We have Saddam now, but at a big cost

By Steve Chapman

Saddam Hussein was trapped in a tight, unpleasant space — angry but impotent, armed but no longer dangerous. Though he might have been dreaming of triumphs, he was powerless to realize them.
Then the United States invaded Iraq.
It’s easy to forget that we had Hussein pretty well confined long before he ducked into a hole in the ground last weekend, trying to evade the American net. In the years leading up to Gulf War II, he hadn’t invaded anyone, hadn’t threatened to invade anyone, hadn’t carried out attacks on American targets and hadn’t acquired the means to do so. If he had those weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration claimed to be so alarmed about — which is still unproven — he didn’t have them in the form or quantity necessary to pose a genuine danger.
But we didn’t know then how good we had it. Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean may be wrong to say America is not safer because of Hussein’s arrest. But it’s certainly true that Americans faced fewer lethal risks before the invasion of Iraq than today.
If we could have eliminated him without going to war, it would have been worth doing. In reality, getting rid of him required us to bog ourselves down in a costly and bloody occupation of a country we can’t begin to understand. How on earth is that better for the American people than the low-cost, low-risk containment we had successfully practiced for 12 years?
Nor will collaring the madman speed our departure. The U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, discounted the importance of the capture, saying that our forces will have to remain there “at least a couple more years.” He can’t envision any reduction in troop numbers in the next year.
So for the foreseeable future, some 120,000 U.S. soldiers will be doing their best to bring peace and order to a shattered country riven with violent animosities. While it will be a great pleasure to see Hussein get even a fraction of what he deserves, this welcome development won’t necessarily yield more welcome developments.
It could have the opposite effect. No one can imagine that the vagrant arrested Saturday was directing the resistance or doing much of anything else, except communing with small burrowing creatures. The immediate reaction of anti-American insurgents was to launch new attacks.
Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in the Middle East, worries that far from quelling the violence, this may widen it. Shiites who had acquiesced in the occupation for fear that Hussein would return may now be far more assertive in challenging the Americans.
They have been increasingly resentful because, as the majority in Iraq, they are eager to see the creation of a democracy that will give them the power they were long denied. Under the American plan, though, direct elections will have to wait until 2005. That’s why it was rejected by the most prominent Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Thus our dilemma: If we block majority rule, to the detriment of the Shiites, some of them could turn to violence, transforming a difficult situation into an impossible one. If we accept majority rule, to the detriment of the previously dominant but minority Sunnis, their fear of being shut out of power could spur them to even more ferocious resistance.
The state of the economy and the infrastructure are not making us an abundance of friends. We stand to further alienate the populace with military tactics that may advance security in the short run but have the side effect of making Iraqis spitting mad.
“With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people we are here to help them,” one U.S. commander told The New York Times.
But scaring people into liking us is not an easy trick.
At the end, Saddam was cowering underground with no way to escape. So why does it feel like we’re the ones who are trapped?

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.