December 17, 2003
by Lawrence Kaplan
There can be no minimizing what the United States has accomplished with the capture of Saddam Hussein. Whatever satisfaction they provided, the images of concrete Husseins being toppled or the corpses of his sons offered nowhere near the potency of Sunday's image, which showed Hussein in the flesh, captive, and being manhandled by a U.S. Army doctor.
The dictator who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people and seemed to inhabit nearly as many palaces had been reduced, a la Manuel Noriega, to a mugshot. These images, more than the fact of Hussein's removal from the Iraqi scene, may be what count most here. But, for the foreseeable future, even they are unlikely to alter the fundamentals in Iraq, abroad, or here at home.
In Iraq, of course, the key question is what effect the news will have on the insurgency. The Bush team has played this wisely, diminishing expectations and cautioning, in the President's words, that the "capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq."
In his news conference detailing the capture, Major General Ray Odierno pointed out that U.S. forces had found no communications equipment in the vicinity of Hussein's hideout, and that Hussein's role in the insurgency was likely confined to providing "moral support" to the guerillas.
Indeed, the announcement of his capture was accompanied by news of another car-bombing, this one claiming the lives of more than a dozen Iraqis. Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, the former vice-president of Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council and an organizing force behind the insurgency, remains at large, reportedly with millions of dollars at his disposal.
Nor will the Baathist loyalists whom Donald Rumsfeld calls the "dead-enders" have much of an incentive to lay down their arms. Their anger, members of the Bush team openly concede, may lead to a short-term spike in attacks. Which is exactly why U.S. intelligence officials have been warning for months that Hussein's capture would not put a halt to the insurgency, which many of them believe has grown increasingly decentralized.
In that fact, however, there is hope for the long term. If it is true that Hussein's role is to provide "moral support," then it follows that his imprisonment should have, as Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari puts it, "a demoralizing effect" on his supporters. That, in turn, may eventually lead to a tapering off of attacks. There is also the possibility of some sort of inducement for fighters willing to surrender, as Paul Bremer hinted by inviting the insurgents to "come forward in a spirit of reconciliation . . . and join you, their fellow citizens, in the task of building a new Iraq." It is among these "fellow citizens" that the news of Hussein’s capture will be most keenly felt.
Until now, a very real fear lingered among many Iraqis that Hussein might somehow return to power one day and call for a full accounting of those who betrayed him and his regime. For all but the most incredulous, that fear will almost certainly vanish. The impression of the battle shifting in favor of coalition forces may also lead to better and more frequent intelligence tips, an opening for the coalition to depict remaining insurgents as foreign fighters, and to broader co-operation with the new Iraqi government.
On the international front, there are no such grounds for hope. No sooner had news of Hussein's capture arrived than a parade of Democratic presidential aspirants took to the airwaves insisting that Bush use the opportunity to, as John Kerry put it, "go back to the world community and say, 'OK, we all have a stake in making certain that we don't have a failed state in Iraq.’”
The reply was swift in coming. French president Jacques Chirac, who has been demanding for months that the U.S. immediately transfer political control to Iraqis, said the capture should "allow Iraqis to find again the control of their destiny in a sovereign Iraq."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has criticised Washington on similar grounds, said the news should further the cause of stability in Iraq, provided that this aim is pursued "on the basis of an inclusive and fully transparent process." In other words, the positions are the same as they were yesterday. Nowhere in any of these statements is there any hint of an appetite for financial or military assistance. And Annan, who announced last week that UN staff members won't be returning to Baghdad any time soon, gave no indication he'd reverse the decision in light of this weekend's development.
Ultimately, the onus is still on Bush. As with Uday and Qusay's deaths, Hussein's capture will buy the President time in Iraq.
But how much time depends on whether the fighting subsides and whether Iraqification efforts yield measurable progress. If not, Americans' support for the war, which will surely climb over the next few days, will just as surely return to its present levels in a few weeks or months.
But these are all mundane asides. We got the son of a bitch. And today, at least, it all seems worth it.
A version of this article appeared in The Australian on December 16, 2003.
Lawrence Kaplan is a senior editor at The New Republic and a Hudson Institute fellow.
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