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Feet of Clay

Was it a mistake to capture Saddam Hussein alive?

By 12.14.03

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VIRGINIA -- I stumbled out of bed and fairly crawled to church, so when the pastor announced in the middle of his Sunday morning homily that Saddam Hussein had been captured, alive, in Iraq, I was quite shocked. It was difficult to muffle my applause.

Like many others, I assumed that Hussein -- were he still alive -- would meet the same fate as his sons, cornered by a mass of U.S. troops and then shot to hell. The complications with holding and trying him seemed simply too messy and nobody would miss him. Easier to do away with him, I figured. No court, military or otherwise, would have convicted the man who put a bullet through his head, and there's always that old canard: He was reaching for what appeared to be a weapon, honest.

Instead, according to early reports, 600 troops encountered a man on the run, dug into a flimsy subterranean shelter, with a small reserve of cash and a crazed look about him. Surprise, as much as anything else, must have made them hesitate before pulling the trigger. This was the great Saddam Hussein? The Butcher of Baghdad? He whose lust for statues and paintings had kept scores of local artists employed? And now the supposed rebel leader, coordinating attacks on U.S. convoys? Reduced to this?

So this fugitive, this former absolute ruler, this monster of a man was taken into custody without fisticuffs, examined by doctors, and then allowed to clean up. He will receive a trial of some sort, which is more than he ever afforded his opponents. Anyone who complains about the military's use of his capture as PR should bear in mind the alternatives.

That Hussein wasn't killed was a testament to the restraint of the military, and the country it represents. As the carping both within and without Iraq picks up, however, the U.S. may come to regret that restraint. Machiavelli advised the new regime to put down the old swiftly, so as to make a lasting impression on the locals and minimize the bloodshed. Wicked advice that may be but it's also, in its own way, wise.

But The Prince was written to him who would not only occupy land but keep it. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said, with some force, that the U.S. government covets no territory. The hope is that Iraq will belong to her people. We are thus visitors there; governors only until a government is elected and a constitution drafted and approved. Whether that can be accomplished is, of course, the $87 billion question. The ethnic and religious factions may prove unable to live together, or the guerrilla violence may rage on, keeping a civil society from taking root.

Then there's the impatient American end of the occupation. I write as neither a cheerleader for the Iraq war and subsequent occupation nor a particularly enthusiastic critic. Rather, my attitude toward the whole affair was a conveniently wary, well, let's see what happens. The initial war was well fought. The opposition quickly dissipated and taking Baghdad was, on the grand order of things, a walk of cake. Then the guerrilla warfare slowly started to intensify, and November, to take the most recent example, was a bloody awful, discouraging month.

If capturing, trying, and, ultimately, executing Saddam Hussein -- if showing that the man who elevated himself to a status just shy of deity had clay feet -- takes even a little wind out of the guerrillas' sails, then Saturday was not just a great day, it was a turning point.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.