Even war foes cheer Butcher of Baghdad's capture

December 18, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - So this is how a regime ends, not with the toppling of a larger-than-life statue of a dictator, but with a smaller-than-life video of a man who emerged from a spider hole.

The self-proclaimed descendent of the Prophet, the self-anointed Glorious Leader came back as a bedraggled bum. The Great Uncle of the people, who had his food flown in and inspected by nuclear scientists before it was cooked, was now compared to a rat.

The man with a swimming pool in every palace and a portrait in every square and a French-cut suit in every closet stood quietly as an American doctor with latex gloves searched his head for bugs. The man who developed a cult of personality that ruled by fear for three decades opened his mouth wide enough for the conqueror's tongue depressor.

I awoke Sunday morning to the news that "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him." The words that went through my head were far more childish: "Ding-dong, the witch is dead." But the image was actually the wizard, the man behind the curtain, exposed without his power, captured without even a cell phone or a laptop, without a fight or a shot.

Hardly a soul, left, right, center, pro- or anti-war could do anything but celebrate the capture of the man who had gassed, terrorized and murdered his own people. Indeed, it was even impossible for an opponent of the war to feel anything less than relief that our search finally succeeded, that this man was under lock and key.

This has been one of the contradictions of this war, hasn't it? The Bush administration justified war on the grounds that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Pre-emptive war was launched in the name of national security, and the link was made between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein.

But the weapons weren't found and the links to al-Qaida were fanciful. So the administration turned to a dialogue about human rights, about the bad guy and the good idea. Mr. Hussein, bad; freedom, good.

As for opponents of the war? Many disputed the ideology of pre-emptive war and worried about a foreign policy that can be summed up as "our way or the highway." When we talked about missing weapons, or reminded Americans that Iraq was not al-Qaida, we were accused of being pro-Saddam Hussein. Even anti-freedom.

John Shattuck, the former assistant secretary of state for human rights and author of Freedom on Fire, will tell you that the war in Iraq met none of the criteria for a human rights intervention. There was, for example, no ongoing genocide, no multinational participation, no authority from the United Nations or international law and no plan for reconstruction.

"My belief is that the whole human rights justification is after the fact," he says. But then he adds, "That isn't to say there isn't a huge range of human rights crises and crimes caused by Saddam Hussein."

This debate defies sound bites, especially in politics. And yet produces them.

In Iowa, the Republicans ran ads that said: "Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists." The implication was that terrorists in Iraq were the cause, not the product, of the war.

On the morning after Mr. Hussein's capture, in a strikingly muscular news conference, the president again drew links between Sept. 11 and Iraq: "Terrorists attacked us. ... And it could happen again. And therefore I will deal with threats that are emerging and real." At the same time, he talked as if our real goal had been humanitarian, liberating Iraq from a torturer and a killer.

Meanwhile, many of the war's opponents have been searching for a way to describe their simultaneous opposition to Mr. Hussein and to the strategy that removed him. Indeed, many of the current Democratic candidates talk about the wrong way we got into this war while recognizing we cannot simply get out of it.

Now, a tyrant found in a coffin-like hole says to his captors, "I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq. I am willing to negotiate." President Bush was not the only one to laugh at this delusional deal-maker.

In the months ahead, the Butcher of Baghdad will go on trial. The news will be replete with testimony about torture and murder.

If no weapons of mass destruction are uncovered, if there are casualties and chaos in Iraq, the White House will have its own 'splaining to do. Those against this war may well have to run against White House warriors morphed into humanitarians.

So take one small moment for unity.

As the president put it: "Good riddance. The world is better off without you, Mr. Saddam Hussein."

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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