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JONATHAN CHAIT

Bring back Hussein, the lesser evil

Restoring him to power may shock Iraq into a sense of order. You got a better idea?

November 26, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT | jchait@latimescolumnists.com

THE DEBATE about Iraq has moved past the question of whether it was a mistake (everybody knows it was) to the more depressing question of whether it is possible to avert total disaster. Every self-respecting foreign policy analyst has his own plan for Iraq. The trouble is that these tracts are inevitably unconvincing, except when they argue why all the other plans would fail. It's all terribly grim.

So allow me to propose the unthinkable: Maybe, just maybe, our best option is to restore Saddam Hussein to power.

Yes, I know. Hussein is a psychotic mass murderer. Under his rule, Iraqis were shot, tortured and lived in constant fear. Bringing the dictator back would sound cruel if it weren't for the fact that all those things are also happening now, probably on a wider scale.

At the outset of the war, I had no high hopes for Iraqi democracy, but I paid no attention to the possibility that the Iraqis would end up with a worse government than the one they had. It turns out, however, that there is something more awful than totalitarianism, and that is endless chaos and civil war.

Nobody seems to foresee the possibility of restoring order to Iraq. Here is the basic dilemma: The government is run by Shiites, and the security agencies have been overrun by militias and death squads. The government is strong enough to terrorize the Sunnis into rebellion but not strong enough to crush this rebellion.

Meanwhile, we have admirably directed our efforts into training a professional and nonsectarian Iraqi police force and encouraging reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. But we haven't succeeded. We may be strong enough to stop large-scale warfare or genocide, but we're not strong enough to stop pervasive chaos.

Hussein, however, has a proven record in that department. It may well be possible to reconstitute the Iraqi army and state bureaucracy we disbanded, and if so, that may be the only force capable of imposing order in Iraq.

Chaos and order each have a powerful self-sustaining logic. When people perceive a lack of order, they act in ways that further the disorder. If a Sunni believes that he is in danger of being killed by Shiites, he will throw his support to Sunni insurgents who he sees as the only force that can protect him. The Sunni insurgents, in turn, will scare Shiites into supporting their own anti-Sunni militias.

And it's not just Iraqis who act this way. You could find a smaller-scale version of this dynamic in an urban riot here in the United States. But when there's an expectation of social order, people will act in a civilized fashion.

Restoring the expectation of order in Iraq will take some kind of large-scale psychological shock. The Iraqi elections were expected to offer that shock, but they didn't. The return of Saddam Hussein -- a man every Iraqi knows, and whom many of them fear -- would do the trick.

The disadvantages of reinstalling Hussein are obvious, but consider some of the upside. He would not allow the country to be dominated by Iran, which is the United States' major regional enemy, a sponsor of terrorism and an instigator of warfare between Lebanon and Israel. Hussein was extremely difficult to deal with before the war, in large part because he apparently believed that he could defeat any U.S. invasion if it came to that. Now he knows he can't. And he'd probably be amenable because his alternative is death by hanging.

I know why restoring a brutal tyrant to power is a bad idea. Somebody explain to me why it's worse than all the others.

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