John Rentoul: Mr Blair is entitled to stand by his refusal to apologise for helping to oust a dictator

For much of the time, the West chose to treat him as a friend
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The Independent Online

A death sentence is an unsatisfactory ending. Even if you support the death penalty in principle, which few Independent on Sunday readers presumably do, it does not finish the story. Even if you take the view, as I do, that the Iraqi people should decide what to do with Saddam Hussein, it will not end the argument.

Ultimately, that argument is about the question: how should democracies deal with dictators? The hanging of Saddam poses, in vivid personal form, the question of what should have been done about him. We should have left him alone; we should have "contained" him; he should have stood trial at the Hague; the Iraqis should not have been allowed to execute him. Whatever happens, there are always voices warning that we should not have started from here. Yet it is possible to argue that Saddam's end is the least bad outcome.

Some of the objections to his execution are off the point. It is complained that he has not received a fair trial: that would be a complaint worth listening to from anyone who seriously suggests that they hanged the wrong man, or that he did not commit the crimes of which he was accused.

Joan Smith argues below that Tony Blair was hypocritical to allow the Iraqis to use a punishment to which he is opposed on principle. But there is a higher principle at stake, which is that it was for the Iraqi people, voting in the referendum on the constitution, to decide the rules of their justice system.

The big issue, for the past five years and for ever after, will be whether it was right to invade Iraq in the first place. The death of Saddam will be a chance to look back on his career as a tyrant and to point out that for much of that time he was treated as a friend by the West. That is, however, one of the worst arguments against the invasion of Iraq. It is often said that British and American foreign policy sent such confusing signals to Saddam that "we" more or less encouraged him to practise mass murder and to invade Kuwait in 1990.

It is true that Western foreign policy has not always been clear in its condemnation of the human rights abuses of regimes considered useful. But that is not quite the same as saying that "we" are complicit in those crimes and therefore have no moral standing in taking action - however belatedly - against them.

Take the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It is sometimes suggested that April Glaspie, the US ambassador to Baghdad, encouraged Saddam to invade by telling him that the US "took no position" on the border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait. That this is nonsense can be verified by looking up the diplomatic telegram - and it is a telegram, all capital letters - that has been declassified and posted on the website of the Thatcher Foundation (which, we note in passing, is one of the seven wonders of the World Wide Web).

The telegram recounts how Saddam told Glaspie that the financial situation of Iraq was dire, because of the sanctions for which he blamed Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. "The pensions for widows and orphans will have to be cut," he said. "At this point," the telegram continues, "the interpreter and one of the notetakers broke down and wept." But Glaspie made quite clear to Saddam where the US stood. "After a pause for recuperation", she asked him if there had been "any progress in finding a peaceful way to defuse the dispute" with Kuwait. She stressed the US President's "strong desire, shared we assume by Iraq, for peace and stability in the Mid East", and asked if it were not reasonable for him to be concerned about the massing of Iraqi troops on the border.

Even if she had said something ambiguous that might have implied that the US would acquiesce in the occupation of Kuwait, though, would that have made it wrong for the US to help to enforce the will of the United Nations in defending Kuwait from Iraqi aggression? On a larger scale, surely the fact that the US (and to a lesser extent Britain) reversed its policy of appeasing Saddam - a policy adopted pragmatically during the Iran-Iraq war - should be celebrated rather than condemned. As John Reid, the Home Secretary, once told me: "The problem is that there is a latent anti-Americanism that doesn't ask: 'Are they now taking the right position?' It asks the question: 'Are they still Americans?' "

In fact, it is a misreading of British foreign policy to suggest that there was a sudden and hypocritical switch in policy towards Saddam. The whole "arms to Iraq" affair that caused John Major's government such difficulty was brought about by different parts of the machine moving at different speeds to a position of official disapproval. By the time Tony Blair came to power, the question was no longer whether Saddam was a threat to his own people, the region and the world. It was what should be done about him.

Blair was alarmed from the moment he became Prime Minister by the intelligence suggesting that the policy of containment was breaking down. But there was little he could do about Saddam until America changed its policy after 9/11. Meanwhile, he did what he could to bully the US and other Nato countries out of their posture of, if not exactly appeasing tyranny, pragmatic indifference. By persuading Bill Clinton to flex America's military muscle, he rescued the Kosovo Albanians from the vicious oppression of Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic was forced out of power a year later and died in March this year while on trial at the Hague, having been given up by a Serbian government that did not want him. That seemed like the right outcome in different circumstances. The majority of the Iraqi people wanted to try Saddam in Iraq; the Serbians were more ambivalent about Milosevic.

The real argument against the Iraq war remains the practical one: that the country is now a terrible mess. The execution of Saddam will make no difference to that, but that is not the point. Whatever else went wrong, the invasion achieved one thing: it enabled the Iraqi people to make their own decisions within admittedly narrow limits. The government they elected may be weak. But it had the power to do one thing that a sovereign and democratic people can expect to do: to bring their own former tyrant to justice.

Until the Iraqi people say that the invasion, and all that followed, was not worth it to get rid of Saddam - and most of them still say it was worth it - Blair is entitled to stand by his refusal to apologise for helping to remove a dictator.