Would we have been better off leaving Saddam in power?

My irascible friend Diana Moon (no link, scroll to “Sunday Morning”) has asked the question: “Do you think that we would have been better off leaving Saddam in power?”

This is not actually an outrageous question. What it amounts to asking is whether George Bush the First was right to leave Saddam (“a force for stability”) in power after the First Iraq War. But the very fact that it can be asked at all speaks very poorly of the younger Bush’s Second Iraq War. Coming up with something better than Saddam Hussein shouldn’t have been that hard.

From the American point of view, we have confirmed (at a very high cost) that Iraq never had any WMD. As for the terrorist threat, it has certainly become worse: more Islamic militants have been created, whereas nothing at all has been done to reduce terrorism (and resources have even been diverted from the real war on terror.) The war has severely stressed most of America’s diplomatic relationships and has also been costly both economically and in terms of casualties.

Are the Iraqis themselves better off? At this point no one in the world has any idea who will be governing Iraq in a year’s time. (As far as that goes, no one in the world knows who will be governing Iraq two months from now). But the most likely possibilities are a militant Shiite theocracy, a long civil war, and an extended American occupation. None of these are necessarily better than Saddam’s rule.

We’re frequently told that we’ve liberated the Iraqi women, but that’s just because you always have to talk about the ill-treatment of women when you talk about Islam. Iraqi women, per se, were better off under Saddam than they are now under the mullahs, just as they were better off in Afghanistan under Communism than they have been since the Communists were overthrown. (No, this doesn’t justify either Saddam or Communism, but the secular governments were much better about educating women and letting them work).

And democracy now looks like the longest of long shots, with a real risk of getting an anti-American, anti-Israeli democracy.

This is not the war we were sold, and we will not be able to make a success of it without a long, costly, and probably brutal occupation. Hawks assure us that we have no other choice, but most of what they told us last time turned out not to be true.

Bush’s war has been a complete failure unless its whole purpose was to get the U.S. involved in a longer and wider war.