Did Donald Trump confuse Saddam Hussein with Moammar Qaddafi? Not really, no, and last night was not the first time that Trump has made the argument that we would have been better off with Hussein still in charge of Iraq than the present status quo. The focus on the remarks last night might have another explanation — although that hardly redeems the remarks themselves:
Donald Trump praised Saddam Hussein at a campaign rally on Tuesday, embracing the dictator who oppressed Iraq for more than 30 years, aggressively suppressed dissent in his country and was widely considered one of the leading enemies of the United States.
“Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Right? He was a bad guy, really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights — they didn’t talk, they were a terrorist, it was over,” Trump said as many in his audience of about 2,000 laughed on Tuesday evening. “Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism. You want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq. It’s like Harvard. Okay? So sad.”
This is not the first time Trump has praised Hussein or other dictators, although his comments on Tuesday night gathered much more attention than his earlier comments.
Let’s talk about that. David Martosko made the obvious connection last night:
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel responds that this is the rare time when lumping the “media” in one pot makes sense:
Defining “the media” so broadly rarely makes sense. It made sense last night. Trump’s insistence that Hussein should have remained in power, to “kill terrorists,” is actually one of his most consistent lines. It clashes completely with the Washington consensus, but taps into voter anger at how the Iraq War, sold as a quick-and-easy crusade against evil, destabilized the Middle East and allowed groups like ISIS to form and grow.
Trump began saying this at his campaign rallies last summer. (As Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski has reported, there is no record of Trump saying it before the 2003 invasion.) Reporters followed up; Trump repeated himself. In an October 2015 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, long before votes were cast, Trump reiterated his view that the world was better off with Hussein in power — and using brutal peace-keeping tactics.
“Iraq used to be: No terrorism,” said Trump. “He would kill the terrorists immediately. Now it’s Harvard for terrorism.” … Trump said this in many of the rallies that cable news played live throughout that season. If anyone missed it, he repeated it in an interview with CBS News’s John Dickerson, as part of the run-up to South Carolina’s primary debate.
Weigel calls this a “collective Captain Renault moment,” and notes a double standard:
The point is that Trump has been saying, for quite some time, that America should not have gone to war in Iraq, and that it should side with dictators as long as they “kill terrorists.” The Republican primary electorate endorsed that view. Hillary Clinton, as a senator then a secretary of state, took another view, and backed the use of American power to remove both Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. There’s video of Clinton gleefully saying “we came, we saw, he died” upon learning that Gaddafi had been torn apart by his own people. This has never been treated like a gaffe; Trump’s “Saddam killed terrorists” riff, suddenly, is being treated like a gaffe.
Actually, Trump’s argument makes more sense applied to Qaddafi than Hussein anyway. Hussein might have brutally killed people that Hussein considered terrorists, but those happened to be Kurdish men, women, and children that he gassed to death indiscriminately, along with a parallel attempt at genocide against the Marsh Arabs. However, Hussein was funding international terrorism, especially among Palestinians, whose cause he adopted when it suited him for internal political reasons. Hussein didn’t work with the West to curtail terrorism; he fought it only when it targeted his own rule and power.
Rather famously, in fact, Hussein used terrorism to attempt the assassination of a former US president — George H. W. Bush — which prompted then-President Bill Clinton to bomb Baghdad in response. That’s hardly a counter-terrorism role model for Americans to cheer.
Qaddafi, on the other hand, had been converted by the fall and capture of Hussein in December 2003. He abruptly ended his nuclear-weapons program, turning the materials over to the West, and began cooperating on international terrorism rather than targeting the US and NATO with it. Qaddafi certainly was a monstrous dictator, but while he remained in place, the West had a partner on fighting radical Islamist terror groups that were forming in eastern Libya, which for a while sent fighters to join al-Qaeda in Iraq. After Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton decapitated the regime, Libya became a failed state and a haven for all the terror networks Qaddafi had at least been fighting for his own sake.
That’s what made this moment from Hillary Clinton — noted by Weigel in his scolding — such a telling moment about her own grasp on geopolitics:
Trump’s argument on Hussein is problematic for another reason. A competent candidate would have known that the story of the day was Hillary Clinton and James Comey’s remarkable public dressing-down, and would have stayed focused on that message rather than offer a distraction from it. Trump stepped on that message yesterday, as he has often done, giving the media an excuse to shift the focus from Hillary Clinton’s no good, terrible, very bad day.
In this case, Hillary’s bad news will last a lot longer than Trump’s regurgitation of an old talking point. But that won’t always be the case, and Team Trump had better figure out how to avoid stepping on the message if they want to run a competitive campaign — especially in this media environment.