December 15, 2003,
Since about April 2003, this question has been the cheapest, easiest way to take a shot at the Bush administration:
"So why haven't we captured or killed Saddam Hussein?"
The Bush administration, in the face of hostility from the French, a United Nations that refused to enforce its own resolutions, political opposition from half the Democratic party, and significant military risks, forms a Coalition of the willing and utterly destroys the regime of one of the world's most brutal dictators. An entire infrastructure of torture, oppression, and regional military strength is overrun in three weeks. And yet, to the eyes of some of the administration's critics, the inability to find one man for nine months or so proves the entire operation is a failure.
"Saddam Hussein's continued life is more of a problem than Osama bin Laden's," former Secretary of State Madeline Albright told the Christian Science Monitor last month. "Because if we look at what has been happening with the insurgency [in Iraq] and stories in the last few days [about] funds that Saddam Hussein somehow has access to...in many ways he has a lot of levers he was used to pulling. The question is whether the strings are attached....His continued life is creating huge problems. And while the [Bush] administration is basically saying none of this matters any more, I think it does matter."
The question is an offshoot of the previous cheap and easy criticism that emerged around October 2001: "Why haven't we captured Osama bin Laden?" As Al Sharpton stated during one of the Democratic debates, "We still have bin Laden at large. Newsweek magazine can find him, video, and audio coverage can find him. This guy's has out more videos than a rock star, but George Bush's intelligence agencies can't find him."
You see, once that question is asked, the issue is no longer the broad goals of the war on terror, or bringing new ideas and human rights to the Arab world, or confronting evil head-on instead of coming up with excuses not to. The question confuses the difference between a goal not yet accomplished and a failure. It declares the efforts of the United States and its allies a failure. And it's about painting President Bush as, to use Richard Gephardt's favorite words, "a miserable failure."
In some quarters, the ultimate rhetorical point has been to cite both bin Laden and Hussein, and to assure the public that the Coalition's inability to find two men hiding in a space limited to a mere hemisphere proves that America and her allies are too incompetent to execute the war on terror.
"Not finding [Saddam or Osama bin Laden] is the biggest intelligence failure of all," sniffed Gordon Adams to Knight-Ridder News Service. Adams was an associate director for national-security and international affairs at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration and now directs security-policy studies at George Washington University. "It says we just are not as good as we think we are sometimes."
"People are asking, where are the WMDs? Where is Saddam Hussein?" Paul Begala said on Crossfire a few months back. Begala, as you'll recall, is a decorated veteran of the War Room, a.k.a. Clinton's 1992 campaign team, which in retrospect is a silly thing to compare to an actual war.
Retired general Wesley Clark said ominously in the pages of USA Today that the failure to capture Hussein was likely to undermine any new Iraqi government. And he said it was important to capture Hussein alive so he could be tried for war crimes. Clark said it was important to catch him alive: "I would hate to see us bust into a bunker and not be able to bring him out alive to stand trial. One of the things you really want to establish is rule of law. It's the essence of peacekeeping and stability operations."
And critics of the war in Great Britain have had a sneer-a-thon regarding the Coalition's inability to find Hussein.
On the Labor side, former defense minister Peter Kilfoyle said the survival of the dictator was a 'key issue for the Americans,' because "They demonised him. They made him a target. It's bizarre they have not managed to locate him but it speaks volumes for the qualities of their intelligence."
Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden, of the Institute of Strategic Studies, told the Evening Standard said it was 'totally unacceptable' that Saddam was at large, adding: 'It is down to incompetence.'"
Before Bush's visit to London last month, another Labor member of parliament, Glenda Jackson, demanded: 'Why is George Bush being given a triumphal ride down Whitehall when Saddam is still roaming free?' (One wonders if Jackson is up for applauding that triumphal ride now that Hussein has made the photographs of the captured John-Belushiesque al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed look like Cary Grant.)
What's fascinating is that critics of the war, Coalition operations in Iraq, and the Bush administration have never had any useful suggestions for finding these evil men. (Okay, back in 2001, John Kerry said the U.S. should have used its own ground troops in Tora Bora instead of relying on the Northern Alliance. It's Monday-morning quarterbacking, but at least that resembles an attempt to think of ways to fight more effectively.) The tone has never been, "You're looking in the wrong place, we have a better idea"; it has mostly been "the fact that you haven't done it yet means you'll never succeed, so admit failure and stop trying."
The closest thing to a suggestion from the Coalition's critics has been to bring in soldiers from countries that have had a long, happy relationship with Hussein.
John Kerry emphasized on Fox News Sunday that now that Hussein was captured, the time was right to internationalize the U.S. mission there. (Please don't let British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, or Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi know that a sitting U.S. senator, not known to be on medication, is publicly complaining that the mission isn't "internationalized" the diplomatic repercussions of an American leader ignoring their contributions and sacrifices could be severe.)
Of course, American political candidates who stake out a "this will never work, so stop trying" stance are is in a tough position once the impossible is proved possible. But in the early morning hours of Sunday, they found a solution. First, release a short statement saluting the troops. The second step is to avoid any sense of backtracking or reconsideration of the candidate's previous position. In fact, the subtext of the statement should infer that the candidate had been urging Paul Bremer, Gen. John Abizaid, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez to look in a spider hole at a farm in the town of Ad Dwara all along.
"This is a great day for the Iraqi people, the U.S., and the international community," Dean said in his statement. "Our troops are to be congratulated on carrying out this mission with the skill and dedication we have come to know of them. This development provides an enormous opportunity to set a new course and take the American label off the war. We must do everything possible to bring the U.N., NATO, and other members of the international community back into this effort. Now that the dictator is captured, we must also accelerate the transition from occupation to full Iraqi sovereignty."
"This is a great day for U.S. forces, the Iraqi people, and the world," Kerry said in his statement. "Capturing Saddam Hussein and ensuring that this brutal dictator will never return to power is an important step towards stabilizing Iraq for the Iraqis. Let's also be clear: Our problems in Iraq have not been caused by one man and this is a moment when the administration can and must launch a major effort to gain international support and win the peace. We need to share the burden, bring in other countries, and make it clear to the world that Iraq belongs to the Iraqi people. Today is another opportunity to invite the world into a post-Saddam Iraq and build the coalition to win the peace that we should have built to win the war."
"I supported this effort in Iraq without regard for the political consequences because it was the right thing to do," Dick Gephardt said in a statement. "I still feel that way now and today is a major step toward stabilizing Iraq and building a new democracy."
The only candidate to remotely suggesting his colleagues are full of it was Joe Lieberman, suggesting he's still willing to take a swing at his opponents while trying dig Al Gore's knife out from between his shoulderblades.
"If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would be in power today, not in prison," Lieberman told NBC's Meet the Press.
"I always felt he was a ticking time bomb," Lieberman said. (It appears, though it is not entirely clear, that Lieberman was referring to Hussein, not Dean, as a ticking time bomb.)
"With all respect, this is narrowed down to a choice between Howard Dean and me," Lieberman said. "And Howard Dean hardly talks about the war on terrorism. He hasn't put forward a plan for it."
Thankfully, former Illinois senator and current long-shot Carol Moseley Braun is still willing to find the dark lining on the sliver cloud.
"The capture of Saddam Hussein is good news for the people of Iraq and the world," Braun said in released statement, e-mailed by spokeswoman Loretta Kane from a yahoo account. "But it does not change the fact that our troops remain in harm's way; and we are no closer to bringing them home."
Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service, is a frequent contributor to NRO.