Media Matters

Honoring the Capture of Saddam

But what about his "utopian dreams"?

By 12.19.03

The capture of Saddam Hussein could not have happened more fortunately for American purposes in Iraq. Not only were there no casualties in the operation, but Saddam did us the huge favor of looking like a coward in giving up without a fight. In an honor culture like that of the Arabs, the importance of such a humiliation cannot be over-estimated. One way you can tell its impact among Iraqis is that the paranoid conspiracy-theorists are already working overtime to insist that U.S. forces must have drugged him first in order to prevent him from resisting. How he could have been drugged before he was captured they are still trying to work out.

"We feel he either should have fought, or if he was surrounded and there was no other way, committed suicide. That's what we were expecting," said an Iraqi quoted by Alan Sipress in the Washington Post. "When he didn't, it wasn't a surprise for us. It was a shock…. Frankly, he let us down." Another Iraqi said, "We're asking ourselves, is this the man who ruled us for 35 years? This man was ruling us with an iron fist and he ends up in such a submissive way in a ditch." And he concluded, noting that after making a tape which urged Iraqis to resist, Saddam himself had given up without a fight: "He is lies, lies to the end."

In other parts of the Arab world, Saddam's shame appeared to reflect on his fellow Arabs. "Saddam was miserable, and I, as an Arab, felt humiliation," said Al-Watan of Saudi Arabia, while the Egyptian paper, Al-Ahram, wrote that "No Arab would wish this upon the Arab president of Iraq." These were not statements of support for Saddam but just the way an honor culture thinks. Thus, if an Arab leader is seen as a coward -- Al-Hayat of London was more forthright, noting that "Even Saddam's Little Nephew Was Braver" -- he brings shame on all Arabs, and not just his supporters or henchmen.

An op-ed in the Washington Post by Daniel Chirot, a professor at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and the author of Modern Tyrants, gets it wrong, I think, by assuming that "Hussein's embarrassing end will certainly increase resentment of U.S. arrogance." It's hard to guess what he has in mind in referring to "U.S. arrogance." There is nothing arrogant about hunting down and imprisoning a deadly enemy. Nor are the Arabs likely to blame America for their leader's cowardice. Their resentment of the agents of his humiliation will probably be no different than it was the day before his capture -- which is to say that the opponents of the American presence will continue to resent it and those who have welcomed it will continue to welcome it.

But the vast middle range of Arab opinion belonging to those who feared and respected Hussein without loving him will surely be affected for the better. Insofar as Saddam and those who have carried out the resistance to American occupation in his name have controlled such people by intimidation, and prevented them from co-operating with occupation forces, they are sure to find their job harder as the awe which they have hitherto been able to count on among ordinary Iraqis begins to dissipate. However much its public voices may wish to take the Arab world's sense of humiliation out on the Americans, Saddam's disgrace itself will make that increasingly difficult. And if they can no longer resist for his sake, for whose sake do they resist?

Professor Chirot would say in the name of Islam, since "religion is seen by many of the most idealistic Arabs and Muslims as the last, best hope." He has more contempt for the Bush administration, seemingly, than for the cowardly Saddam, since he doubts, like the Archbishop of Canterbury (see my Death Comes to the Archbishop of October 27 this year), that it understands the idealism of our enemies. "Some of those who oppose us," writes the professor, "have a vision, too, no matter how grim it may seem." Yet "our leaders" seem to regard them "as mere criminals or psychopaths." Such a view, he says, "entirely misses the point" -- which might indeed be the case if anyone actually held it.

Instead, it is the professor who misses the point, just as the archbishop before him did. The high ideals and "vision" of those who are trying to kill us and to kill our soldiers are neither here nor there for those they are trying to kill. Doubtless those ideals are very beautiful. But so long as they are prepared, as Professor Chirot says, "to inflict death and destruction in order to advance their utopian dreams," we are bound to do all in our power to stop them -- and to be skeptical of anyone naïve enough to suppose that our being publicly sensitive to our enemies' motives will make them in the slightest degree less willing to kill us because of them. On the other hand, seeing their leader groveling and humiliated might well have such an effect.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.