Both President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump believe the United States never should have invaded Iraq in 2o03 (or, at least, Trump claims he now does). The war in Iraq and its chaotic aftermath in many ways prefigure the present moment in the Middle East; it triggered a sectarian unraveling that now haunts both Iraq and Syria and looms large in the minds of an Obama administration wary of further intervention in the region's conflicts.
In a new book coming out this month, John Nixon, a former CIA officer who interrogated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after he was captured by coalition forces in December 2003, details his encounter with the toppled despot and the varied discussions that followed. Early on, Hussein warned that the occupation of Iraq wouldn't be as much of a "cakewalk" as Washington's neoconservatives assumed at the time. From an excerpt published on Time magazine's website:
When I interrogated Saddam, he told me: “You are going to fail. You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq.” When I told him I was curious why he felt that way, he replied: “You are going to fail in Iraq because you do not know the language, the history, and you do not understand the Arab mind.”
Nixon now reckons Hussein had a point and that a ruthless strongman like him was necessary to "maintain Iraq's multi-ethnic state" and keep both Sunni extremism and the power of Shiite-led Iran, a Hussein foe, at bay.
"Saddam’s leadership style and penchant for brutality were among the many faults of his regime, but he could be ruthlessly decisive when he felt his power base was threatened, and it is far from certain that his regime would have been overthrown by a movement of popular discontent," he wrote. "Likewise, it is improbable that a group like ISIS would have been able to enjoy the kind of success under his repressive regime that they have had under the Shia-led Baghdad government." (ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.)
This may all be rather true. Trump himself insists that regime change should no longer be in Washington's interest and has embraced dictatorial leaders such as Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
"Although I found Saddam to be thoroughly unlikeable, I came away with a grudging respect for how he was able to maintain the Iraqi nation as a whole for as long as he did," wrote Nixon. "He told me once, 'Before me, there was only bickering and arguing. I ended all that and made people agree!'"
Many Arab commentators, though, reject the simplicity of the assumptions here — that if not ruled by tyrants, their nations would automatically turn into breeding grounds for militancy. That's a logic, after all, that serves the autocrats. Moreover, there's a direct connection between the heavy-handed policies of the region's autocrats and the conditions that spawn extremism and deepen sectarian animosities. Pluralistic, multi-ethnic societies have been the norm, not the exception, for centuries.
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