So Now What?
I've been thinking about Saddam's capture from the political POV, and am deliberately separating that discussion from the mere announcement of the news below. Getting Saddam is an unvarnished Good Thing as far as I'm concerned, but now I want to consider what impact this could have on our Presidential election.
I first observe that this is happening 11 months before the general election. Anything can happen between now and then, and single events today do nothing but maybe tweak poll numbers in the immediate future.
That said, obviously this is a big deal for Bush. He finally got his man*. The killing of Uday and Qusay did give Bush a temporary bounce, but as the insurgency continued and worsened, his poll numbers dropped again. In fact, the downward trend their deaths stalled hasn't abated since that initial uptick.
Capturing Saddam is another deal entirely. When somebody's dead, there's a fleeting sense of justice and people move on. There aren't any show trials that can keep things in the spotlight and allow Bush to point to the success every day. So clearly getting the Ace of Spades buys him way more political bragging rights.
I often speculated that we would not capture Saddam alive. Depending on how any war crimes trial (or whatever) plays out, it could prove to be an embarassment to the United States. Imagine testimony coming out about how we sold chemical weapons to the man who "gassed his own people!" That's just one thing most Americans don't know about, and it could further undermine BushCo's rationale for the war. So I figured that he would be killed in a shoot out to prevent such developments.
But now I'm guessing that the trial would be set up so damning testimony won't see the light of day. Is that possible? Perhaps, given that we still control Iraq and thus the environment in which the trial will take place. But it looks like the Iraqis, including Chalabi and Sistani, want the Iraqis to be in charge of this process, so who knows?
Regardless, I'm sure our compliant media will cover the trial with breathless glee. We'll probably hear lots about mass graves and such, and probably nothing about the fact that the vast majority of those graves are from the period when we actively supported Saddam, in the days before the Gulf War when we spanked him for threatening our oil. However, I'm not sure that it will be a showy enough event to keep the public's interest engaged, particularly as the casualties mount.
And that brings me to an important point: I think Saddam's demise will have little or no bearing on the insurgency. It does not appear that he has been directing these attacks. If we are to believe that foreign fighters are a part of the violence, then his influence is further reduced. Plus that would ignore the simple fact that more and more Iraqis were joining the resistance because our occupation is growing increasingly unpopular.
There has been a lot written about how people still acted with fear because they thought maybe Saddam could come back. Without that stifling worry, could people feel more free to rid themselves of the occupiers? Perhaps Iraqis determined that if the US were kicked out, Saddam might be able to reassert his rule, so it was better to keep us around. With that threat gone, maybe now it's safer to push us out of their country. Pure speculation on my part, and maybe violates rules of parsimony, but possible given what I've read.**
And what of civil/ethnic violence? Again, free from the fear that Saddam will return, will tensions explode? If so, our troops would be caught in the middle of an ugly situation.
Anyway, on the face of it, capturing Saddam gives Bush a tangible success and makes it simple for him to say progress is being made in Iraq. However, given how the euphoria faded quickly after the fall of Baghdad, and after the deaths of the Hussein boys, that success might be fleeting. This could only be the beginning of an even more difficult period for our troops.
I'm not convinced the war is over any more than I'm convinced the economy is truly improving. We've had some positive signs, but we've seen similar indicators before. We're not out of the woods yet by any means, and even if we are, it's way too early to write off 2004.
If the Dems are smart (that's a big "if"), they can point out: our arrest of Saddam was the most expensive in history, both in terms of lives and dollars; Osama bin Laden, the guy who's responsible for 9/11, is still at large; we are actually less secure because we've created a new reason for jihad, and we've wasted money that could've been spent on securing our ports and other such things at home; our military is stretched too thin; while we fiddled with Iraq, problems with budding nuclear powers such as Iran and North Korea have increased. It might be a harder sell, but if the Dems nominate a thoughtful, articulate, passionate candidate, I think they can do it.
[Update: one further thought. Could this backfire on Bush? If capturing Saddam raises American expectations, and the insurgency and casualties continue, will that create a backlash?]
So don't write the political obits for Dean or anybody just yet. Bush's freefall in the polls might be interrupted, but he's still got 11 months to continue screwing up. And really, I have a bit more faith in the American public than a lot of people do. I think they'll see that a couple of good things in a sea of crap doesn't make Bush a good leader. It's up to us to get the message out that there are constructive alternatives to all the damage Bush has done. We have the power.
* Yup, Bush himself went to Tikrit under cover of darkness, face painted black, wearing special ops gear, and captured Saddam personally. "Payback's a bitch, Saddam, and you're coming with me!"
** [Update: Juan Cole's wife seems to agree with me:
My wife, Shahin Cole, suggested to me an ironic possibility with regard to the Shiites. She said that many Shiites in East Baghdad, Basra, and elsewhere may have been timid about opposing the US presence, because they feared the return of Saddam. Saddam was in their nightmares, and the reprisals of the Fedayee Saddam are still a factor in Iraqi politics. Now that it is perfectly clear that he is finished, she suggested, the Shiites may be emboldened. Those who dislike US policies or who are opposed to the idea of occupation no longer need be apprehensive that the US will suddenly leave and allow Saddam to come back to power. They may therefore now gradually throw off their political timidity, and come out more forcefully into the streets when they disagree with the US. As with many of her insights, this one seems to me likely correct.
Mayhaps I wasn't so off-base...]
[Update: Other bloggers have posted their thoughts as well:
Any others? Lemme know in comments. Thx.]
[Further update: NZBear has compiled a good list of blog coverage at TTLB. But if any of my faithful readers have posts of their own, please do let me know so I can post links here.]