On Saddam's Capture
The capture of Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13 is an occasion to reflect on the military and political purposes of the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
The first question that had to be asked after the World Trade Center attacks was, clearly, “Who was causing these fanatical yet deadly operations?” Was it merely a one-shot strike or did it portend a systematic effort to destroy us?
Obviously, no particular nation declared war on us, though a rather large group of Muslim operatives — often claiming world-conquest aspirations, motivated, in their view, by Islamic religious purposes — did show they meant business.
They proved able to cause havoc in modern cities even without modern weapons or delivery systems. Generally speaking, under the aegis of Osama bin Laden, an international group, evidently employing covert bases in several Muslim countries, did claim responsibility.
And they proved that, with influence all over the world, they could cause graphic destruction. They could not be ignored. We officially call the perpetrators “terrorists,” as if they belonged to some new-fangled third-world country. For both political and religious reasons, we do not officially acknowledge the existence of a religious source that must itself be reckoned with.
A modern state, indeed any state, is first responsible at a minimum for the physical protection of its own people. In the case of the United States, it is in practice responsible for the protection of many nations and peoples, perhaps of the civilization itself.
The official documents of Al-Qaeda and others leave no doubt that more than the United States can be objects of their terror. One can talk of “peaceful means” or diplomatic “initiatives” to solve such problems. These have their place, but they are not necessarily initiatives that, when the chips are down, in fact protect anyone.
Contrary to a popular saying, war does solve some problems that a failure to fight only makes worse. In today's circumstances, there are times when proportioned but effective and powerful military response is called for and prudent, to prevent both immediate and long-term attacks.
The U.S. government recognized that in spite of variously motivated criticisms from all over the world, it was not free to ignore this threat from a new kind of enemy, one not itself a nation-state, one having bases in many areas.
A strategy had to be developed on a worldwide basis and quickly. The first principle of this strategy was that any national state that involved itself with supplying, harboring or encouraging the “terrorists,” instead of stopping them, would itself be considered an object of war. This is how both Afghanistan and Iraq came into the calculation.
The second principle, implicit rather than explicit, was that the closed political and socially intolerant world of Muslim states had to be changed in certain basic premises. Some form of a more open society had to be developed in which non-Muslims were not persecuted or given second-class status and in which the people of the Muslim countries themselves could have a better chance to govern their own states.
If a Muslim-populated state that found a different economic and political model could arise from within Islamic states, the key step could be taken to transform the inner workings of the Muslim world that has proved so rigid and narrow.
The elimination of the tyranny of Saddam made this effort at least a hope and possibility in Iraq, not unlike the efforts in Germany after World War II.
Ultimately, this change involves a theoretical question of the truth of Islam, but this question is rarely acknowledged even by Christians — especially by Christians.
Whether these military and political efforts can continue to be successful depends largely, as the Islamic terrorists themselves recognize, on the “staying power” of democratic societies, particularly the United States, notorious for concentrating on themselves and usually slow to see or back up long-range programs that see further down the line than the next election. It has been the strength of President Bush to proceed with a determined will, careful, plodding in a way but relentless.
He seems to be under no illusion that there is a real enemy with a real desire to undermine our society. He knows certain armed elements have to be contained or eliminated if the physical safety of the American and other people can be guaranteed. It is no accident further attacks have not taken place.
They have been largely prevented.
There is not much glory in preventing such attacks, but it is the foundational work that must be undertaken if we are to be free and safe. In this sense, there are many heroes we will never hear of.
After Saddam's capture, someone on the radio said, “The world is waiting to see how the United States treats Saddam.”
“Typical propaganda,” I thought. One might wonder why so few worried about how Saddam treated his own people and why no one but the United States and its too-few allies were willing to do anything about it. That Saddam was captured suggests the American policy of steady, careful information acquisition and military action works.
What would have happened had we not gone into Iraq? Would international pressure or peaceful means have changed the regime? I, for one, judge that it is naïve to think so. There is a legitimate hope that Iraq can set up a different kind of regime. Indeed, it is doing so. The terrorists now have to prove they can still react, so we should not be surprised if they do. But they also know they will not be left alone to enjoy their terror.
One final thing that might be noted. Many young, sometimes very young, Muslim men have killed themselves to kill others in suicide attacks. Mostly those who are killed by these attacks are women, children and innocent citizens.
Saddam did not imitate this example. He did not go down in flames killing others. Bin Laden has not followed this example, either.
This terribly immoral quasi-religious practice about the nobility of killing innocents does not get the condemnation it deserves. But neither does the example of leaders who choose their own lives prove anything but that even they think this sort of violent death in killing others is wrong, at least for themselves.
The capture of Saddam is a major event. He will still have many admirers and sympathizers. We should not be overly astonished by that. Those who think we should have done nothing or should have done something else remain mostly unconvinced by any military or political success.
Those of us who think we would not be safe by doing nothing think the action made sense. In the end, a tyrant has been removed from power in the only way, for all practical purposes, he could have been removed. This is no small feat.
Father James Schall is a professor of political science at Georgetown University.
- January 4-10, 2004