We can only guess whether Saddam Hussein's capture will diminish the deadly violence that has plagued Iraq since the war officially ended. There can be no doubt, however, that images of the once powerful leader, looking weak and dishevelled in American custody, will demoralise many of his followers. A broken Mr Hussein may also co-operate with interrogators, providing useful information about the functioning of his criminal regime and the fate of his weapons programmes and money. If handled correctly, his trial will remind the world of his tyranny and help justify and legitimise his removal.
There may also be reason to hope that America's success in apprehending Mr Hussein will help repair badly frayed relations between the US and some European allies, after the worst crisis in the Atlantic alliance in nearly 50 years.
The first signs are encouraging. French president Jacques Chirac called Mr Hussein's capture a "major event that should strongly contribute to the democratisation and the stabilisation of Iraq." German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, another strong critic of the war, warmly congratulated US president George W. Bush and denounced the "horrible suffering" Mr Hussein had caused his people.
These positive signs follow other recent developments that suggest reconciliation on Iraq is possible. Germany has said it is prepared to finance reconstruction projects, to train Iraqi security forces and to forgive some of Iraq's debt. Officials in Paris have also been quietly considering ways to help support reconstruction in Iraq even, perhaps, by supporting a Nato mission there. After Mr Hussein's capture, Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, spoke of France's readiness to begin close consultations with its partners about the role it might play in Iraqi reconstruction. More broadly, both France and Germany have stepped up their co-operation with the US in other aspects of the war on terrorism, for example as leading troop contributors to the Nato-led international security force in Afghanistan.
Under these evolving circumstances, a wise American government would start thinking about how to win further support for its difficult occupation of Iraq. While Mr Hussein's capture may well help diminish the resistance that has claimed hundreds of American lives since the ostensible end of the war, it would be naive to expect the violence now to end. And even if the violence does diminish, the longer-term challenges of putting in place a stable government structure and the costly burden of reconstruction will remain. US forces still account for more than 80 per cent of foreign troops in Iraq and have borne at least 90 per cent of the casualties.
The US taxpayer will spend nearly $80bn in Iraq this year, while international pledges amount to no more than $4bn in grants and $9bn in loans and most are so far unfulfilled. With the arrival today in Paris of James Baker, former US secretary of state, on a mission to garner help to relieve some of Iraq's crushing debt burden, now would seem an ideal time for Mr Bush to reach out to Europe and try to bring new countries into the coalition.
Unfortunately, there is little sign that Washington recognises a new approach is needed. Indeed, the optimism this week that Mr Hussein's arrest would be a turning point in Iraq's nation-building process may well make the Bush administration more confident that it needs no more help to stabilise Iraq. Certainly, last Monday's Pentagon directive excluding companies from anti-war countries from bidding for primary contracts in Iraq's reconstruction suggests that large parts of the US government, at least, still do not get it. That petulant diktat, vigorously supported by Mr Bush later in the week, was based on the same misguided theory of "punishment" that so deepened the rift with many of America's traditional allies in the first place and made public opinion around the world reluctant to support the US.
The reconstruction of Iraq is not a prize, but a responsibility and a burden. Fulfilling that responsibility and reducing that burden will require giving more countries, especially European allies, a stake both in the successful stabilisation of Iraq and in the benign US leadership of the international system. The capture of Saddam Hussein provides an excellent opportunity to do both.