On the Difference Between Bush and Saddam





Mr. Mason is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Brigham Young University.

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In the first day or two after revelations of American prisoner abuse in Iraq exploded on the world, television cameras captured the angry reaction of “the Arab street.” Among the messages demonstrators sent was a placard which read something like: “What’s the difference between Saddam and Bush? Nothing!” This was a powerful point, meant to hit America where it hurt. But let me suggest two important differences between the ousted dictator and the incumbent president.

The first contrast is not in Bush’s favor: the hypocrisy factor. Under both leaders, “guards” have mistreated prisoners for purposes of interrogation – in some instances at the very same locations. The essential difference here comes in the realm of professions. Not exactly to his credit, Saddam Hussein made no pretensions of his regime’s regard for human rights, or determination to spread democracy and human values beyond – or even within – its borders. The Bush administration is abundantly on record to the contrary on this point, of course.

In political terms especially, it is this gap between profession and practice that matters. To be sure, to the Hussein regime, torture was normal practice, not “abuse”; whereas U.S. government officials have moved swiftly to denounce and investigate what they have defined as prisoner abuse. And even the outrages documented so far at U.S.-run prisons from Iraq to Afghanistan pale in comparison to the atrocities perpetrated at Saddam’s murderous prisons. But our earlier proclamations of our noble mission in Iraq drown out any attempts to delineate between levels of brutality.

In this regard, the closest geopolitical parallel from our history might be the disjunction between slavery and freedom in the United States. Slavery, of course, was an ancient, even normative, labor and social system, practiced throughout the Western Hemisphere well into – in many cases deep into – the nineteenth century. And the U.S. slave population was the only one in the New World which grew naturally. Many people at the time and since have thus compared the Old South’s slave regime with other contemporary regimes and concluded that it was “mild.” Leaving aside the question of what constitutes “mild” (physical conditions are far from the only measure), this begs the question: what’s the big deal about American slavery, given this comparative perspective?

The short answer is that American slavery was uniquely reprehensible only after the American Revolution. For that Revolution produced the proclamations to the world that ours was a country based on liberty and equality. Our slavery was not a new thing under the sun, but these pretensions – put forward as the very fabric of the American Republic – were, and the glaring gap justifiably drew forth condemnation at home and abroad.

Whether in the 18th or the 19th or the 21st century, the United States simply cannot put itself forward as the standard bearer of liberty and human rights, and then expect sheepish whimpers that “everyone does it” to palliate gross contradictions of that stance. No one can claim to be setting new standards and then try to be judged by the old ones.

But lest anyone think Americans have a corner on inconsistency, consider another difference between Saddam and Bush. Hussein’s appalling human rights record was well known, in its outlines, for decades. Where was the outrage on “the Arab street” then, as there is now? Why didn’t Saddam’s diplomats need to do “damage control” with other Arab governments for his abuse of their fellow Muslims, as Colin Powell and his subordinates are now having to do?

Seeing the world only through the lens of “us vs. them” is hardly unique to Arabs. But in this case as in others, it has created shameful sanctimoniousness. Surely there is enough to go around here. But while the hypocrisy factor cuts both ways, it seems to be the real answer to that placard broadcast around the world.



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Stephen Vinson - 6/3/2004

A guy controls tens of millions of people.

Disagree with him, you get shot.

You can call that a sovereign country.

I call it a plantation.

Iraqis had as much control over their own sovereignty as the members of a plantation in the Ante Bellum South.

Never run from a debate you can win. I won't.


Arnold Shcherban - 6/2/2004

So, Iraq was and is not a sovereign country?

I'm sorry, I don't want to continue this discussion
with the person who doesn't recognize the FACTS, just because he doesn't like how they sound.
What a crock!


Stephen Vinson - 5/30/2004

>citizens of this used-to-be sovereign country<

Iraq was as sovereign of a community as a plantation in the Ante Bellum South.

