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.

11 thoughts on “Implications

  1. John

    I agree with much of what you say. However, moving into my now customary role of devil’s advocate, I’ll quibble on a couple of points.

    Could you enlarge on your theory that greater political capital spent on North Korea could have reduced the growing crisis there? It’s difficult to think of a worthwhile strategy the West could pursue over and above what is already being pursued.

    Al Qaeda has certainly damaged itself, but much damage has also been done by the US. Its finances, leadership, resources (such as the Afghan training camps) and leadership have been greatly reduced. Certainly much of the progress in the war on terror has been made in ways we aren’t always aware of.

    Who really believed at the time that two years would pass after 9/11 without another major terrorist attack on Western soil? Instead, Al Qaeda is reduced to blowing up fellow Muslims in developing countries. Surely the major credit for this must go to US strategy.

    There is obviously still much work to be done though.

  2. PK, the Afghanistan strategy was pretty good and did a lot of damage to AQ. [As was pointed out at the time, though, more boots on the ground would have been better – OBL’s escape may have reflected unwillingness to use US troops when they were needed, but I won’t quibble with that]. Since then, Afghanistan has been a mess, but the general worldwide response (not just the US) has gone pretty well.

    On North Korea, I don’t pretend it’s easy, but a really serious effort to convince the Chinese to treat it as the #1 problem would have helped. They have a lot of levers, such as the possibility of easing restrictions on refugee flows, and probably some residual gratitude. Instead, Bush spent a lot more time pressing for UNSC votes on Iraq that were (given that he was going to invade anyway) largely meaningless.

  3. “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)”

    Got to disagree with you there John – this report from ABC News in the US shows a poll finding that after the capture of Saddam:

    “Ninety percent in an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll say major challenges still confront the United States in Iraq. Nearly as many, eight in 10, say the work is by no means done ā€” that U.S. forces need to remain in place until a stable government is created.”

    “53 percent say that considering the cost versus the benefits, the war was worth fighting ā€” essentially unchanged since mid-October, and down from 70 percent as the main fighting ended last spring”

    I think many people have underestimated the US Public’s stomach for casualities in the post-war period.

  4. The simplest way to judge the success of the Iraq expedition: how many US troops are required to keep the Baathists on a short leash?

    Prior to GW II, there were about 10,000 rotated through Saudi and various US ships and bases.

    Now there are 100,000 to do the same job, with no end in sight given the continued strength of the insurgency and the collapse of the Iraqi army.

    So GWB has created a security economy in the Gulf that was ten times as inefficient as the one he inherited from his father.

    Not very good at economics, either military or civilian, is he?

  5. Whilst there are US troops in Iraq people from all sorts of associations will endeavour to kill them. Westerners just do not comprehend how much hate there is for the US in the Middle East and the Gulf.

    Unfortunately when they leave the Shias will demand leadership of the nation and history is littered with examples of the oppressed becoming the oppressors.

    The thought of democracy perculating in Iraq is laughable as it has no history of it to call on.

    Just why in heavens name did GWB invade the place?

  6. What westerners don’t understand is that hatred isn’t a driver of actions against them, it’s an outcome of western treatment of them that only then initiates a cycle. It is in fact usual for most cultures to treat people with violence without actually caring about them one way or another – the spirit in which the Nazis handled the Jewish “Problem”. It is a western prejudice to assume others’ violence toward us must mean they hate us. If you react to that on that level, not only do you miss the sources completely but also you initiate a cycle of hatred yourself – which then adds to the violence that was there in the first place.

  7. PML it is taught to them at school and reinforced continually until they leave it where they get it again at the Mosque.

  8. Homer, I know that. What I am telling you is that it is irrelevant. What counts far more is the way most cultures hold life cheap, at any rate outsider life. They just don’t need that motivation to get them started killing, they only need to find violence a convenient idiom to express themselves in when dealing with problems.

    It is western culture that is the odd one out, with our indoctrination to accept that there is a universal value to human life – indoctrination that is not always effective. It is not the muslims who are the odd ones out on this point – look at almost any other present day or historical culture, including our own quite recent predecessors (I am half Scottish and half Irish).

  9. After the attempted humour,

    How do you explain the palestinian christians who appear the odd men out in the Middle East.

    I have been told it is similar to a certain extent of some christians and Jews in Iraq.

  10. Simple:-

    (a) many of them aren’t odd ones out, they are merely a minority among the oppressed and so are not setting the pace (but they would indeed show vicious behaviour in the right circumstances, as when they persecuted the local Jews in revenge for persecution by Jews after the Byzantines got Palestine back from the Persians); and

    (b) the universalist side of things is in fact a distinctive part of the Christian message, and to the extent they have in fact taken it on board that is what they are showing.

    For all the talk of a Judeo-Christian ethic, the Jewish part is only universalist to the extent that it rubbed off from a message from outside. Things like the Parable of the Good Samaritan aren’t teaching the obvious message of kindness (which was in the Jewish system), it was showing where the message should be applied. Of course, not everybody has taken the message fully within themselves even when they adhere to that ethic, and there are people like me that have to make a conscious effort (from realising afterwards what we do when not really paying attention), but all this goes to show that the violent response is in fact part of the ordinary repertoire, suppressed in us.

    You might like to read the part of Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to all that” where he recounts how civilians were always trying to motivate troops at the front by trying to make them hate Germans, but the troops had already got used to doing the job and were just irritated and distracted by that – they didn’t need to hate the enemy, they only needed to kill them.

    Similarly terrorists don’t hate their targets, they only want to kill them. There is no contradiction, and anyone who tries to read a hidden hatred into that will only set himself up to misidentify specific terrorists and fail to clear away the underlying causes.

    The usual reaction when people hear of my ancestry is to say “that explains a lot”, although one unkind person remarked somewhat more specifically “so you drink a lot at other people’s expense?”

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