Published on
the Bangor Daily News (Maine)

Capturing the Wicked Witch of Iraq

The announcement Sunday that United States troops had captured Saddam Hussein should be greeted as good news by all. Even ill-conceived invasions can bring ancillary benefits. Removing any possibility of the return of this vicious tyrant opens up positive possibilities for Iraq. Yet to conclude that Saddam's capture will lessen violence in Iraq is premature. An even more important question is the lessons that United States learns from Saddam.

Though most Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam, that does not mean that even those who supported the invasion wish to see a continued occupation - especially once any threat of Saddam's return has been eliminated. There is very little evidence that the continuing resistance to the United States occupation has come from former Saddam loyalists. The number of Iraqis who can be characterized as continuing supporters of the Iraqi dictator is very small. Ruthless tyranny is not only morally wrong, it notoriously fails to assure longtime allegiance.

Resistance is likely based on some combination of nationalism and fundamentalist religious motivations. If the United States does not promptly cede governing authority to the Iraqis and internationalize any necessary police and military presence during the transition, more of the opposition will turn violent. Free from the fear that turmoil might hasten a Saddam return, opponents have even less reason to hold back.

Nonetheless, these very considerations open a window of opportunity. Whatever mistakes the United States has made in the initial invasion, the failure to plan reconstruction, and the indiscriminate attacks on those deemed to be supporters of the resistance, the United States capture of Saddam followed by a rapid turnover of power would benefit the reputation of United States throughout the region.

Just as importantly, the United States has an obligation to see that Saddam receives a fair trial, whether in Iraqi courts or before an international tribunal. Not only must Saddam have an opportunity to express his own defense but the United States must also be willing to let the chips fall where they may. Saddam, the ruthless butcher of Kuwait, should be allowed the full right to expose - even through reference to classified State and Defense Department documents - the role of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq played in encouraging the initial invasion.

A trial should lead to a broader examination of foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. Some of the left have suggested that because the United States aided Saddam in the '80s, it lost any legitimacy in resisting his more recent tyranny. That argument is wrong. The United States properly resisted Stalin's aggression in Western Europe in the postwar period even after having lent extensive assistance to the Soviets in the fight against the Nazis.


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The larger question is just why support was given to him in the '80s. A closer examination reveals the pathologies and inadequacies of American foreign policy. Rather than regard the world as a place where imperfectly defined powers and interests can and must make shifting and temporary alliances, this world is seen as threatened by a singular, personal, purposive evil agent. Only the active and determined leadership of a benevolent leader and nation can save the world from the chaos and destruction.

This worldview has guided the neoconservatives, who from the start have orchestrated the war with Iraq. John Patrick Diggins points out in the American Prospect that neoconservatives assume that opposition to the United States originates in a sovereign and exceedingly powerful source. When the Shah of Iran fell, neoconservatives took that as a sign a future Soviet expansion. Treating anyone who would oppose Iran as therefore good, the United States armed Saddam to the teeth.

Neoconservatives also assume that it was only high levels of military spending that brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Diggins reminds us, however, that Anatoli Dobrinin himself pointed out that United States military spending was far less important than the decision of Ronald Reagan in the later stages of his presidency to establish better relations with Russia, a move that allowed Gorbachev the internal political space to move toward reforms.

Ronald Reagan's evil empire was in the late '80s a decrepit shell. Treating it as a source of all evil throughout much of the world led to a misinterpretation of dissent and revolution in many theaters. And that misinterpretation has come back to haunt the United States in the form of fundamentalist regimes that regard the United States as an evil empire.

If fundamentalism continues to drive this government, it will continue treating any Iraqis who oppose the continuing United States occupation as inspired by international terrorism, the new Soviet bogeyman. Unfortunately, regarding all opposition as intrinsically evil can all too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If all opposition forces are tarred by the same brush, they can all too easily turn to support from whatever quarters they could find it. United States and Iraqi citizens would then be the losers.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressivefor ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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