Capturing Hussein

December 15, 2003

The most important effect of Saddam Hussein’s capture is that it will focus the attention of the world on what the prisoner says, or does not say, where he will be tried, under what laws, before what judges. All the world will be drawn into the debate. Democrats will have to give their opinions. Pundits will write about international law and the issue will be the fate of Saddam and not weapons of mass destruction, or democracy, or Al Qaeda, or most importantly, gaining the consent of the Iraqi people. The capture provides a neat escape from that critical question. Now everyone outside Iraq will talk about the wrong thing.

The right thing would be to focus on how to gain and keep Iraqi popular support. It is no longer as safe as it was up in Mosul, in the north, where just after the war Americans were welcomed. Now we are being shot at. Reporters in Baghdad now come on camera wearing flack jackets, fearing that they might be shot at even as they stand in the camera lights, their backs to the street. Hotels full of westerners in Baghdad have been hit with rockets. In the months since the occupation began, the United Nations and the Red Cross have pulled out. After Hussein’s capture, demonstrators were in the streets to support him in Tikrit, Nasiriyah and Adwar. A train full of supplies for the American forces was hit with a rocket grenade and looted while it burned with no one offering to help the Americans.

The administration’s slogan is that everyone who opposes us is a terrorist. It is very sad to say that and to pretend to believe it. Iraqis oppose the scrutiny of foreign troops standing around watching everything they do, ready to fire at trees, or dark corners, or anyone who moves too quickly; they oppose our tanks rumbling heavily through their streets shaking the foundations of their mud homes; they opposes our killing nine children here, two more there. If these are all terrorists than we have created a nation of terrorists.

Stability can only come from consent of the governed. Even in the darkest days of dictatorship in the Soviet Union, the regime could only be maintained by the moral authority of a regime which held itself out as the promise of the future, the hope of the working man and of civilization. Saddam maintained himself in part through brutal power, but in larger part through the consent of those masses who supported his attempt to give Islam a name, to give Iraq a position of influence in the Middle East. Those goals legitimated his horrors and without legitimacy no government can long survive. Legitimacy is everything.

That is what the battle in the streets is about today. That is the issue in any revolution, whether it was ours in 1776, or the French in 1789, the Russians in 1917, or the Iraqis today, and unfortunately for us, few in Iraq today think we are legitimate. We raise the question of trying Hussein but there is no Iraqi council which is legitimate, no authority which is legitimate, no court which is legitimate and the very act of us picking such a council, or selecting such a court is the very act which makes any one of them illegitimate.

No empire in the last 200 years has been able to hold on when the people who live there have opposed their staying. Ask the English, the French, the Germans and the Russians. They could not stay in India, in Indochina, in Africa, in Afghanistan. We say we are not an empire but we went into this place in violation of international law, for reasons made up to suit a Madison Avenue sales pitch about weapons of mass destruction. It was pretext, and pretext is the middle name of empire. We went into Iraq for objectives which assist the finances of corporations as much or more than the finances of the American people, and whether it is the British East India Company or Haliburton, this too is the way of empire. If it walks like an empire, talks like an empire and expands like an empire, it just might be an empire. Saddam’s capture may blind the west, but it obviously does not blind the Iraqi people. It is that judgment—theirs about us—more than ours about Saddam Hussein, which will ultimately determine the outcome of this war.