For Iraqis, the capture of Saddam Hussein is a big deal. For the world media, it is even bigger. But in the grand scheme of things, Saddam's arrest, trial and inevitable conviction are not that important.
Saddam's coinage is that he is a celebrity villain. While certainly bad, he's not unique.
Jean Kambanda, the former prime minister of Rwanda who eventually pleaded guilty to masterminding the genocide of up to 800,000 of his own compatriots in 1994, is arguably worse.
Yet, when Kambanda was arrested in July, 1997, the story barely made the Canadian media (The Globe and Mail reported it on page 11; the Star didn't report it at all).
In real terms, Saddam was never more than a run-of-the-mill dictator.
This may not give any solace to his victims, of which there were far too many. But in the context of the Middle East, he was standard fare.
He oppressed the Kurds. But who didn't? Turkey, a NATO member and Canadian ally, suppressed its Kurdish minority for years through a ruthless anti-insurgency campaign.
Saddam used poison gas against Iraq's Kurds — which is certainly more flamboyant.
But, as Turkey's Kurds like to remind the world, dead is dead regardless of the means.
It's intriguing to recall that even after the poison gas attack, one of Iraq's main Kurdish factions felt comfortable enough with Saddam to forge an alliance with him against another Kurdish faction.
Saddam liked to murder and torture his real and suspected enemies. Terrible stuff. But one should keep in mind that this is normal practice for the Syrian leadership (a sometime enemy of the West) and the Egyptian leadership (a current ally).
To his neighbors, he was a menace. He started two wars — one against Iran, which he argued was preventive, and another against Kuwait to seize territory he said belonged to Iraq.
But then almost every country in the Middle East menaces its neighbors
Arab nations started two wars with Israel, claiming land that they said belonged by right to their people.
Israel started two wars with the Arabs — one in concert with France and Britain; one it claimed was preventive.
Certainly there's an excellent case to be made for charging Saddam with war crimes.
On the face of it, his invasion of Iran and Kuwait fall into the category of making illegal war, a crime created by the Allied victors at Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II and used to indict the rulers of Japan and Germany.
Ironically, there's an equally compelling case for charging George W. Bush, the man whose forces captured Saddam, with the same war crime.
By the rules of Nuremberg and Tokyo, the U.S.-led coalition's invasion of Iraq was also blatantly illegal. (There are precedents in criminal law; a person who unlawfully kills a murderer is liable to murder charges.)
One suspects, however, that Bush will not end up in the prisoner's dock. He won. Saddam's real crime, at least the crime for which he will be punished, is that he lost.
More specifically, he made a bad mistake in judgment. Because the U.S. supported his 1980 war against Iran (it provided intelligence and even firepower), he seemed to think Washington would acquiesce to his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. And there he was very wrong.
The elder George Bush's 1991 Gulf War marked the real defeat of Saddam. After that, he remained a menace to his people but a footnote to the world. The younger Bush's decision this year to axe him merely removed the footnote.
Will the final elimination of Saddam make America's pacification of Iraq easier? I'm not there so I don't know.
But I'm interested to see that Bush himself says he doesn't expect matters to improve for his troops. In this, he is echoing his commanders in the field who openly acknowledge that Saddam had little or nothing to do with the anti-occupation resistance.
Some hope the trial of Saddam will provide information about U.S. and European complicity in the former dictator's crimes. I suppose that's possible (although war crimes tribunals are usually set up in a manner designed to avoid embarrassment to the prosecution). But it's hard to think of what more can be known that isn't already public property.
We know the French and Americans supplied Saddam's arms. There's evidence that the Germans helped him with his poison gas. Anybody with Internet access can take a look at the famous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, now Bush's defense secretary, shaking hands with a smiling Saddam.
To those who are not directly involved, the capture and arrest of Saddam is an interesting sideshow, the final denouement for a villain who — in international terms — was squashed years ago.
The real story in Iraq has to do with the U.S., with its new ambitions in the Middle East and with the inevitable opposition to those ambitions. It is ongoing.
Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited