George W. Bush has to restrain himself from running victory laps to celebrate the Saddam Hussein capture. Republican leaders are gleeful about facing a Democratic ticket likely led by Howard Dean. So, it may seem odd, even perverse, to suggest that rooting the Iraqi dictator out of his hole might actually be an ace-in-the-hole for Democrats.
For starters, seizing Hussein shifts the focus of the hunt for America's most dangerous enemies from Iraq to the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border where Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the deposed leader of the Taliban, are said to lurk. As elusive as Hussein was in Iraq, the terrain around bin Laden's lair is far more forbidding and the population, if anything, more hostile to Americans and the chances of success less likely.
While Bush steadfastly maintains that somehow we have dealt the worldwide terrorist network a punishing blow by apprehending Hussein, most experts deny that the Iraqi ever fomented much terrorist activity against this country. The U.S. government itself concedes that an alleged meeting between an Iraqi intelligence agent and an al-Qaida operative in Prague before September 2001 never took place.
The president's boast that snaring Hussein was a major gain could easily blow up in his face if there is another outrage directed against this country. If such an attack were to take place before the 2004 election, it could spell real trouble for Bush and make the capture of Hussein appear less consequential.
But it would not necessarily take another 9/11 to damage the president's re- election chances and profit the Democrats. If the intensity of the resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq does not abate, Democrats - especially those like Dean who consistently opposed the invasion - can make the case that the opposition to the U.S. presence is far broader than simply Baathist die-hards and that the entire operation was ill- starred at the outset.
Some Democrats will be in a better position than others to capitalize on another terrorist strike or a continued costly guerilla war in Iraq. Bad war news or terrorist activity will certainly help Dean, who has argued that the Iraq campaign represents a misallocation of strategic resources. Instead of mounting a costly military operation in Iraq, Dean and other Democratic hopefuls have urged that the money and energy should have been spent on a massive effort to penetrate and destroy terrorist cells or to remove some of the root causes of terrorism.
Of all Democrats, however, Dean's position has been the most consistent. He opposed the war and has never trimmed his sails.
While the president has taken pains to tell the American people that the capture of Hussein is only one victory in what promises to be a long war, there may be a belief in the mind of the American public that his capture marks a decisive turning point and it will expect the news to get consistently better.
If such a sentiment were to become widespread, it would constitute a political peril for the president. And if bad news comes, it may not come only from the Middle East.
North Korea continues to constitute a major threat to us and to neighboring countries in Asia. Its leader, Kim Jong-il, is a capricious person who has shown himself to be capable of springing nasty surprises. If he blindsides us, it will provide substantial ammunition for those Democrats who have consistently argued that Kim's hermit kingdom poses a greater long-term threat to us than Iraq. It is well-along in developing both nuclear weapons technology and the means to deliver those weapons.
The president learned from the aftermath of his triumphal appearance on the flight deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln that premature proclamations of victory can backfire badly. He did his best to temper his comments on the apprehension of Hussein, but it would be natural for people to feel more optimistic.
So while the Democrats appear to be chastened by the events of the past week, it is a sure bet that they are taking the president's words down and will use them against him if we encounter a setback. Considering the complexities of rebuilding Iraq and creating some semblance of democracy there, the daunting struggle against terrorists in an arc stretching from Turkey to Indonesia, and the dangerous eccentricities of the North Korean leader, Democrats may yet have a chance to pick some holes in the president's Teflon cloak.
Ross K. Baker is a political science professor at Rutgers University.
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