Saddam’s capture has all sorts of implications.
The biggest is that it will greatly accelerate the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. This is obvious enough if the resistance fades away and large numbers of troops aren’t needed. But suppose this doesn’t happen. It’s hard to see the US public putting up with a continued stream of casualties when the main objectives on which they were sold the war have either been achieved (get Saddam) or proved illusory (WMDs). The instant reaction Good. Can we go home now, is going to be fairly widely shared as time goes on.
On the Iraqi side, as Juan Cole points out, this will only strengthen the Shia demand for proper elections and a US withdrawal. Now that the fear of Saddam’s return is gone, the dependence of a future Iraqi government on the US is significantly reduced. Shias might well judge that they could do a better (because more ruthless) job of suppressing the insurgency on their own.
Next, there’s the trial. The big issue is not so much whether Saddam will get a ‘fair’ trial as whether he will want to, and be permitted to, bring evidence of Western (particularly US) complicity in his worst crimes, committed during the 1980s.
Next, there’s the question of the extent to which Saddam’s capture justifies the war. Obviously, it’s a better outcome than Saddam remaining at large. And it makes it easier to argue that despite the (uncounted) thousands of Iraqi deaths in the war and its aftermath, Iraqis are, on balance better off. But the huge amounts of money, military power and political capital expended on this war, and the breaches of international law it required, need more justification than that. If the same resources had been allocated to implementing, say, the proposals of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, millions of lives could have been saved. Even spent on improvements to health in the US, the war budget could have saved around 10 000 lives. From a less utopian viewpoint, if more military and economic resources had been allocated to Afghanistan, and more political capital to North Korea, everyone in the West would be significantly safer at the end of 2003 than at the beginning. Instead, the threat from North Korea is substantially worse. If Al Qaeda is less of a threat than before, this is due to its own criminal folly in attacking fellow-Muslims and not to the Iraq war or to wise handling of postwar Afghanistan.
Finally, there’s the political implications, particularly for the US election. Obviously these favor Bush, but the time when Iraq could have been a winner on its own has already passed. I don’t think Saddam’s capture gives the Democrats a good reason to switch from Dean. The crucial issue in 2004 won’t be a retrospective judgement on Iraq but the problem of preventing complete fiscal collapse. By taking a firm stand on Iraq, Dean has heightened the credibility of his pledge to fully repeal the Bush tax cuts, which is the minimal basis for a policy that will have any chance of success. The only other major candidate to pledge full repeal is Gephardt, who has vacillated on the war, and therefore seems likely to do so again when his tax policy comes under pressure.