign debts that remain on the books today.
Arab states were in fact paying Hussein protection money as an investment in survival. That stopped only in 1990, when the dictator's extortion attempts against Kuwait exploded into war and international sanctions.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and their neighbors should write off their $80 billion in claims. American, European and Asian creditors can encourage them to do so by forgiving their $40 billion total. Most odious of these debts is the $19 billion in penalties for late payment that foreigners are demanding for the period during which Iraq was under sanctions, Abdul-Mahdi said.
France softened its opposition to serious debt relief last weekend by proposing a 50 percent reduction of Iraqi debt immediately, a three-year grace period of no payments and then slow elimination of the remaining Hussein-era debt. This did not work for Abdul-Mahdi, who said: "Iraq has lived in uncertainty too long."
Iraqis need clarity on this debt if they are to achieve stability and new economic progress. They need the world not to forget what Hussein did, even as the headlines focus on what he did not achieve.