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How Saddam Hussein helped make the Middle East more stable

Baghdad residents cheer under an image of President Saddam Hussein in 2001.
Karim Mohsen | Newsmakers | Getty Images
Baghdad residents cheer under an image of President Saddam Hussein in 2001.

The U.S. military was ready to intervene in Syria in the wake of President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people in the country's ongoing civil war. The statement was made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Kuala Lumpur Sunday.

"President Obama has asked the Defense Department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that," Hagel told reporters. "We are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options."

But the only options President Obama has now are bad ones. He can't bomb suspected chemical weapons depots releasing dangerous chemicals. A ground invasion is unlikely, given that American troops would have two enemies—both the Syrian army and the rebels, who have been infiltrated by al Qaeda. Even if a ground operation were feasible, the American public would never support it.

If there were feasible options for the United States, former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, urged the United States not to take them. Powell did not urge restraint because he supported Assad. He said the United States should not act to depose him because the rebels he is fighting might be just as bad.

"I have no affection for Mr. Assad. But at the same time, I am less sure of the resistance. What do they represent? And is it becoming even more radicalized with more al Qaeda coming in? And what would it look like if they prevailed and Assad went? I don't know," Powell said.

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He added: "We can influence things and we can be ready to help people when problems have been resolved or one side has prevailed over the other. That's when I think we can play a role."

Powell knows about dealing with Middle East dictators better than most. He fought Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, and was the head of the State Department during the second Iraq war.

He is also the person who uttered one of the most iconic phrases of the second Bush administration. In warning the president about the dangers of invading Iraq unprovoked, he said, "if you break it, you own it," meaning that the United States would be responsible for the future of Iraq if it took down a treacherous yet stable Hussein government.

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Powell's comments also recognize a sad fact of international diplomacy. There are lots of bad guys out there, and sometimes bad leaders are needed to keep peace and stability in countries where both peace and stability are rare.

Dealing with dictators

No one would argue that Saddam Hussein was a good guy. He committed dozens of war crimes, used chemical weapons against his own people, tortured prisoners, and tried to exterminate the Kurds, among other atrocities.

But at the same time, his heavy hand was able to keep the country under control. He kept peace between the Sunnis and Shias, all while providing a counterbalance to Iran. He also served as a consistent leader in a region of the world where stability is rare. Under his rule, Iraq was relatively peaceful and safe.

Now, a full decade after he was removed, Iran is an absolute mess; the country's religious groups are fighting among themselves; its fledgling political system is failing—a dozen candidates for political office have been assassinated in the last ten years. The Islamic State of Iraq, the al Qaeda front there, is still capable of pulling off large-scale attacks.

On Sunday, coordinated attacks killed 42 people. Britain-based NGO Iraq Body Count estimates that some 112,000 Iraqis have died in the last ten years.

One of the main reasons for the problems in Iraq is the United States did not abide by Powell's advice: The United States broke Iraq, but never bought it. There is a laundry list of things the Bush administration did wrong and the end result has been disastrous.

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U.S. involvement in Syria could mean making the same mistake twice. Neither the American public nor the Obama administration has the appetite for another prolonged engagement in the Middle East.

The same can be said of the Egyptian crisis. Hosni Mubarak was another dictator who provided stability: This is why the United States supported him with some $83 billion in aid during his time as Egyptian president. Many in the West thought the Arab Spring protests that removed Mubarak from office were the first step toward a democratic Egypt. As recent violence shows, that's simply not the case.

Powell hinted at this in his "Face the Nation" appearance. He realizes that the price of stability is often dictatorship and that there are limits to U.S. power.

"But to think that we can change things immediately just because we're American—that's not necessarily the case," he said. These are internal struggles and the parties inside those countries are going to have to sort it out amongst themselves."

—By David Francis, The Fiscal Times

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