It could hardly have been a more humiliating moment. The scraggly-haired Saddam Hussein looked like he'd just crawled out of a dumpster. The man who defied Washington for more than a decade closed his eyes in submission as a U.S. Army medic swabbed the inside of his cheek.
For the memory of the Kurds he gassed and the tens of thousands murdered by his henchmen, for the Marsh Arabs he persecuted and the innocents who rotted in jail, it was the best of days. In the streets of Baghdad, they celebrated his capture by dancing and firing rifle shots into the air.
It was a good day, too, for Karl Rove, the senior political adviser to George W. Bush. Who needs expensive campaign ads when you've got the capture of evil incarnate on video? And it was surely the best day of a weary year for Tony Blair. He may yet be found to have misled Britons about weapons of mass destruction; the report of Lord Hutton's inquiry is expected early in the new year. But yesterday, for the first time in a long while, Mr. Blair was surrounded by an aura of success.
Yet even in abject humiliation, Saddam Hussein remains a problem. It's not clear what kind of show trial the United States and its hand-picked Iraqi government will agree on. But you can bet that intense discussions are under way in an effort to figure out how to orchestrate the appearance of justice without causing acute embarrassment to the wrong people.
For the first decade of Mr. Hussein's 23 years in power, he was regarded not as a despicable tyrant but as an eccentric nuisance. He was considered fairly predictable and a reliable business partner, and he posed no threat to anyone outside his own region. Self-interest and self-enrichment led legions of political and business leaders in the West and the Arab world to cozy up to him. Testimony from Mr. Hussein in an open courtroom could leave an indelible stain on their records.
The list might include Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who shook hands with the Iraqi dictator in 1983 when the United States supported Iraq against Iran. On the other side of the ledger, it might include Jacques Chirac and the French corporations who profited mightily from Iraqi contracts. And what about former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, who traveled to Iraq in February as the U.S.-led invasion loomed? What did he and Mr. Hussein talk about, besides the possibility of exile for the Iraqi leader? Oil? Nuclear weapons? The custody of key intelligence records relating to Iraq and the Soviet Union?
Perhaps Mr. Hussein will finally tell us something worth knowing about Iraqi links to al-Qaeda, or about weapons of mass destruction. The probable truth is that Iraq hasn't had deployable chemical, biological or nuclear weapons for at least a decade. That would be some comfort to the United Nations teams who spent years under pressure to achieve the logical impossibility of proving a negative. It would be no comfort at all to Mr. Blair, who justified participating in the invasion on the grounds that Iraq's armed forces were 45 minutes away from launching a long-range WMD attack.
What of France and Germany, which opposed the U.S.-led war against Iraq in favor of continued pressure through the UN? It was immensely satisfying to the pro-U.S. camp yesterday to see Mr. Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder admit that something good came of the invasion. (For bare-faced gall, it would be hard to top French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose reaction to the weekend's events was that "the international community should congratulate itself.")
But the continuing dispute over profits from reconstruction will largely dissipate any goodwill generated by the weekend's events. And the roiling transatlantic split over global geopolitics that the Iraq campaign has exposed is not going to be healed by anything that happens to Mr. Hussein.
The fact is that although the ex-dictator's capture is a momentous event, whether it is a watershed will only become clear with time. A key factor will be the effect it has on anti-U.S. insurgents within Iraq. Some say that it has dealt them a fatal blow. More sober voices -- including Mr. Bush and his military commanders -- expect the guerrilla attacks (and U.S. casualties) to continue, possibly for a long while. Their views are supported not only by the pathetic isolation in which Mr. Hussein was discovered on Saturday, but also by on-the-ground accounts.
I have yet to see a single insurgent quoted as saying he wants Mr. Hussein restored to power. Rather, these fighters are driven by a complex of motives. Some are Sunni Muslims who fear they will suffer discrimination if, as seems likely, the Shiite majority dominates a self-governing Iraq. Personal vengeance, such as the killing of a relative by the occupying forces, may be a factor. Some -- and not just Sunnis -- simply feel an intense desire to see Iraq run by Iraqis, with the Americans gone. Mr. Hussein's capture can only increase the intensity of that feeling: You've done what you came for; goodbye.
"Après nous, le déluge," runs the old French proverb, and whatever their idiosyncrasies, the French know a thing or two about war and revolution. Saddam Hussein bent Iraq to his will, and it remains grotesquely deformed. It will take much more than his capture to straighten it out.
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.