NEW YORK--Take note, dictators considering an alliance with the United States: We'll throw you to the wolves as soon as you cease to be useful.
Saddam Hussein's order to execute 148 men and boys in Dujail, in northern Iraq, in 1982 was his nominal casus morti. Actually, he was the fatal victim of a labor-management dispute.
Anyone who works for a difficult boss can sympathize with Saddam. After unsuccessfully attempting to reach President George H.W. Bush and other top officials (who were on vacation) to ask for permission to invade Kuwait, he finally touched base with Bush's ambassador to Iraq on July 25, 1990. At the time, Hussein was a close American ally, receiving billions of dollars in arms shipments and subsidies. Baath Party-ruled Iraq, a U.S. client state, had waged the 1980-88 war against Iran largely at Washington's behest.
Then, as now, human rights were not a consideration of U.S. foreign policy.
Tensions with Kuwait, whose territorial legitimacy had not been recognized by any Iraqi leader since the country's founding in 1920, had been rising over alleged "slant drilling" beneath the border into Iraqi oilfields and Kuwait's refusal to reduce oil production to raise prices as requested by the OPEC cartel.
At the fateful meeting, Saddam asked Ambassador April Glaspie: Would the U.S. object to an invasion? "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait," she replied. "Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America."
The signal was clear. Bright green.
When Iraqi forces entered Kuwait one week later, President Bush stayed mum. He only turned against Saddam later, in response to diplomatic pressure from Britain, which had close economic ties to Kuwait, and Israel, which considered Iraq a mortal enemy. Everything that followed--the Gulf War, the sanctions of the 1990s, the 2003 invasion, the deaths of 3,000 American servicemen and the Iraqi dictator's execution--resulted from Saddam's decision to rely on Glaspie rather than waiting for the boss (Bush) to return from vacation.
In the old days, a tyrant could torture and loot his country, secure in the knowledge that his American masters would dispatch a military helicopter to spirit him off the roof of his palace before falling into the hands of a raging mob, plunder-stuffed duffel bags in tow. In 1986, the U.S. Air Force delivered two of our pet dictators--Haitian strongman Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos--to exile in the French Riviera and Hawaii, respectively. U.S. Customs turned a blind eye to Marcos' 24 suitcases of gold bricks and diamonds stashed in diaper bags. Duvalier was similarly well-provisioned, although he eventually lost his chateau, villa in Cannes and two luxury apartments in Paris to a bitter divorce. Reza Muhammed Shah Pahlawi of Iran, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, and Nguyen Van Thieu--the last president of South Vietnam--also jetted off on Air America.
Leftist complaints that the government was shielding men who had murdered and looted on a grand scale were ignored. Years of doing America's bidding, reasoned the wise men of Langley, earned a dictator the right to a safe (and plush) retirement. Moreover, golden parachutes were attractive incentives when they tried to recruit new leaders.
The system of residual lèse majesté started to unravel in 1989. President Bush ordered American troops to depose Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega after murders of political opponents had turned him into an international embarrassment. Previously his long pro-U.S. resume--he'd been on the CIA payroll since the 1950s--would have entitled him to preferential treatment. But Bush, a typical CEO, tried to lowball Noriega with a $2 million payoff to go into exile in Spain. Insulted by the offer, Noriega refused.
Bush arranged for his former employee to be imprisoned for 15 years for drug trafficking and money laundering, charges that are now believed to have been wildly exaggerated if not entirely invented. Stripped of his dignity and treated like a common criminal, the former head of state was reduced to federal inmate No. 38699-079.
Now we use the veneer of legality to dispose of our former lap-dog leaders in circumstances that recall the mob that killed Mussolini and his mistress. Saddam's American-paid executioners failed to grant him basic courtesies traditionally extended to the condemned. The deposed dictator was denied his request to die by firing squad, not permitted the right to wear his military uniform, even refused a farewell visit from his wife.
Years of abuse by American guards who photographed him in his underwear and deprived him of sleep followed the release of humiliating videos of his capture and "medical exam" after he'd obviously been forcibly drugged. In 2004, American troops had murdered his sons and 14-year-old grandson, and released photos of their bloodied faces--an insult to Islamic tradition--on Iraq's collaborationist television. Death must have come as something of a release.
Hazing of high-profile prisoners isn't new. Albert Speer, the German architect and armaments minister sentenced to 20 years in prison at the Nuremberg Trials, recalled having been subjected to the same 24-hour lights and no-eye-covering torture as Saddam. Speer was dragged into the gymnasium where General Keitel and other top Nazis had just been hanged, and ordered to clean up the mess made by the dead men's loosened bowels and bladders.
Like Saddam, Speer had it coming. That's why it's so remarkable that the world recoils in disgust at their mistreatment. The New York Times reported that Saddam's hanging had deteriorated "into a sectarian free-for-all that had the effect, on the video recordings, of making Mr. Hussein, a mass murderer, appear dignified and restrained, and his executioners, representing Shiites who were his principal victims, seem like bullying street thugs." Only a nation run by frat boys could elicit sympathy for such monsters.