Just when you thought the visuals in the war on terrorism could not get better than Khalid Sheik Mohammed being dragged out of his apartment in his underwear, we get shaggy, bearded Saddam Hussein being checked for lice by an American physician after emerging disoriented and babbling from his coffin-sized lair. He looked like the itinerant refugee he in fact was. The rat, dragged from his spider hole, at Objective Wolverine 2–a pretty nasty menagerie, but I am certain many Iraqi families are referring to him today in even more colorful terms. I don’t think one can overestimate the psychological impact of his capture, the sense of closure this brings to the Iraqi people. The uncertainty surrounding Saddam’s fate was a major impediment to the rebuilding and democratization effort. Saddam was the ultimate comeback kid, who had escaped many tight situations and still maintained his lethal grip on power. Memories of the failure of the United States to displace his dictatorship in 1991 weighed heavily on their minds–not to mention the failure to back up Shiite and Kurdish rebels, resulting in their slaughter. Perhaps the Americans would withdraw sometime early next year and Saddam would return? They no longer have to worry about that scenario, at least.
Members of the Iraqi Governing Council stated that Saddam would be placed on trial under provisions of a law passed several days ago allowing for prosecution for crimes against humanity. The law provides that all trials will be open to the public and the media; that the accused will have the right to an attorney, and one will be appointed if he cannot afford one; and that the decision of the court will be subject to an appeals process. (Hopefully the Iraqis have not Americanized to the point where the arrest gets tossed for illegal search.) The Council members got a preview of Saddam’s defense strategy during a meeting at Baghdad International Airport shortly after he was captured, where they were brought to confirm his identity. When they asked him about his treatment of the Iraqi people, he showed no remorse, no grief, and a fair amount of defiance. The mass graves were filled with criminals or Iranian collaborators. The Baathists he purged were just party business. The dead at Halabja were traitors and deserters. The WMDs never existed, they were a pretext for war. The invasions of Iran and Kuwait were totally justified. The people celebrating in the street? Mere mobs. Expect to see more of this belligerent attitude from Saddam. He knows he will not be tortured, not fed into an industrial-grade shredder like some of his victims, for example; he understands he will be given a platform to justify his actions; and all he has left at this point is his bravado. Besides, he has to absolve himself for not going down fighting. Colorful former Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf said that Saddam’s capture was predictable, but that he was surprised Saddam was taken alive. He recalled a time in 1991 when Saddam said, “We do not surrender ourselves. They can take our dead bodies only.” Abd-al-Bari Atwan, chief editor of the London-based Saddam-friendly Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, hinted that the U.S. may have used special paralyzing bombs which prevented Saddam from a more heroic end. “I wish the Iraqi president had fought and fallen martyr like his sons,” he said. Uday and Qusay certainly come out of this looking better than their father–figuratively speaking–but from Saddam’s point of view, it is better to live on your feet than to die on your knees. There is time for martyrdom later.
The saddest spectacle of the Sunday was the parade of Democratic presidential hopefuls offering their views on the capture and what comes next. Had their advisors been on the ball they would have issued statements–not on camera, but in writing–with one-sentence congratulations to the troops, maybe also to the president if they wanted to show some class, and expressing hopes for a peaceful future for the Iraqi people. Instead they went on TV with quickly formulated views on what kind of trial should be held, speculation whether Saddam should get the death penalty, and other such matters over which they obviously have no influence. The contrast to President Bush’s crisp, upbeat, and unpretentious announcement of the capture was stark. None of the pretenders came off looking the least bit relevant, particularly those who took the administration to task. Several candidates preached to the president that he should stop being so gosh-darned unilateral in his approach to the Iraq question, John Kerry stating that Saddam might have been caught sooner had we done this “in a more globalized way.” Recall that a year ago the global solution was to inspect Iraq, give Saddam a clean bill of health and lift sanctions–hard to see how that would have led to the downfall of his regime. There was a lot of speculation over whether this event hurts or helps one candidate or another, but I don’t believe it will have any significant impact on the presidential race, at least nothing to compare with a 10,000 Dow and 8-percent growth rates. Given that the U.S. will probably have withdrawn most of its troops by the time of the Democratic convention, one really has to wonder what issues will be left for the opposition to run on.
The politicians upset over the administration’s alleged unilateralism should be happy to note that the rest of the world now seems eager to jump on the Iraq bandwagon. The timing of the capture is propitious for James Baker’s mission to seek Iraqi debt relief. Countries that have previously been reluctant to step up to the bar can use the event to get involved without being seen as compromising with the United States. Of course there is no particular logical link between Saddam being caught and increased international involvement, but that did not stop Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin from telling journalists that in wake of the good news, “France is ready to take its full place within the framework of deeper cooperation with all of its partners.” Incidentally, those who thought the administration made a mistake by announcing the ban on reconstruction contract bids from countries that did not participate in the war at the same time as the Baker mission really have to think more realistically about diplomacy. If anything the timing was perfect, affording Baker some useful leverage in dealing with countries that have shown no predisposition to help the coalition effort in Iraq.
Of course, Saddam himself is another point of leverage. He holds many secrets of his dealings with the countries comprising the Axis of Weasels. They do not know how he will try to use this information to bargain with the United States, or what will emerge from his trial. It will be interesting to see which world leaders begin uncharacteristically talking about the righteousness of the death penalty, and allowing the Iraqis to take care of trying Saddam without the bother of international tribunals (which could muddy up the whole capital-punishment issue). I think the trial will be explosive. Saddam won’t take the contrition route; he will use every angle, invoke every justification, appeal to every form of sentiment, and reveal every unpleasant secret he has to try to save his skin. If Saddam’s personal history tells us anything, it is that he is a survivor. This is why he did not choose resistance or suicide when the 4th ID came calling. He thinks he has a chance to come out of this alive. Slim, certainly, but he is a fighter, he will give it his best shot. The trial is just another arena for him, another chance granted by providence to work his will upon events, another opportunity, perhaps his last, to bend the world to his intractable ego. During their meeting with Saddam, members of the Governing Council pointed out to him, “Had we been in your place and you in ours, we would have been killed immediately.” One can imagine Saddam thinking, “Your point being?”