The career of Saddam Hussein, whose life was terminated early yesterday, fell into two distinct phases. It was his tragedy, though not the world's, that he was himself unable to detect the key moment of transformation from one to the next. Although he modelled himself upon his hero, Joseph Stalin, he turned out to have none of the Marshal's guile and ability to know when and where to draw back; instead he fell for the same hubristic tendencies that have marked the demise of so many other dictators.
The history of the English-speaking peoples since 1900 is so replete with the phenomenon of dictators underestimating the resolve of American and British leaders that Saddam had no excuse. He had endless examples from the past - from Paul Kruger to the Kaiser, from Adolf Hitler to Mossadeq to General Galtieri - of strong men who took it for granted that the English-speaking powers could be mocked indefinitely, to no effect. He has now paid the price of ignoring no fewer than three distinct opportunities to save his regime.
Historians argue over which American president said of which Latin American dictator, "He might be a sonofabitch, but at least he's our sonofabitch." Yet, whether it was Roosevelt, Truman or Johnson, the expression of naked realpolitik contained within is superbly stark. No one doubts the deeply repulsive nature of Saddam's regime, but on 2 August 1990 his sudden invasion of Kuwait meant that he had for ever forsworn his earlier stance of being a pro-Western sonofabitch.
Before that time, Iraq had provided the inestimable benefit to the West of keeping Islamist Iran under control during the Cold War's dangerous endgame. The theocratic revolution that overthrew the Shah was viciously anti-Western and represented the foremost threat to stability in the Middle East. Of his many mordantly witty remarks, Henry Kissinger's estimation of the Iran-Iraq war - "A pity they both can't lose" - rates among his best. In one sense they did both lose: one million people died in the struggle. Weapons of mass destruction were used regularly by both sides.
Saddam emerged the overall victor yet instead of building up his shattered economy, society and nation, he decided to embark on a lunatic adventure to try to grab 40 per cent of the world's oil supply, using the one weapon that was left him by the end of the struggle: his 600,000-strong, well-equipped army. There can be little doubt that if he had not convinced himself that he could defy the West he would still be tyrannising his people today.
Like Hitler, Saddam was appeased by the West, leading him to draw the wrong conclusions about the future. Even after announcing "the mother of all battles" on 6 January 1991, and going on to lose it in a three-week war, he was allowed to survive. President George Bush Sr and John Major allowed him to remain in power in a truncated Iraq, so that they could retain a wide Arab coalition that did not want to see Western troops overthrowing a Muslim head of state in Baghdad.
Saddam then made his second mistake. Often in history it has been the small, insignificant nations that have brought about the downfall of a great empire. The demise of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire began after its declaration of war against tiny Serbia. The British Empire was washed up after it failed to swat Egypt during the Suez Crisis. Similarly, the nuclearised Soviet Union was shown up for the shell it was by its disastrous campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Saddam hubristically believed his Iraqi army might defeat the American republic. "Baghdad is determined to force the Mongols of our age to commit suicide at its gates," he boasted on 18 January 2003. Yet by then he seems to have destroyed his WMD, crucially without even telling his own generals.
In the 12 years between the Gulf and Iraq wars, Saddam might have been able to re-establish international credibility and good offices by complying with the reasonable UN resolutions passed between 29 November 1990 and 17 December 1999. There were no fewer than 16 of these and they required him to "destroy all of his ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150kms; stop support for terrorism and prevent terrorist organisations from operating within Iraq; help account for missing Kuwaitis and other individuals; return stolen Kuwaiti property and bear financial liability for damage from the Gulf War".
Stalin would have peered far enough into the future not to have escalated the tension. Yet Saddam spent the 1990s defying the English-speaking peoples. He attempted to shoot down RAF and USAF planes over the no-fly zones; he corruptly profited from the oil-for-food scandal while Iraqi children starved to death; he offered $25,000 to the families of each Palestinian suicide-murderer; he continued to threaten his peaceful pro-Western Arab neighbours; he summarily expelled UN weapons inspectors in 1998.
By the time that 9/11 happened any war against terror that did not involve toppling Saddam would have been ridiculous. Colonel Gadaffi was able to row back after 9/11, and effectively make peace with the English-speaking peoples; Saddam had gone far too far by then.
In 1993 the Iraqi intelligence service had tried to assassinate George Bush Sr and the Emir of Kuwait with a car bomb. Saddam sheltered the Mujahedin-e-Khalq organisation, the Palestine Liberation Front, Abu Abbas, the Abu Nidal organisation, and others. There were many sound reasons for overthrowing Saddam quite separate either from WMDs or his monstrous domestic human- rights record. Nor did the future of Iraq look bright, post-Saddam; he had two sadistic sons, one of whom was a rapist and mass murderer.
Saddam was not destroyed because he was a monster - there are plenty of those in the world, from Robert Mugabe to Kim Il-Sung - but because he was a monster who failed to learn an obvious lesson from history: that the English-speaking peoples can be pushed very, very far, but no further.
Andrew Roberts's 'A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900' is published by WeidenfeldReuse content