The humiliating footage, beamed to the world, of a bedraggled Saddam Hussein having his mouth examined by a U.S. military doctor is living proof that the embarrassing, once U.S.-supported Iraqi despot has finally been deposed. But if that fate is now to befall all dethroned, war-like leaders with autocratic tendencies, perhaps President Bush should get his own dental house in order just in case he loses the election in November 2004.
Of course, it would be unfair to compare the magnitude of Saddam’s bellicosity and human rights violations with those of President Bush. After all, Saddam Hussein went to war with two countries — Iran and Kuwait — without provocation; so far, President Bush has needlessly invaded only one nation — Iraq — without first being attacked or genuinely threatened. In addition, Saddam killed thousands of his own people (some with chemicals sold to him with the approval of the U.S. and other Western governments); President Bush only had his law enforcement agencies intimidate and interrogate thousands of innocent Arabs and Moslems based solely on their ethnicity or religion and detain and mistreat thousands of similar immigrants indefinitely without charges or access to a lawyer. Saddam used censored media to justify or hide such heinous human rights violations; President Bush merely relies on a White House spin machine and a cowed and compliant post-September 11 American press corps to positively pitch his violations of America’s founding principles — adequate due process and equal protection under the law. In war, we become a little more like our enemies.
But like Saddam, President Bush may ultimately find that his political fate depends on digging himself out of a hole of his own making. Most experts on counterinsurgency expect that the capture of Saddam will not end anti-U.S. attacks in Iraq. After all, many of the people fighting U.S. forces and their Iraqi helpers are not doing so for the love of the former Iraqi leader. They are nationalists who oppose foreign occupation of their country, minority Sunnis who fear domination by majority Shiites and a loss of their privileged status in Iraqi society, and foreign Islamist fighters who have a hatred of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Any insurgency requires the support of at least some part of the population that is dissatisfied with the status quo. And little evidence exists that Saddam — on the run and without efficient means of communication — was directing the decentralized opposition cells conducting the attacks.
More important, the Iraqi opposition knows that its attacks were already affecting U.S. policy in Iraq. After all, there is an election on, and the White House has to stop the U.S. body bags coming back from the continuing “unpleasantness.” The attacks have already hastened U.S. plans, at least nominally, to turn the administration of Iraq over to the Iraqis. And, recently, the U.S. Army’s desperate escalation of violence against the opposition — politically, it is difficult to increase significantly the numbers of U.S. or foreign troops in Iraq — will likely make more and more Iraqis hostile to the U.S. occupation. The Iraqi people may be delighted to see Saddam finally gone, but that doesn’t mean that they are happy with their foreign occupier. So despite the capture of Saddam and jubilation in the streets, the outlook for the Iraqi resistance doesn’t look all that bleak. In fact, the guerrilla cause ultimately may be strengthened by the U.S. release of humiliating footage of Saddam and the fact that the resistance will no longer be associated with his despotism.
Other Bush administration victory parades — the photo opportunity of the soldier placing the American flag over Saddam’s statue after Baghdad was captured, the president’s “mission accomplished” stunt on the aircraft carrier as he declared an end to hostilities and the grisly footage of Saddam’s dead sons — proved to be premature. Very likely, so will the triumphalism over Saddam’s capture. After the flag went up over the statue, Iraqi public opinion toward the U.S. occupation quickly soured because of widespread looting, chaos, gas lines and lack of electricity and other services. Continued problems of that sort could turn the current celebrations in the streets to renewed anger. If the resistance continues and U.S. soldiers continue to die, President Bush may want to make a dental appointment before the November 2004 election — just in case he, like Saddam, is deposed and has to force a smile before the cameras.