After Saddam: Capture Provides Psychological Lift, But Iraq’s Future Uncertain

Michael E. O’Hanlon

How much does it matter that we caught Saddam Hussein, and what if anything useful – apart from bringing him to swift and severe justice – can we do with him? These questions are the two major matters to address in the aftermath of his impressive capture by soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division and other American units last weekend near Tikrit, Iraq.

First, a quick personal note. When I was visiting Tikrit on a Defense Department-sponsored delegation in September, accompanied by Maj. Gen. General Raymond Odierno of the 4th Infantry Division on a helicopter ride down from Mosul, I remember him gesturing toward the nearby hills and mountains and villages and guessing that Saddam was indeed nearby. Gen. Odierno was right. Perhaps he did not expect that it would take four more months to find Saddam, but perseverance on the part of hard-working coalition forces finally paid off.

How much does the capture matter?

Taking Saddam Hussein out of the picture is enormously beneficial. It allows a measure of justice for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Kuwaitis and Iranians who lost family members to his cruelty and military misadventures over the years. It also allows a certain justice for the families of the thousands of American troops who have been killed or injured in America’s two wars against Saddam in the last two decades.

But apart from this important emotional and moral achievement, how much does arresting Saddam change the battlefield environment and the prospects of our mission to stabilize and rebuild Iraq? At one level, we cannot yet know, since the litmus test will be in the weeks and months to come. Clearly, if we got Saddam but made no further progress in quelling the insurgency, it would be hard in retrospect to take a great deal of lasting satisfaction in December’s developments.

Fortunately, it is quite likely that taking Saddam out of the picture will have important effects on the ongoing war. We certainly have not won yet. But the basic structure of the insurgency was in our favor before last weekend, and that is even more the case now. In this light, it is hard to understand or defend the comment of presidential candidate Howard Dean Monday that Saddam’s capture did not make America safer; even opponents of the war, who have a reasonable case, should recognize that at this point eliminating Saddam from the picture improves our prospects for success in Iraq considerably.

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Admittedly, Saddam probably did not play a major role in orchestrating attacks on coalition forces. But he may have had some part. We found him with information about some lower-level operatives, suggesting that he was in contact with others who were fighting coalition forces. Moreover, knowing that he was still around, his former loyalists may have naturally fallen into a certain hierarchy, cooperating with each other and avoiding the kind of jockeying for position that often leads to internal conflict in organizations that have lost their top leader.

But the most important effects of Saddam’s capture are principally psychological. Since psychology matters a great deal in all war, and particularly in insurgencies, these should not be underrated. As long as he was free, issuing audio tapes and frustrating coalition forces, Saddam was a symbol of resistance and defiance against the United States. His ability to elude capture undoubtedly gave a sense of optimism and momentum to resistance fighters. That was particularly true after their string of deadly attacks, largely against U.S. helicopters and Italian peacekeepers, in November. The resistance was starting to gain the psychological upper hand in recent weeks. Saddam’s arrest may not totally reverse that, but at a minimum it levels out the playing field.

Other Baathist leaders and hard-core loyalists still have reason to fight on, of course. But they are not in a great position. Their numbers are limited to probably 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. They may have some support among the general population, particularly in Sunni regions, but not a considerable amount given their lack of any appealing ideology and the atrocities they perpetrated on the Iraqi people for decades.

Now, they have lost their leader and his two sons. Moreover, economic recovery is proceeding – even if slowly. And the coalition plans to return sovereignty to Iraqis next summer, making it harder to turn anti-Americanism into the rallying ideology for the resistance.

The other main psychological effect of Saddam’s capture is on the general Iraqi population. Terrified of him by years of random and wanton brutality, many Iraqi citizens continued to fear his return even as 150,000 coalition forces occupied their country. They withheld giving the coalition intelligence and otherwise hedged their bets as a result. They also sensed that America might lose in Iraq, just as it had in Somalia a decade ago (and as the Soviets had in Afghanistan and the Israelis in southern Lebanon). This contributed to a sense of fatalism and even in some cases a willingness to sympathize with or support the resistance.

Now this dynamic could change. To be sure, it will not change entirely. Baathists will still kill, as they already have since last Saturday. Americans will still be resented, even by many members of the general Iraqi population. But the appearance of strength and momentum now favor us much more than they did when Saddam was at large.

If we continue to progress in rebuilding Iraq’s economy and institutions, and keep our word to give its people back their country, Saddam’s capture – while itself hardly cause for declaring victory – could in retrospect wind up being a major turning point.

Building on our success

While Saddam’s capture, in and of itself, should make a major difference in the U.S.-led operation to bring peace and stability to Iraq, it is also important to seize this opportunity and go further.

As unpalatable as it may sound, we should consider a certain type of deal with Saddam – as long as it leaves him in prison for life. That could take us even closer to success in Iraq.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, Iraqi and U.S. officials should also consider offering Saddam a form of plea bargain. In exchange for sparing his life, and providing perhaps slightly more comfortable prison conditions than he would otherwise receive, they should ask him to publicly, repeatedly, emphatically, and unambiguously tell resistance fighters to lay down their arms.

Of course, such a deal could never allow Saddam to go free. He must spend the rest of his days in jail (and coalition authorities have a tough job on their hands to ensure that outcome while also allowing the fledgling Iraqi war crimes tribunal some independence in trying Saddam). Nor can he be offered the kind of life in luxury sometimes allowed to Andean drug lords and other foreign criminals as part of plea bargains.

Still, other countries’ experiences suggest the potentially great benefits of having a former insurgent leader publicly change his tune. That happened with the Shining Path’s Abimael Guzman, arrested in Peru a decade ago. Even more notably, it happened with the Turkish Kurd resistance leader Abdullah Ocalan. Turkey spared his life in exchange for Ocalan’s agreement to the very type of deal proposed here for Saddam – and the Kurdish insurgency has largely ended as a result.

Capturing Saddam alive rather than killing him complicates our job in some ways. But it could actually provide a great opportunity as well, if we handle it right.