>One didn't have to be a historian or even well-educated to realize that the latter should have happened.<

It should require much less for anyone to realize abuse and torture occurred on an exponentially greater scale before Hussein was ousted.

>even though the opposite side can be accused of the same, in retaliation<

Retaliation wasn't a pre-requisite.

>The entire history of Central and South America that over the last century were and continue to be the regions of the immediate US "national interests" is the history of, at the best, just repressive, at the worst - murderous regimes either installed or/and economically, militarily and politically supported by the US goverments. Any good student of history knows what I'm talking about here, and therefore, as they say - comments are redundant.<

Would you rather live in Cuba/Venezuela or Panama/Chile? I’ll be fair, toss Nicaragua into the mix.

>so-called American democracy and justice that is ready(on the obvious reasons) to slap the hands<

They’re going to get a lot worse than a hand slapping.

>the executive branch of the US goverments.<

How are they war criminals?


Stephen Vinson - 5/30/2004

"Historically, Christians nor Jews have been able to change those people’s culture."

Of course they can - case in point, they were remarkably successful at changing the culture of the Middle East for the worse. Nazi propaganda was incredibly influential during the Second World War and is one of the main reasons for the rise of the Baathist parties in Iraq and Syria to begin with. They’ve espoused fascist doctrine up to the present day.

More importantly, that same sort of explanation was used to discourage Northern intervention in the South in the 50s and 60s. I even think there was a lot of truth to it, but....


Jonathan Dresner - 5/28/2004

I'm struck by the way in which the differences between them (in this analysis) are structural rather than personal. In other words, it's not clear from this article whether G.W. Bush is indeed any different from Saddam Hussein, except that he is part of a different system (or a different part of the system, depending on whether you take the national or international component of the analysis).

That is, as the cliche says, damning with faint praise.


Arnold Shcherban - 5/27/2004

The US mainstream mass-media is happy to shift the focus
from the major issue of the criminality of current US-UK agression, continuing killing of the citizens of this used-to-be sovereign country, fighting against the agressors, and enforcing the puppet regime in Iraq to the minor consequences of that agression: abuse and torture of war prisoners.
One didn't have to be a historian or even well-educated
to realize that the latter should have happened.
In fact the similar and much worse events happened over every wide-scale war, especially the war of agression and occupation.
Take Korean and Vietnam war; take any war where this country supported one side in a military conflict - torture and terror were this side's weapons of choice(even though the opposite side can be accused of the same, in retaliation). The entire history of Central and South America that over the last century were and continue to be the regions of the immediate US "national
interests" is the history of, at the best, just repressive, at the worst - murderous regimes either installed or/and economically, militarily and politically supported by the US goverments. Any good student of history knows what I'm talking about here, and therefore, as they say - comments are redundant.
Any reasonable and unbiased person should feel disgust
at the hypocrisy of the so-called American democracy and
justice that is ready(on the obvious reasons) to slap the hands of several of its citizens for the abuse of
several Iraqis, but never utter a word of condemnation
in the adress of the major war criminals: the executive branch of the US goverments.


Charles McCant - 5/27/2004

As an African American man, I hear African American youths use the N-word freely all the time, especially in the Rap Culture. While I am troubled by this, I learned to accept it and move on with my life. If I hear someone other than an African American use the N-word, I am more troubled.

What is my point?

Arab-Muslims evidently accept inhumane treatment of their own by their own. As the situation in Iraq attests, Arab-Muslims would rather die from inhumane treatment doled out by their own people. ARAB MUSLIMS ARE NOT GOING TO TOLERATE INHUMANE TREATMENT FROM ANYONE ELSE. THEY WOULD RATHER DIE THAN ACCEPT IT.

We were led into Iraq by a Judas Goat, and there is no honorable way out. Historically, Christians nor Jews have been able to change those people’s culture.

Do you honestly think George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condeleeza Rice or Colin Powell can do so?

I don’t think so.

The moral of the story is violence is violence is violence regardless of who it is coming from.

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