The capture of Saddam Hussein is an historic event by any standard. But aside from providing some dramatic footage for global TV audiences, what has really changed, for the people of Iraq, the Middle East, the United States, or the world? Despite the wave of triumphalism that has seized the Bush administration and certain U.S. media outlets, the harsh bottom lines in Iraq remain the same.

If virtually everything about the U.S. occupation in Iraq remains the same EXCEPT that Saddam Hussein has been found, the Bush administration is not going to be able to “change the subject” and declare victory in the face of the ongoing unraveling of its policy on the ground.

While the people of Iraq can breathe a sigh of relief that Saddam Hussein will never return to power, the real questions going forward are not about the behavior of the OLD ruler, but about what the NEW ruler—the United States. What is Washington going to do to fulfill its pledges to bring security, democracy, and a decent standard of living to the Iraqi people?

  • Will U.S. troops, Iraqi police and security forces, civilian contract personnel, and humanitarian aid workers continue to get killed on an almost daily basis?
  • Will Iraqis continue to suffer shortages of food, fuel, safe drinking water, housing, and jobs;
  • Will steps be taken to open up the governing process to a much broader segment of the Iraqi public beyond the Pentagon/Paul Bremer-approved membership of the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-selected individuals working in the ministries?
  • Will companies like Halliburton and Bechtel continue to be allowed to overcharge for shoddy work while qualified Iraqis and companies from allied nations are relegated to the sidelines?
  • Will Saddam Hussein and other Baathist war criminals be tried in biased courts dominated by exiles like Ahmed Chalabi and his nephew, who have serious political axes to grind, rather than in an internationally recognized tribunal?
  • Will U.S. forces continue to use assassination techniques, aggressive house raids, lock downs of entire communities, bombing raids, and other tactics virtually guaranteed to alienate the Iraqi people?

Unless these practices change, the capture of Saddam Hussein will be a symbolic event that has little real meaning in the day-to-day lives of the Iraqi people going forward.

For citizens of the United States, the capture of Saddam Hussein doesn’t change the fact that, as Senator Robert Byrd said at The Nation magazine annual dinner on December 14th, Iraq was “the wrong war, at the wrong time, fought for the wrong reasons.”

While the mainstream media focuses on what a “major league bad guy” Saddam Hussein was, it is important to remind ourselves that Iraq is a sideshow in the war on terrorism. The capture of Saddam Hussein does not necessarily make us any safer. There was no significant stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. There was no imminent threat to the United States or its neighbors. There was no operational link to Al Qaeda. There was no need to spend $150 billion and counting, to waste hundreds of American lives, to kill thousands of Iraqis, and to alienate large parts of the world, all to “get” Saddam Hussein.

While we’re speaking of history, let’s not forget that Saddam Hussein came to power in 1968 with the aid of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Let’s also acknowledge that his worst crimes occurred in the 1980s, when the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations were supplying him with military technology, tactical intelligence, and billions of dollars worth of taxpayer-subsidized loans. U.S. assistance included precursors for chemical and biological weapons and targeting information that was used to target Iranian troops with chemical weapons. If the United States had adopted some “get tough” diplomacy with Iraq then—when the crimes were being committed—it might have saved tens of thousands of lives and created conditions in which the Iraqi people themselves could have ejected this brutal dictator from power years sooner.

Driving Saddam Hussein from power now, in a war of questionable legality that has left thousands of Iraqis dead and destabilized the country for months and years to come, is hardly compensation for the complicity in his past abuses. Given the strong U.S.-role in creating and sustaining his regime, if there’s a Jessica Lynch-style TV movie about the capture of Saddam, it may have to be entitled “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

Even worse, in its “with us or against us,” “war without end” approach to fighting terrorism, the United States is arming and financing the next generation of Saddam Husseins as we speak, in places like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Djibouti, Yemen, and other undemocratic regimes. These new age dictatorships are being propped up with U.S. tax dollars on the dubious theory that supporting the “lesser of two evils” will somehow stem the spread of evil, violence, danger, and war, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps we need to pause in our national celebration of the capture of Saddam Hussein to investigate how and why our government’s policies so regularly seem to help create, nurture and sustain tyrants like Saddam Hussein in the first place. We are a democracy, after all. We should be strong enough to look at our own faults and correct them, even as we acknowledge a successful event like the capture of Saddam Hussein.

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