A common complaint about my vision of foreign policy is to point out that, while I may be right that the United States military is the true power in Iraq, and as such inevitably disqualifies Iraq from being a democracy in all but the most symbolic and trivial sense, Iraq under Saddam didn't qualify as a democracy in any way whatsoever. I find self-determination the most inalienable and important right of any nation; but my critics would like to know in what way Iraq under Saddam was self-determining at all.
I am certainly not going to make an argument that Saddam's Iraq was somehow more conducive to democracy than Iraq under the American imperium. Additionally, I don't define self-determination in the very weak sense that a country under a despotism is somehow self-determining, because it isn't operating under the control of a foreign occupier. So how to regard Iraq under Saddam?
The first thing to say is that we can dislike both of two situations, even if one is practically opposed to another. So while I understand that the alternative to Saddam in 2003 was American invasion, I don't have to support one or the other; I hated the Hussein dictatorship and I hate the American invasion and occupation. Were I to come up with my own version of how Iraq could have moved on without Saddam, I would certainly have preferred that a home-grow anti-Saddamist independence movement (which existed in the early '90s, but not the early '00s) had wrested control of the country; alternatively, that Saddam's death would have resulted in a rebellion against the succession by Uday or Qusay, and I imagine that the power struggle between them would have resulted in the kind of civil unrest and violence that could have made conditions ripe for such a rebellion.
But this is hypothetical, and my larger foreign policy ethic first requires me to acknowledge that my opinion of what is right for Iraq is ultimately of very little importance, because I am not an Iraqi. I also admit that neither of these situations appeared likely in 2003 or in the years immediately following. I'm left with the certainly unsatisfying response that I disagreed with the dictatorship and the occupation. But as a democratic citizen, my responsibility is the conduct of my own country and its government. And while the United States is surely partly responsible for the Hussein government in Iraq, that support for Saddam happened when I was a child. Now, in my early adulthood, the question was and is about an American invasion and occupation, and my belief in self-determination, non-intervention and opposition to expansionism require me to oppose American adventures within Iraq.
Though I find self-determination a cherished value for democracies, I don't think self-determination is nearly enough to qualify a country as a democracy. Self-determination is instead a precondition of democracy. A self-determining country might be a proto-democracy, even though I might abhor its government. I would not put Saddam's government on the level of a proto-democracy, and of course the murderous and horrid Ba'athist regime deserves and will receive no support from me. But again, my responsibility is to the actions of my own country, and while I may wish deeply for the downfall of a repressive government, it's of no more immediate salience than my wish for an end to any other kind of suffering. Meanwhile, a Vichy state like Iraq lacks the most basic precondition for democracy, in that its people are in no meaningful sense in control of their country. This again is not to say that I prefer the Saddam government or any other reprehensible regime, but that in the basic notion of self-direction both Iraq pre-invasion or Iraq post-invasion lack the necessary control over their own future to qualify.
Neoconservatives are fond of speaking as though they have a monopoly on supporting the democracies of foreign countries. The fact that a country in the position of Iraq or Afghaistan is pragmatically under the control of the US military gives the lie to that idea. Neoconservatives worship the trappings of democracy but would cut the heart out of real self-rule. For myself, my responsibility as a supporter of democracy requires me to argue forcefully for the superiority of democratic governace, while insisting that my country honor democracy's project by supporting it through omission. The United States, after all, has a long history of damaging the emerging democracies of foreign countries when it suits our "realist" agenda. A tremendous benefit to worldwide democracy would be done if we gave up our meddling and practiced democracy promotion through restraint rather than through counter-productive military adventurism.
Of course, as this course of action would save billions of dollars, cease endangerment of American and foreign lives, restore our credibility in the international community, and support the real project of democracry, it will never been instituted.