One day from year’s end, it is the non-story of the year capping a dozen imagined “turning points” in Iraq ’s dismal disintegration. The only kind of turning has been in the shape of a spiral drilling ever downward, toward a Mesopotamian heart of darkness: The assassination of Saddam Hussein by hanging had about it the very same haste and furtiveness, the very same pretense of legitimacy and crack-of-dawn obscurity as—remember that one?—the secret U.S. transfer of sovereignty to Iraq, like thieving shadows in the night two days before it was scheduled, on June 28, 2004. There was then no “sovereignty” to transfer as the United States had neither earned nor managed to conquer the right to Iraqi sovereignty. It had embezzled it, and poorly at that, in the amateurish heist known to this day as Operation Iraqi Freedom. There was, at dawn on Saturday, no “justice” meted out in the assassination of Saddam. It couldn't even have that Mussolini feel about it: a popular execution in broad daylight, unafraid and unquestioning, because in this case the executioners themselves have too little to distinguish them from the executed. It isn't just their faces that are masked, but their motives and future plans. Meanwhile the hanging has been merely the enactment of a scene written in American stage directives almost two years ago, to fulfill another one of those sensational benchmarks the Bush administration invented as substitutes for real strategy, for policies that could make a workable difference for Iraq.
From the very first day of the war on March 21, 2003, the American adventure in Iraq has been one of forseeable defeat, of rank cluelessness, of corruption and corporate-greased crime organized at the highest levels of an administration rich in the tenor of Texan sopranos. How else to cobble a façade of success but through the fingerpaint of fictions? It started with the fabricated rescue of Jessica Lynch and the equally fabricated toppling of Saddam’s Statue at Fidros Square weeks into the war. Then came the Lord and Savior President’s stud-packaged “Mission Accomplished” performance on the USS Abraham Lincoln, his tumescent hubris swelled as stuffily as the the push-up jock-strap Karl Rove had implanted in the presidential crotch. Then came the assassination and parading of Qusai and Odai Hussein, the tyrant’s sons, whose deaths were supposed to be the fatal blow to the insurgency. After that, as the insurgency was proving Viagra-proof to the American military’s impotence, the turning points took on the trappings of political theater: the night-owl transfers of power, the purple-fingered elections, the Philadelphian chatter over the writing of an Iraqi constitution, all of it interspersed with other “fatal blows” to the insurgency—the capture and cavity-search of Saddam, the reconquest of Fallujah, Saddam’s trial, the killing of Zarqawi, the “securing” of Baghdad, all of it paralleling an incessant surge in violent incidents, to about 1,000 per day, a surge in the slaughter, to about 150 Iraqis a day, and a surge in presidential ignorance to it all, to about 1,000 counts of dereliction a day disguised, as always, in the strutting language of decisive, unbending arrogance.
Iraq is in a state of Hobbesian civil war and all the American president can do is point to the latest episode of Iraqi “Law & Order”—Saddam’s assassination—and call it “justice. The hanging, of course, is an irrelevance. A moot point. An entertainment. It won’t make a difference to anyone in Iraq no matter how fattish the headlines in the United States. The trial was a sham, the hanging an act of revenge, the barbarism of a hanging alone, of capital punishment in any form, one more symbol of the immorality of this whole production under American aegis. (It would have been nice to see Saddam, like any criminal, any terrorist, any “evildoer” from Timothy McVeigh to Osama bin Laden rot in a dank prison the rest of his days, days elongated as much as possible to enable him to mull over his defeat and diminishment, and to enable the rest of us to know that justice needn’t be retributive to be effective and, most of all—what it has never been in Iraq and never could be given the American compulsion for revenge—just.)
Saddam became irrelevant in 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War, in the same way that Castro would have been irrelevant for decades had it not been one president after another’s fixation on granting him a legitimacy he doesn’t deserve, by granting him an enmity he could only welcome. Saddam became that fixation after 1991, marginal and idiotic though his shows of shelled-out power had become. The invasion gave him a brief grasp at the old relevance, but it couldn’t last.
What the Bush administration never realized, what it refused to hear as it was launching its blitzkrieg on Iraq, was that Saddam was the only thing standing between Iraq and disintegration into the kind of sectarian madness that now makes the Saddam reign look, for all its brutality, almost benign in comparison. Its reality-show components aside, its playing into year-end festivities to go along with New Year celebrations and Islam's Eid el-Adha, Saddam's death is as irrelevant now as his reign through the 1990s had been, as his capture and trial had been to the Iraqis in the streets. They’re past the Saddam reign. They have other accounts to settle, and they’re settling them. The war will continue to rage in Iraq, indifferent to a single man’s hanging (when hundreds of men, women and children are slaughtered without so much as notice in neighborhood gossip).
The embarrassment is in the United States, where the assassination is triggering its run of celebrants and false analysts (the false prophets of today), of frigged up hopes and unpresidential boasting. The dancing the in the street, the official boasting, the pompous Sunday-morning chat-show preachers--it all has the same feel as the morbid festivities that surrounded the execution of Timothy McVeigh in Terre Haute, Indiana, in May 2001. It's as infantile, and shameless, as scabrous in its glee for vengefulness. In this case it's entirely in keeping with the proud misreadings not only of the war in Iraq, but of America’s role in a Middle East that never forgives stupidity, and in a world that no longer believes in an America as a beacon for human rights, law and due process. The worst, in other words, may yet be to come.