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Rejoice, Saddam has been captured! But what happens next?

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 15, 2003

Whatever your views on the Iraq war, lovers of liberty everywhere must rejoice at the sight of a tyrant about to be brought to justice, unable to oppress and visit destruction upon his own people any longer. This was the view enjoyed by free men and women all over the world today as U.S. forces brought fallen Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein into custody.

Saddam HusseinIn the end, Saddam was found cowering in a dirt hole over by a mud hut not far from one of the exorbitant palaces he had built for himself with confiscated Iraqi wealth while in power. Although armed with a pistol – and with two AK-47s not far away – he did not resist, preferring to surrender rather than enter the battle to the death with Americans he exhorted his followers to engage in. It was illustrative of the sharp contrast between the rhetoric and conduct of those who are willing to send children to die as martyrs for causes they are unwilling to die for themselves.

Saddam's capture is something worth celebrating for his own sake. It is hardly an exaggeration to say, as some commentators did, that Hussein was himself a weapon of mass destruction. Iranian author Amir Taheri, writing in National Review On-Line, recounted some of the lows of his reign of terror: "35 years of criminal rule that led to four foreign wars, two civil wars, and countless smaller conflicts in which some 1.5 million people, including many Iranians and Kuwaitis, died. So far the United Nations has discovered some 300,000 corpses in mass graves throughout Iraq. But many more corpses are still missing, including victims of chemical weapons. He is also responsible for driving some 4.5 million Iraqis, almost a fifth of the nation's population, out of their homes. In the Kurdish areas alone he presided over the destruction of over 400 villages in the 1980s."

Yet as much as this marks a new beginning in Iraq, much uncertainty remains. President Bush said as much when he rightly cautioned the American people against thinking that all would well with Hussein in captivity: "The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq. We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East."

What comes next will test many of the assumptions that underlie the arguments on both sides of the war. Will Hussein's conclusive downfall lead to the eventual end of a joint Ba'athist-Islamist resistance or will this resistance instead increasingly take the form of genuine nationalist movements? Will this American victory demoralize the most violent, anti-Western elements in the Middle East, the ones that represent the gravest terrorist threat, or will it further inflame passions and feeling of impotent rage they can exploit for further recruitment? Will the jubilation in the Iraqi streets last and will a change in political culture take hold throughout that country, or will it fade like the celebrations after Baghdad fell along with the hopes for lasting peace and liberal reforms?

Reason managing editor Jesse Walker said it well in an entry in the magazine's in-house blog Hit & Run: "For those of us who make our living trying to figure out what the hell is going on in the world, the most satisfying thing about the capture of Hussein might be that we'll soon learn the answers to some of the more vexing questions surrounding this war. This may require us pundit types to stop talking out of our asses and actually take some new data into account, but I figure that's a small price to pay."

For all the arguments about WMDs between the pro- and anti-war camps (including key figures in the Bush administration), the purpose of the Iraqi mission has always been wider and more radical than that. The cauldron of terror that boiled over into American cities on September 11, 2001 has been fostered by the Middle East's dysfunctional political climate. The U.S. operation in Iraq has always been about altering that climate.

To be sure, this does not vindicate those who claim the WMD threat was fabricated – after all, what happened to the weapons we knew Hussein possessed circa 1998? – but there was an intricate set of reasons why Iraq rather than, say, Saudi Arabia became the nexus of the war on terror: Legal pretexts, the absence of any indication that Hussein's government was going to soon pass from the scene on its own, an incapacity for reform as long as that regime endured and the belief that Iraq was a good candidate for an attempted democratic transformation. This, more than alleged Saddam-al-Qaida contacts, connects 9/11 to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A bold, audacious, even unprecedented undertaking for an administration often chided for simplistic solutions to complex problems. Of course, it is also one without any realistic guarantee for success. It is a huge historic gamble, which is one of the reasons it has divided conservatives so. It has produced a conflict between the Burkean prudence that animates many traditionalist conservatives and the powerful belief, rooted in historical experience, of many on the right in the ability of American military power to accomplish good in the world. It also explains why this intra-conservative debate divides conservative pundits and intellectuals far more than it does Beltway right activists who came of age politically during World War II and the Cold War or grassroots Ronald Reagan Republicans in Red State America.

The capture of Saddam Hussein brings the war into a new stage that will both vindicate and refute many of the claims made by people debating this war. The short-term political impact is likely to increase President Bush's prospects for reelection going into 2004 while putting the Democrats, who have increasingly placed their eggs into stridently anti-war (at least as it is currently being waged) Howard Dean's basket, on the defensive. But in the long term – regardless of whether the "long term" comes soon enough for the eventual Democratic nominee – we will discover whether Bush will be judged as either a mistaken or a visionary leader. What comes next will likely show whether Iraq was the turning point in the war on terror or a diversion.

Let us rejoice in the ultimate defeat of a ghastly despot and look toward what comes next with a combination of hope and a willingness to face facts. The outcome will be decisive not just for Iraq, but also America.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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