The aftermath of the Iraq War convinced many that the price of justice for Saddam was too high. But the uncomfortable fact remains that no cheaper way has been found. The left’s alternative is the International Criminal Court (ICC), but in over 10 years it has convicted only a single suspect, Thomas Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And that case is under appeal.
The ongoing atrocities in Syria make it clear that the prospect of ICC prosecution does not deter dictators. Nor is there any reason why it should. If indictment by the Court has any effect, it is to encourage tyrants to hold on to power and fight even harder. After all, only losers go on trial.
In practice, if you want to hold a dictator accountable for crimes against humanity – and, more importantly, stop him from committing even more crimes – you need to get your hands on him. That usually means fighting a war, or at least supporting an internal rebellion.
True, there are too many abuses in the world for the democracies to chase them willy-nilly. But one lesson of Saddam’s capture is that, yes, war can bring justice in a way that the supposedly bloodless and superior alternative of an international tribunal simply cannot. Law without the backing of power is not, in any practical sense, law at all.
But the aftermath of Saddam’s capture raises a more profound question about whether intervention is prudent. Over 100 years ago, the great Victorian liberal John Stuart Mill also considered this question, in his essay A Few Words on Non-Intervention.
Mill’s answer, simply put, was that armed intervention against a tyrant merely to help promote the advance of freedom was rarely wise, because if the people could not free themselves by their own efforts, they did not have the social and cultural resources to remain free. As he pithily put it: “When freedom has been achieved for them, they have little prospect indeed.”
According to Mill, the best solution in this case was for the people to fight a long civil war, in order to throw off their dictator and in the process build up their own unity. That worked tolerably well in several European rebellions in Mill’s era, but looking at Syria, this prescription appears to be as impractical and dangerous as the ICC.
But Syria is not an internal struggle. It is a proxy war being waged by Iran and Russia, on one side, against a wavering coalition of Sunni states and the West. There is nothing purely domestic about it. And in those cases, Mill said, intervention is “always rightful, always moral, if not always prudent”. It is one thing to intervene: it is another to respond to dictatorial intervention.
The West’s record on this score since 2003 has been simply disastrous. The US and its allies were far too reluctant to recognise that Iraq, too, was a regional war, one in which Syria and Iran – the same forces now tearing up the Levant – were deeply engaged against the coalition.
If you are horrified today by the atrocities in Syria, you might ask yourself whether you felt as strongly when US and British troops were battling foreign fighters in Iraq. For the war today is a continuation of the same struggle for regional supremacy that was being waged in 2003, and which began with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. And it is a war that we are losing.
Indeed, it is a war that we appear to have abandoned. By our chemical weapons deals with the Assad regime and our nuclear stitch-up with Tehran in Geneva, we have all but conceded defeat. The implicit understanding behind both deals is that those regimes are going to remain in power, and if we want them to deliver on their promises, we will guarantee their safety.
The Iranian deal, in particular, is an easy hostage to fortune: all the mullahs have to do is threaten to break it – a meaningless threat to a meaningless accord – and we will come running with further promises of American good behavior. But there are smiles in Damascus too: the more the US tilts to Iran, the more obvious it is that we will accept Assad’s atrocities, and his victory.
Another of the left’s alternatives to war is sanctions. In the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death, we have heard a lot about their virtues. But as the example of Iran shows, it is extremely hard for the West to remain united on any sanctions against a rogue regime, because they are invariably subject to a swarm of legal and humanitarian challenges.
The temptation is always to subvert sanctions, either to make a euro or two, or because it seems safer and easier to bandwagon with the dictator instead of balancing against him. Iraq under Saddam posed exactly the same dilemma as Iran today: both were restrained largely by increasingly precarious sanctions, and led by aggressive cliques with a history of taking big risks.
George W Bush was remarkable because he rejected the easy choice, to bandwagon with Saddam. Barack Obama, by contrast, has rarely met a powerful, undemocratic regime he didn’t want to sidle up to, be it Russia, Iran, or the European Union.
The price of that approach is less obvious. But it does carry a cost: it means tacitly approving every single one of their abuses.
The lesson the left has taken away from Iraq is simple: don’t get involved. But not getting involved has consequences too. The illusion of clean hands is a powerful one, but a decade after Saddam’s capture, it remains an illusion.
*Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.