For the generations of war waged during his life and the scourge of jihadist terror triggered after his death, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein serves as a tragic and costly lesson to the West on the limits of military force, especially when unaccompanied by sound, strategic policy planning.
The catalyst for the eight-year war with Iran, where he used weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against domestic as well as foreign enemies, Saddam should have been ostracized by Washington and other world capitals rather than manipulated as a tool of containment during much of the 1980s.
But mixed signals from Western leaders at the time mistakenly fueled Saddam's August 1990 grab of Kuwait, which, in turn, unleashed nearly 30 years of war that could carry us all into the next decade and beyond.
Two decades of geopolitical discourse, coalition warfare and defense spending were dominated by Saddam Hussein, first in dislodging the Baathist despot from Kuwait and then helping to protect his own civilians through repeated no-fly-zone enforcement operations.
When world attention turned to sanctions and Saddam’s repeated refusals to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, the United States and Great Britain launched the firestorm of standoff strikes that would presage the second, much less consensual Western-led war in Iraq and the ensuing occupation that led to the radicalized Islamic State terror we battle today.
By the time the Western-enabled, post-war Iraqi government executed Saddam at the close of 2006, it was clear that his suspected WMD stockpiles did not exist.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can point to myriad lessons learned from the many tens of thousands of lives lost, bodies broken, dreams dashed and more than a trillion US dollars invested in actions directly or indirectly driven by Saddam Hussein.
From the imperative for untainted, politics-free intelligence to the folly of presuming that stable, Western-style democracy can spring from the ballot box, perhaps former US Secretary of State and decorated US military leader Colin Powell summed it up best when he warned: "If you break it, you own it."
This article is part of a larger Defense News 30-year anniversary project, showcasing the people, programs and innovations from the last three decades that most shaped the global security arena. Go to defensenews.com/30th to see all of our coverage.