After Saddam

The Iraqi leader's capture won't bring 'closure' to the coalition.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘The Iraqi people have now been liberated in spirit, as well as in fact.’ So said US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, as Bush officials celebrated the arrest of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein at a rundown farmhouse near Tikrit. According to Rumsfeld, the TV images beamed around the world of an unkempt and disorientated Saddam demonstrate that ‘the Iraqi people face a future, not of terror, but of freedom’ (1).

Great claims are being made of Saddam’s arrest – that it ‘vindicates America and Britain’s campaign’, that it will help to ‘bring about unity, reconciliation and peace between all the people in Iraq’. One report claims the arrest will make a ‘world of difference’ – literally, with ‘consequences that could be global in scope…especially if the pictures of the captured and humiliated Saddam were being watched by [Axis of Evil dictators] in Damascus and Pyongyang’ (2).

Could the capture of Saddam really have such after-effects, everywhere from London and Washington to Iraq and beyond? Detaining Saddam is certainly a coup for Bush and Blair – but for all their cautious triumphalism about finally finding the Ace of Spades, other factors will ensure that this latest development is not unreservedly good news for the coalition.

For Western elites, there are two aspects to interventions abroad – what the impact will be domestically and internationally. On the domestic front, the capture of Saddam ought to play well for Bush and Blair. In recent months, both leaders have been beset by scandals and inquiries, focused around Iraq, by awkward questions about elusive WMD and troops getting bogged down in postwar Iraq. The arrest of Saddam, whom Bush accused of holding the world to ransom with ‘weapons of mass murder’, is likely to boost Bush and Blair’s domestic standing, even if temporarily. As one report says, Saddam’s capture has provided Bush with ‘an enormous personal boost’, and consolidated his ‘commanding lead in the polls’ for next year’s presidential elections (3).

Yet both Bush and Blair have responded cautiously to the capture of Saddam. Even obtuse Texan Bush announced it with what one report referred to as ‘cautious elation’. Bush administration officials reportedly worked out a strategy for presenting the news as ‘a victory for the Iraqi people, rather than a personal triumph for Bush, who six months before the invasion called Saddam “a guy that tried to kill my dad”‘ (4).

In Britain, the Guardian reports that Blair ‘permitted himself no more than a flicker of a smile’ as he announced Saddam’s capture. Apparently Blair originally wanted to make the announcement to camera without having journalists present, because he was ‘concerned about what might be asked’ (5). For Britain and America’s uncertain elites, keen to avoid appearing triumphant over Iraq and still reeling from months of Iraq-related controversy, even the arrest of Saddam Hussein becomes a potentially problematic affair.

Domestically, one of the most striking things about Saddam’s arrest is how quickly the initial excitement gave way to cynical posturing. Early media reports talked of a ‘great day for peace’, with breathless reporters claiming that ‘Saddam’s brutality is finally at an end’. But within hours, and certainly by the time the morning papers came out, awkward questions were being asked about what would happen next.

Newspaper editorials remind readers that the war was not strictly about finding Saddam, but about finding his WMD. The UK Independent has a cartoon of the already famous picture of Saddam’s mouth being examined – except the doctor in this case is Bush, uttering the words ‘Hell, we’ve looked everywhere else for WMDs’ as he pokes around inside Saddam’s gob.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have already raised questions about the ‘humiliating and degrading’ treatment of Saddam, claiming that the broadcast images of his medical examination crossed the lines of acceptability. Their complaints, far from being ignored or sidelined, have been reported prominently in the coverage of Saddam’s capture, generating headlines such as ‘Will Saddam get fair treatment?’. The prominence of such concerns in Britain and the USA points to a lack of agreement over fundamental issues relating to the West’s mission and its claims over Iraq.

Others have asked what kind of trial Saddam will get. Some point out that the Americans should not sit in judgment on Saddam, because of their earlier links with his regime; but nor should Europeans, as this might appear ‘imperialistic’ to Iraqis. Some argue that Iraqis should judge Saddam, though human rights groups complain that this might result in a death penalty. For all of the earlier talk about good v evil – with the USA and the UK apparently standing up to a wicked dictator – now even the question of Saddam’s trial appears far from clear-cut.

The media’s questioning of the circumstances surrounding Saddam’s arrest is not driven by a critical approach to America and Britain’s actions in Iraq, but rather by the same cynicism with which much of the media covered the war and its aftermath. Such widespread cynicism – where even the arrest of the dictator all journalists love to hate is seen as a grey area of ethics and trepidation – will impact on Bush and Blair’s ability to make mileage out of Saddam’s capture.

Western elites find it increasingly difficult to sustain propagandistic stories or heroic claims in relation to war. Already the tale of Private Jessica Lynch has been exposed; the flying of little Ali into Britain to get new arms was questioned by some; now the arrest and imprisonment of Saddam are queried. If such investigations were the product of critical thinking, that could be a positive thing; war stories are always worth tearing apart. But they are generally the result of a climate of cynicism and suspicion, which can only poke holes and raise doubts.

What about internationally; what impact will the arrest of Saddam have inside Iraq? This is far more questionable – though it is highly unlikely that physically removing Saddam from Iraq will transform Iraq’s fortunes, as some have claimed, opening Iraqis’ eyes to their liberation.

According to one report, the capture of Saddam will have ‘a powerful political and psychological effect throughout the Middle East’, especially in Iraq. Apparently, Iraqis will now realise that the ‘shadow of Saddam’ has been lifted. According to Welsh MP Ann Clwyd, sticking with the therapeutic/psychological interpretation of events, Saddam’s capture brings ‘some kind of closure’ to the people of Iraq (6).

The notion that the arrest of Saddam will transform Iraqis’ fortunes massively oversimplifies the problems facing postwar Iraq – as if the thing that was holding Iraq back was the fact that Saddam was down a hole somewhere, somehow casting his shadow over the entire country. By this account, it is not the fact that the coalition’s war removed Iraq’s state structure without putting anything in its place that is causing chaos and confusion, but rather the fact that Iraqis do not realise they are free because they remain in a trance-like fear of Saddam. Maybe this is why the video footage of Saddam looking dirty and degraded is repeatedly being played on Arab TV – to wake the apparently zombie-like Iraqis to their ‘liberation’, thus getting Iraq back on the track to statehood.

In fact, as a propaganda point, the arrest of Saddam might not work so well ‘over there’. The discovery of an isolated, old and beleaguered man sitting at the bottom of a hole does not sit well with the image of Saddam as a ruthless dictator holding his people and the world to ransom. Following his discovery, some in the coalition claimed that terrorist attacks on coalition troops might end; now, as some claim that Saddam had little direct influence over such attacks (one report points out that he had no mobile phone or other means of communication), the coalition is left hoping that the attacks will just run out of steam. The killing of nine people in a suicide bomb in Baghdad earlier today suggests that is not likely to happen any time soon.

Saddam may not wield any power anymore – but his capture down a hole on a farmhouse in Tikrit has managed to expose much tension and uncertainty within the West.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Statement by secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld on the capture of Saddam Hussein, Ha’aretz, 15 December 2003

(2) This will make a world of difference, The Australian, 15 December 2003

(3) Saddam’s capture boosts Bush, Martin Sieff, United Press International, 14 December 2003

(4) Bush kept news of capture a secret for 14 hours until ID was verified, Washington Post, 15 December 2003

(5) In a hole in the ground, luck runs out for High Value Target Number One, Rory McCarthy, Oliver Burkeman, Michael White, Gary Younge and Michael Howard Guardian, 15 December 2003

(6) Ann Clwyd: ‘What a present’, IC Wales, 14 December 2003

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Topics Politics


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