Ever wonder how official history would have assessed Saddam Hussein, had he not rashly interpreted US ambassador April Glaspie’s comments (“we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait”) as a green light to invade that country?

Check The Australians obituary for General Suharto and wonder no more. If Saddam had survived throughout the nineties as a loyal counterweight to Iran, he too could have been as a “strong, successful leader who got things done in a way that had rarely happened previously.”

“Saddam Hussein was certainly authoritarian,” opines the Oz, “and relied on the armed forces for support, but he was also pragmatic, secular and opposed to Islamic extremism.”

Oops! The passage above actually refers to Suharto. But you can see how the thing is done.

How would have our hypothetical obituarist handled the ticklish subject of the 150,000 people Saddam murdered? The Australian again:

There is, of course, much to be said against Suharto. Over three decades of his New Order regime, he utilised the military to impose a central government over an unlikely nation. Millions of people were killed in brutal crackdowns on communists and Chinese Indonesians.

…There were widespread human rights abuses, especially but not only in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua, and pervasive corruption… For all his failings, Suharto had many significant achievements.

Ah, that wonderful passive voice, so beloved by apologists. Millions (let’s say that again: millions!) of people were killed – but not, apparently, by anyone in particular. The deaths just happened, probably of their own accord: who can say?

Besides, it’s swings and roundabouts, snakes and ladders: on the one hand, mass murder on an almost genocidal scale; on the other, economic development and stability in the region.

As Tim Colebatch says in The Age, “I [do not] understand those who focus entirely on the massacres, the human rights violations and the corruption without conceding that Soeharto then used his power intelligently to guide Indonesia on a path of rapid economic growth…”

In that case, RIP Saddam Hussein! Wiki explains, “Saddam’s organizational prowess was credited with Iraq’s rapid pace of development in the 1970s; development went forward at such a fevered pitch that two million persons from other Arab countries and Yugoslavia worked in Iraq to meet the growing demand for labor.”

As for stability, why, Iraq under Saddam was rock-solid, what with the secret police and torture rooms and all.

Which is why a Hussein who remained a state department pet might even have posthumously enjoyed some of the verbal fel-atio that Greg Sheridan dispenses whenever a tyrant’s in the offing:

Indonesia’s Suharto was an authentic giant of Asia, a nation-builder, a dictator, a changer of history. He was also, for Australia, the most important and beneficial Asian leader in the entire period after World War II. This was once a widely held view among senior Australian policy-makers…Suharto was a prime mover of history and his rule was of immeasurable benefit to Australia.

Of course, Sheridan knows he can only write that kind of stuff about mass murderers who specialised in exterminating the lesser races. Imagine the jowl-flapping fury of the Oz’s pundits were someone to stress the positive side of killing a million or so Americans!

But when little Freddie gags at discovering the origins of the tasty pork he enjoys, his kind mother replies: “Don’t worry, son – the pigs are used to it.”

Presumably, it’s the same with Indonesians and Timorese. They’re used to it – and if massacring a million Untermenschen was of “immeasurable benefit to Autralia”, well, everyone likes crispy bacon for breakfast, don’t they?

Poor old Saddam. If he hadn’t got too cocky, his crimes would have been just as casually absolved. After all, the indifference to the toll from the Iraq occupation suggests that, unless we’re drumming up support for new wars, dead Arabs count even less than Indonesians.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey