LONDON — At the Iraq inquiry in London on Jan. 29, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair found a new way to defend his decision to join George W. Bush in invading Iraq in 2003: the what-if defense. What if they hadn’t invaded Iraq, and Saddam Hussein had remained in power there?

“What’s important is not to ask the March 2003 Question, but to ask the 2010 Question,” Blair said. “Supposing we had backed off this military action, supposing we had left Saddam and his sons, which were going to follow him, in charge of Iraq — people who used chemical weapons, caused the death of over one million people . . . If we had left Saddam in power, we would have to deal with him today, where the circumstances would be far worse.”

Blair obviously thought that this was the one argument nobody could disagree with. He might have cooked the intelligence about Iraq, Saddam might not actually have had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — Blair admits that nowadays — but if he had left this evil monster in power, we would all be sorry now.

Blair is offering only two choices: either he and George W. Bush invade in 2003, or Saddam is still in power in 2010. It’s really more complicated than that. All transfers of power in Iraq since its independence have been accomplished by violence, and Saddam could have lost power through an internal coup. He might also have died. We know that Saddam would have survived until 2006, because that’s when they hanged him, but if he were alive today, he would be almost 73.

Blair clearly thinks that he and Bush were God’s chosen instruments for removing Saddam from power (and so does Bush). But God, if he exists, has many alternative instruments at his disposal. Some of them wouldn’t even involve starting a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and turned 4 million Iraqis into refugees.

Cut to the chase: what would the world be like if Saddam were still in power in Iraq? Much the same as it is now, in all likelihood.

Many people asked exactly the same question in 1991, after the first President Bush decided not to overthrow Saddam at the end of the first Persian Gulf War. The answer is that in the next 10 years, until 2001, Saddam attacked no neighbors; built no weapons of mass destruction; did nothing that gave the world reason to regret that he had been left in power.

Many Iraqis regretted it, partly because the United Nations sanctions against Saddam were impoverishing their country. The sanctions had been imposed to ensure that Saddam could not rebuild his armed forces, most of which had been destroyed in the Gulf War, and that he could not restart the projects for developing WMD that had been dismantled by U.N. inspectors during the early 1990s.

The sanctions were still working well in 2003. The proof is that no WMD were found, nor even any evidence that Saddam was trying to revive his pre-1991 WMD programs, after the invaders arrived in 2003 and ransacked Iraq looking for evidence to justify their actions.

In fact, if you were a reader of this column seven years ago, I told you that. It was obvious to any reasonably well-informed person in 2003 that Saddam no longer presented a military threat even to his neighbors. There is no reason to believe that sanctions would have ended if the U.S. and Britain had not invaded Iraq in 2003, or that Saddam would be any more dangerous today than he was then.

But what about the million people he killed? The great majority of those million people died on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and Saddam only “killed” them in the same limited sense that Blair “killed” several hundred thousand people by invading Iraq in 2003.

The people who actually died in the hands of Saddam’s secret police, or in his suppression of revolts like the Shiite uprising of 1991, were much less numerous. The mass killings only happened in response to direct threats to the regime, and none occurred after 1991. The number of people killed in Saddam’s jails in a normal year was probably in the low hundreds. He was just another vicious dictator, not a “monster of evil.”

So why did Bush and Blair invade Iraq? Maybe for American strategists it had something to do with oil, but for Blair, at least, it was pure ignorance. If anybody ever explained to him that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, he didn’t listen.

Blair didn’t realize that Saddam was a pragmatist who had been happy to accept American support during that war that killed a million people, not some hater of the West on principle. He didn’t understand that Ba’athists like Saddam were the sworn enemies of religious fanatics like the al-Qaida bunch, each killing the other whenever they got the chance. For him, they were all Arabs; they were all Muslims; they were all the same.

It’s all history now, and maybe it’s not worth bothering about. Except that people just as ignorant as Blair are now peddling us the same kind of nonsense about Iran.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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