When we judge historical events, we tend to do so out of context. Yet to understand decisions and to judge them, you have to understand the context.
Soon after I became foreign minister, the Secretary General of the UN rang me and asked if I would release our ambassador to the UN, Richard Butler, so he could be appointed chairman of the UN's Iraq weapons inspection mission, known as UNSCOM. I told him I was happy to.
Butler got the job. Frequently, when I visited New York, Butler would ask to call on me. I appreciated this. He gave me confidential briefings on UNSCOM's progress in identifying Saddam Hussein's compliance with the terms of the armistice after the first Iraq war. The Iraqi dictator was not complying; he was refusing to allow the UN weapons inspectors to visit suspect sites. Butler was convinced Saddam Hussein was concealing his weapons of mass destruction programs.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
So when Madeleine Albright asked me in late 1998 whether Australia would support an American led coalition to get rid of Saddam Hussein, I was not surprised. What followed was the bombing of military targets in Iraq by the Clinton Administration. But they left Saddam Hussein in power.
Fast forward three years and the so called War on Terror was launched in response to the horrific events of 9/11. It was right to drive the Taliban out of Kabul. After all, it had harbored the al Qaeda leadership which planned and directed the 9/11 attacks.
And still, in this new, febrile atmosphere, Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with the UN. That was madness on his part. And so it came to pass, a decade ago, that this appalling dictator was evicted from power.
That was the right thing to do. Not only had he failed to comply with enforceable demands of the UN Security Council but Saddam Hussein had lost all legitimacy as a civilized leader of his country. He had tortured and murdered tens of thousands of his own citizens, he had waged a war on Iran which killed one million people and he had run a corrupt, kleptocratic, sectarian, self indulgent regime in Baghdad.
Overall, Saddam Hussein was the world's most brutal dictator.
The fall of Saddam's dictatorship sent a clear message to the world: extreme cruelty coupled with bellicose threats to neighbors won't be appeased. Since those fateful days in 2003, several dictatorships in the Arab world have gone: in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen as well as Iraq. A new political system is struggling into life. The birth is painful and it would be folly to think the Arab world is entering a new placid era of liberal democracy and growing prosperity. There is a very long way to go.
But the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime ushered in a new mindset: that Arabs don't deserve to be oppressed by autocratic kleptocracies and the international community will stand up for the idealistic values which inspired the UN Charter in the closing years of World War II.
I'm one of those few people who occasionally part company with foreign policy realists. They are right to a point. It makes sense to pursue a foreign policy based on national interests. Sometimes we have to do business with regimes we don't approve of. After all, we deal with the Chinese, who take 25% of our exports. And we don't much like their political system.
But there is a limit to this sort of pragmatism. These days we are entitled to take the view that a government which commits the most egregious of human rights abuses loses the authority to remain both in power and a respected partner of the international community. The international community has to stand for something. It has to have some universal values.
None of this is to claim all went well with the invasion of Iraq. It didn't. The Americans should have handed over power to an interim Iraqi government immediately, they should have paid soldiers to stay in the Iraqi army, they should have been less zealous with the so-called de-Baathification process and they should have had more soldiers on the ground after the fall of Baghdad.
These days, Iraq has an unsteady democratic government and its economy is growing. There is still sectarian violence which only a return to autocracy would stamp out. And Iraq is a benign player in the volatile world of Middle Eastern politics. All that's a big improvement on pre-2003 Iraq.
Alexander Downer served as Australian foreign minister from 1996 to 2007. This piece orginally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.