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We Got Him—Now What?

It is terrific news that Saddam Hussein, that human monster, is now under arrest and will be brought before a court. There seems little doubt that he meets the criteria for an international war criminal, and while I’d think it much wiser to send him to the Hague, it’s difficult to argue that he deserves more than whatever made-to-order court the United States decides is appropriate for its old super-creepy ally.

As President Bush said in his brief speech Sunday, “For the vast majority of Iraqi citizens who wish to live as free men and women, this event brings further assurance that the torture chambers and the secret police are gone forever.” I heartily hope this is true.

That said, it’s time to return to Earth and reality. The TV talking heads tell us that the 2004 elections and the future of Iraq were decided this morning when Hussein was found in a hole. In my humble opinion, that’s perhaps the stupidest comment since Paris Hilton speculated that Wal-Mart is a store that sells walls. Catching Saddam was a mop-up operation, rather like the slaying of his sons a few months back. The guy was already done for; once a dictator falls from his perch, the wolves—his own or others—ensure that he will never again be alpha male in that pack. All the issues surrounding the occupation of Iraq will be with us tomorrow morning, and the day after that, and the day after that.

As far as I can tell, catching Saddam is not going to fix Iraq’s economy, build a functioning democracy, prevent a Sunni-Shiite civil war, or bring back the Americans and Iraqis who have died and will continue to die at the checkpoints and home invasions and while driving their Humvees down the nation’s roads. Humiliating Hussein with public dental examinations will hopefully reassure some Iraqis that peace is on the way, but while it would be nice if his old cronies who may be involved in the insurgency would lay down their arms, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Kenneth Pollack, the scholar who wrote The Threatening Storm: The Case For Invading Iraq, said on CNN Sunday that after a stay in Iraq, his impression was that the number-one fear of the populace is not guerrilla violence but street crime. The so-called Iraqi Governing Council is now a joke, with a BBC/Oxford poll showing the public has nearly zero faith in its effectiveness. Unemployment is above 50 percent. Nearly half of the first class of the new Iraqi army quit just days ahead of being deployed. Billions of dollars of American taxpayer money is being funneled almost directly to a tiny handful of military contractors and construction companies like Bechtel and Halliburton.

The American military is the only power broker in the country, something that has not changed since the first days of the occupation. In six months, the United States has pledged to hand over control of the country straight to Iraqis elected by caucuses, without bringing in the United Nations or other international bodies to help oversee the transition. The United States will then be in a position of either having to let the new Iraqi government make its own mistakes, or treating it like a puppet regime. Faced with a cleric-dominated and independent government that may demand the United States withdraw more quickly or try to prevent privatization of Iraq’s resources, which do you think the micromanagers at the White House will choose?

Nor can the capture of Saddam heal the rifts in our own country, where the lies of this administration have so polarized the populace that the coming election year promises to be extremely nasty. The president repeated Sunday that the occupation of Iraq and the overthrow of Hussein is part of the “War on Terror,” despite having finally admitted only weeks ago that there was no evidence linking him with Al Qaeda.

We Americans are now in one of three miserable positions: We can deny that the administration lied and continues to lie about Hussein’s ties to terror and the threat he allegedly posed to the United States; we can get angry about the lies and afraid of how truth has become a casualty of Sept. 11, 2001; or we can be aware of the lies, but cling to a faith that good things will come from them, that the ends justify the means.

We are, none of us, in a very good place. We are encouraged to believe in an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which Saddam Hussein is a workable stand-in for Osama bin Laden; that it is worth sacrificing thousands of American lives to grant human rights to Iraqis but not to Congolese, Burmese, Liberians, Uzbekistanis, Syrians, Colombians, North Koreans and other societies that lack precious natural resources; and that progressives actually oppose human rights and base their political positions on an irrational hatred of alleged patriots like George W. Bush.

If the Iraqi people emerge from this latest stage in their hard history with a better situation it will be a true wonder. I sincerely hope my pessimism is unfounded. Yet it is hard to forget how completely the current U.S. government’s generous promises echo those made by the British Empire about its occupation of Baghdad a century ago, or those implied by the assistance, guns and biological weapons we gave the Hussein regime throughout the 1980s.

So put the monster back in a new hole, but remember: Hussein is not Hitler, and these final stages of his political demise solve very little in a deeply troubled world.

—Christopher Scheer

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