Saddam’s capture is one of those events that, while important in itself, is still more important for its likely consequences. Now that we have seen the photographs of the usually spruce tyrant looking like a bedraggled tramp left out too long in the rain, everything else looks different too.
Admittedly, as President Bush reminded us in his sober announcement, the violence of Iraq’s so-called “resistance” will not end overnight. In the immediate future it may even get worse as the alliance of Baathist dead-enders and foreign jihadists seeks to demonstrate that it is still in business. But the end of their world is nigh–and the worlds of other people are changing rapidly too. Here follows a brief checklist:
1. Saddam himself. The old tyrant is about to undergo the humiliation of being transformed in the minds of his former admirers from the “new Saladin” into a shambling and absurd coward. He had a gun, indeed two guns, but they went unused. He met his captors not with defiant resistance but with abject surrender, a plaintive insistence on his presidential rank, and a delusional demand for negotiations. No doubt a trial will reveal the details of his murders and tortures. Against the background of his own timidity, however, these will now look contemptible rather than terrifying. Alive or dead, hanged, or imprisoned for life, he will inspire no resistance. The Saddam myth has been laid to rest.
2. The Iraqi “Resistance.” Ironic quotes are justified because this movement is not a nationalist rebellion against an occupier–but the remnants of a domestic occupying power seeking to restore its dictatorial privileges. Seeing that this is now impossible, Baathist dead-enders will gradually drift back to private life–after all, if Saddam would not fight for himself, why should they fight and die for him? That is likely to isolate the jihadists both as “foreigners” and as yokels (since they come from less-advanced nations than Iraq such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan and embrace a very primitive version of Islam.) To get some sense of how Iraqis feel about this, imagine your own reaction if the Ku Klux Klan took up arms claiming to defend you against the IRS. Exactly. Low-level terrorist violence might continue for some time in the Sunni Triangle, but it can no longer seriously influence the future of Iraq or the Middle East
3. President Bush. There is little doubt that Mr. Bush is the biggest single beneficiary of Saddam’s capture. It sharply improves his chances for next year’s presidential elections. It gets him in the history books as the slayer of the warmongering tyrant who had defied the international community for 30 years. And it strengthens the U.S. strategic position in the Middle East and thus the prospects of his personal campaign to bring “liberty” to the Arab world. Obstacles to his reelection and future career may yet appear–for instance, a terrorist incident in America that could be blamed on the Bush administration. But this moment for Bush is like El Alamein for Churchill or D-Day for Eisenhower: not the achievement of final victory in the war on terror but a great personal milestone on the way there.
4. British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For Blair the capture of Saddam comes just in the nick of time. He faces a simmering rebellion in his own party, a revived attack from the main opposition Tories, a hostile media, public discontent over the state of health and education, and the likelihood of a serious rebuke from the judicial inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly for being less than truthful over WMDs. A week ago rumors percolated through parliament that Blair might even have to resign as prime minister. Saddam’s capture–and the revelation of his crimes–will now change the main topic of British politics from “Tony lied about WMDs to get us into war” to “Tony helped overthrow and capture a brutal torturer and mass murderer.” Public opinion is fickle, of course, and may change six months down the line. For the moment, however, Blair is safe again and favored to win the next election.
5. The Democrats. All the Democratic candidates, including Howard Dean, struggled manfully to congratulate the president and the Iraqi people on the downfall of their enemy. But it was grace under pressure. They had to know that it was a disaster for a party that in the last few months has renounced its original support for the liberation of Iraq and sprouted peace signs everywhere. Its most sensible response now would be to dump Dean for the 2004 nomination in favor of either Joe Lieberman or Dick Gephardt who have stayed pro-liberation. But the party faithful are too angry, too passionately antiwar, and too hostile to President Bush to support such a prudent move. The party may even coalesce around the semi-isolationist argument that Saddam’s demise means that U.S. soldiers can safely come home and let Iraq sort itself out. It was an eloquent comment on the instinctive reactions of the modern Democratic party that all the candidates, including even Lieberman, declared that a clear American victory such as Saddam’s capture meant that the U.S. should now “internationalize” the Iraq commitment and bring in the U.N. or NATO to run it. An electorate that since 9/11 has shifted in favor of a strong national defense in the war on terror is unlikely to warm to a party that instinctively backs other nations to do the job.
6. The International Community. This misnomer for “other countries” (or, to be more precise, for France, Germany, and Russia) reacted to the news by demanding that the U.S. hand over more authority in Iraq to the U.N., that Saddam be tried by an international court, and that the “international community’s” abhorrence of the death penalty be respected. None of these demands is likely to be met. America’s position in Iraq is stronger today than last week. Why should it choose this moment to abdicate power to international agencies that cut and run at the first whiff of grapeshot? Besides the U.S. intends to hand over power to Iraqis who are more or less friendly rather than to allies who are more or less unreliable. Once vested with this authority, an Iraqi government will want to put Saddam on trial at home rather than to see him appear before a tribunal where the judges will be drawn from countries that were quite reliable allies of Saddam until liberation day. And, finally, the “international community’s” abhorrence of the death penalty is morally compromised by the fact that the voters in almost every country in Europe support it but are undemocratically frustrated in this by their political elites. Europe is neither more civilized nor more compassionate than America‹it is simply less democratic. If none of the above demands were likely to be met, however, the fact that they were made anyway testifies to an instinctive desire on the part of Euro-trash elites to deny the U.S. the fruits of its triumph. And they simply couldn¹t hold it in.
In short, with the capture of Saddam, the U.S. and its Coalition allies have significantly advanced towards the stabilization of Iraq–and Mr. Bush has significantly strengthened both his personal political standing and his policy of spreading liberty to the Middle East. But he has yet to devise a policy to deal with France, Germany, Russia, the “international community,” and isolationist Democrats disguised as multilateralists. Until he does, he will continue to meet opposition at home and abroad. And his other victories will be fragile and uncertain.