It is not unheard of for good to come from bad. George W. Bush misled the United States into war and occupation. His administration was recklessly negligent in its planning for the post-invasion period. It has poorly managed the challenges of nation building in Iraq, ensnaring the United States in an ugly (and lethal) mess. And he has alienated America from much of the world. Yet Bush has bagged Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad.
The capture of such a murderous fiend is good news. Hussein deserves to rot for the rest of his days in the underground rat’s nest where he was found. But the apprehension of Hussein does not justify the war. In a way, it is the least that Bush could have done, after invading under false pretenses. He told the American public that it was necessary to bomb, invade and occupy Iraq–rather than engage in more aggressive weapons inspections–to neutralize the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. He claimed that his administration possessed incontrovertible proof that Hussein had such awful weapons and maintained operational links with al Qaeda. Seven months after entering Iraq, the Bush administration has not been able to produce evidence to support its central case for war. Instead, Bush and his comrades have increasingly discussed the war as an operation to free the Iraqi people from the repression of Hussein. And nabbing Hussein certainly has allowed Bush and the defenders of the war to push further this after-the-fact justification. Following Hussein’s capture, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist disingenuously exclaimed, “The reason we were in that country in the first place are being realized.” Not at all. Hussein was found not with WMDs but with $750,000. But what was good politically for Bush was also good for Iraq and the world.
The celebratory tone accompanying much of the media coverage of Hussein’s apprehension, though, may be more triumphal than warranted. There was no immediate indication Hussein’s arrest would have a direct impact on the insurgency. The circumstances in which he was discovered did not suggest he was playing a day-to-day leadership or coordinating role in the anti-America insurgency. It may be that his capture will discourage the thuggish Ba’athist loyalists who have been attacking US targets and engaging in terrorist actions. And perhaps other Iraqis who had worried about Hussein’s possible return to power will now be more willing to support or go along with US actions in Iraq. But it is also possible that if the de-Husseined Ba’athist wane–which would be a development worth cheering–some Islamic forces opposed to the occupation, which previously did not want to be identified with the violent Ba’athist remnants, might feel freer to engage in anti-American violence of their own.
To use two cliches, it’s too soon to tell how–or if–Hussein’s capture will alter the reality on the ground. When US military forces blew away his two sons, Uday and Qusay, some pro-war commentators were quick to predict a turning point in the war, asserting that this high-profile win for the US forces would surely demoralize the anti-US guerillas. Instead, the counterinsurgency gained strength. Given that the Pentagon still does not have a clear picture of who is fighting the US forces-and why–it is tough to calculate what the snatching of Hussein means in strategic terms. His capture could have little effect on the political transition that has bewildered the White House. Interviewing Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark after the news broke, CNN’s Judy Woodruff asked, “What are the issues left to talk about regarding Iraq?” The answer: plenty–such as how to rebuild Iraq, how to revive a government there, and how to end the US occupation. But on the all-important issue of what to do in Iraq, the apprehension of Hussein might not change much.