Is It Really Better That Saddam’s Gone?

Tony Blair offered a qualified apology for the Iraq War, but found it harder to say sorry for removing a dictator.

Ahmad Masood / Reuters

“Of course, you can’t say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015” and the rise of ISIS, said Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom and one of the leaders, with George W. Bush, of the drive to forcibly oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq. “But it’s important also to realize, one, that the Arab Spring which began in 2011 would also have had its impact on Iraq today, and two, ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq.”

Blair was speaking to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an interview that aired Sunday, and while he apologized for the fact that “the intelligence we received was wrong” regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, he maintained, as other decision-makers of that era (and their relatives) have, that removing Saddam was a good thing. “I find it hard to apologize for removing Saddam. I think, even from today in 2015, it is better that he’s not there than that he is there,” he said.

Saddam was a tyrant and an aggressor, but are Iraq and the region really better off without him? Consider just some of the consequences of the war that removed him.

The link between the Iraq War and the rise of ISIS has been well-established, though it is noteworthy to hear such an admission from one of the war’s architects. In his book Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, the Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick recounts how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq—the group that became the Islamic State of Iraq, and then the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—traveled to Iraq from a base in Afghanistan and then built a terrorist network in the power vacuum created by Saddam’s fall and the U.S.-led purging of members of his Ba’ath party from the new Iraqi government. (It’s worth noting that, contrary to Blair’s claims, the origins of ISIS do in fact lie in Iraq, though the chaos created by the Syrian civil war helped it establish a base in that country as well.) Writes Warrick:

It was in this reordered Iraq that Zarqawi would find both freedom to maneuver and powerful allies willing and able to support his cause. Captains and sergeants who once served Saddam Hussein now enlisted in Zarqawi’s army, and some rose to leadership positions. Others offered safe houses, intelligence, cash, and weapons, including, investigators later concluded, the aerial munitions and artillery shells that provided the explosive force for Zarqawi’s biggest car bombs.

Many of the other consequences of Saddam’s removal, direct and indirect, are harder to trace. But the reordering of Iraq has contributed to the reordering of the region as a whole—in particular in its impact on the Syrian civil war, Iran’s influence, Kurdish nationalism, and sectarian politics in the Middle East.

For example, it was Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s first post-Saddam leader, who helped fan the flames of Syria’s civil war by providing aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the early days of the government’s suppression of opposition protests there. The New York Times flagged this development in 2011:

Mr. Maliki’s support for Mr. Assad has illustrated how much Iraq’s position in the Middle East has shifted toward an axis led by Iran. And it has also aggravated the fault line between Iraq’s Shiite majority, whose leaders have accepted Mr. Assad’s account that Al Qaeda is behind the uprising, and the Sunni minority, whose leaders have condemned the Syrian crackdown. ...

Iraq and Syria have not had close relations for years, long before the American invasion. During the sectarian violence here that broke out after the invasion, Iraqi leaders blamed Syria for allowing suicide bombers and other militants to enter the country.

But Syria and Iran have had close ties, a factor in the recalibration of relations between Syria and Iraq. Last year, Iran pressured Mr. Assad into supporting Mr. Maliki for prime minister, which eventually helped him gain a second term. Since then, Mr. Maliki and Mr. Assad have strengthened relations, signing trade deals and increasing Syrian investment in Iraq.

This dynamic was one example of the growth of Iranian influence following the removal of Saddam, a key regional competitor who fought an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s. In remarks to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2007, the former CIA analyst Paul Pillar described the Iraq War’s influence on Iran’s position in the Middle East:

Among [Iraq’s] neighbors, the largest winner has been Iran. The war has not only toppled the dictator who initiated an earlier war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians; it also has crippled what had been the largest regional counterweight to Iranian influence. … Tehran seems determined to exercise as much influence as it can inside Iraq as whatever process of political reconstruction there unfolds. It has been reaching out, and providing assistance to, a wide variety of Iraqi groups, not just its traditional allies such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Although some of this assistance may help to make trouble for U.S. forces, it is best understood as an effort by Tehran to throw out as many lines of influence as it can so that whenever the dust in Iraq finally settles, it will have a good chance of having the friendship of, or at least access to, whoever is in power.  

Iranian influence is clearly visible in Iraq today, though the form it takes—Iranian generals openly directing the fight against ISIS—is perhaps not what Iran’s leaders had in mind back when Pillar delivered his testimony.

The Iraq War also opened a new chapter in the Kurdish bid for autonomy, as Frederic Wehrey and his coauthors explained for the Rand Corporation in 2010:

Increased Kurdish agitation in Syria, Turkey, and Iran is the war’s most pronounced and visible spillover effect. The 2003 invasion and the subsequent push by Iraqi Kurds for increased federalism has animated Kurdish activism in neighboring states, offering both inspiration and more-tangible support, such as a physical safe haven. Such events as the election of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani as Iraq’s president and the signing of the Transitional Administrative Law sparked celebratory rioting among Iranian Kurds and a serious uprising in Syria that left 40 dead. Violent Kurdish groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Free Life Party of (PJAK), have enjoyed increased sanctuary in post-invasion northern Iraq, posing new threats to domestic stability in Turkey and Iran.

The Kurds are now some of America’s most effective allies in the fight against ISIS, and have carved out more territory for themselves in both Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, however, the Kurdish drive for autonomy is stoking renewed violence in Turkey, where the government fought a decades-long civil war with the PKK that left tens of thousands dead.

There’s also the Iraq War’s toxic legacy of violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, which the Council on Foreign Relations has summarized:

Communal violence between Islam’s sects has been rare historically, with most of the deadly sectarian attacks directed by clerics or political leaders. Extremist groups, many of which are fostered by states, are the chief actors in sectarian killings today. ...

Conflict and chaos have played a role in the reversion to basic sectarian identity. In Iraq, for instance, remnants of the Ba’athist regime employed Sunni rhetoric to mount a resistance to the rise of Shia power following the ouster of Saddam. Sunni fundamentalists, many inspired by al-Qaeda’s call to fight Americans, flocked to Iraq from Muslim countries, attacking coalition forces and many Shia civilians. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq, evoked ancient anti-Shia fatwas, or religious rulings, to spark a civil war in hopes that the Shia majority would eventually capitulate in the face of Sunni extremist violence. The Shia community absorbed thousands of deaths before fighting back with their own sectarian militias.

Syria’s civil war, which exceeded the casualty toll of Iraq’s decade-long conflict in its first three years, has amplified sectarian tensions to unprecedented levels.

In human terms, the accounting is stark. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are estimated to have been killed in the violence unleashed in 2003, though the true number of deaths remains unknown. The continuing bloodshed in Iraq has contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, and the ascent of ISIS has exacerbated the outflow of refugees from Syria as well. “They are the forgotten casualties of the Iraq war. Fully one in six Iraqis (4.7 million people) fled or were forced from their homes following the U.S. led invasion in 2003, and most have not returned,” the International Rescue Committee writes. “Close to half are living in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Syria, while the remainder are uprooted within Iraq’s borders.” How would they answer the question of whether things are better now that Saddam’s gone?