Many Democrats and a lot of Republicans are again condemning Donald Trump for his alleged praise of Saddam Hussein. Speaking in North Carolina last night, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate told his fans that "we shouldn't have gone in" to overthrow Saddam in 2003 because doing so destabilized Iraq. Trump affirmed that Saddam was "a bad guy," but insisted that one thing he was good at was killing terrorists. The "bad guy" bit did nothing to change the minds of people convinced that Trump has a dangerous admiration for "authoritarian" rulers, while the part about Saddam killing terrorists outraged neocons and others who stand by their old opinion that the Iraqi dictator was a "state sponsor of terrorism." These latter critics also claimed that any "terrorists" crushed by Saddam were really -- did you guess? -- liberal freedom fighters against tyranny. Here is a representative critique along these lines from a typical source. But who can deny that Trump, in perhaps clumsy fashion, is describing something real -- that under Saddam's tyranny, for it was that, no one was killing Baghdadi civilians by the hundreds in the name of an Islamic caliphate. More importantly, under Saddam's tyranny, no one was murdering Americans in the name of an organization dedicated to overthrowing the government of Iraq. But didn't Saddam himself encourage or abet terror against the U.S.? Didn't he destabilize the region by invading Kuwait and waging war on Iran before that? In the short term, yes, but Trump seems to be trying to take a longer view to determine whether the U.S., rather than anyone else, is better off or not without Saddam.
What Trump has yet to show is whether he understands why we invaded Iraq. Does he think it was anything more than a case of bad intelligence? From what Trump says we can infer that he wouldn't take "Saddam is a murderous dictator" as reason enough to take him down, and while that might have been reason enough for some invasion cheerleaders it certainly doesn't tell the whole story. Trump should ask himself why Iraq became an enemy of the U.S. after acting as our proxy against Iran throughout the 1980s. Kuwait obviously is a big part of the answer, but Saddam wasn't threatening that kingdom again in 2003. Trump's critics are right, meanwhile, about Saddam sponsoring or subsidizing terrorism against Israel, but Trump may want to think about the price of unconditional support for Israel against its neighbors, since that certainly contributed to American undermining of largely secular "anti-imperialist" regimes in the Middle East, and still factors into our insistence that Bashar al-Assad give up power in Syria. When last heard from on the subject, however, on April 27, Trump sounded as unconditional in his Zionism as most Republicans. Could a President Trump remain unconditional in his Zionism while eschewing a regime-change strategy against Israel's antagonists, including Syria? So far he's taken a relatively realistic position on the Assad regime, rejecting regime change, but would he be able to reconcile that position with Assad's continued hostility toward the Jewish state and the dictator's friendship with Iran, the one country with which Trump seems unwilling to deal? For all we know, Trump may be the man to cut the ultimate deal that would stabilize the Middle East, but he needs to show us more before we trust him to do that.