Last week British PM Tony Blair claimed that at the basis of his "moral case" against the Beast of Baghdad was Saddam's "barbarous and detestable" human rights record, an "appalling situation [which] will continue" unless he is removed from power (The Age, 21 Feb 03). Joining the chorus, John Howard (Australian PM) and Alexander Downer (Australian Foreign Minister) expressed astonishment that others weren't equally mortified by Saddam's horrifying treatment of both his neighbours and his own people.
One reason why so few Australians are following Washington's script is that unlike George, Tony, John and Alex, they haven't just discovered Saddam's brutality. A number of people who marched two weekends ago expressed their concerns back in the late 1980s when the Iraqi leader was at the peak of his crimes - gassing Iranian child soldiers and defenceless Kurdish villagers. Unsurprisingly, within the corridors of power at the time, their protests fell on deaf ears. It's easy, therefore, to imagine their anger at the calumny of those who, previously silent, are now lecturing them about the evils of Saddam's regime.
At the heart of the West's credibility on this issue is its response at the time these atrocities took place. What forms did outrage in Washington, London and Canberra take after Saddam killed 5000 Kurds in the town of Halabja on 17 March 1988? What steps did governments in these capitals take to bring him to account for his wicked crimes? The answers to these questions will tell us how seriously we should accept the arguments that are currently being mounted for war.
Washington was so offended by Saddam's behaviour in the 1980s that it backed him in Baghdad's war against Iran. Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr supplied the Iraqi leader with intelligence, satellite imagery, arms and billions of dollars in loans. Two decades later, Saddam's attack on Persia - about which at the time Washington was officially "neutral" - is being invoked by many of the same people as a reason for his annihilation.