On the death of Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator. So why does his hanging seem to be little more than an afterthought?

When we went into Iraq — shocked and awed, confident of being greeted as liberators, certain we would find weapons of mass destruction — didn’t we expect Hussein’s death would mean a new beginning in the Middle East? Now, as we struggle to find a way out, it is he who may be having the last laugh from his grave. How did this happen?

Part of it is what happens to all captured dictators. They shrink in size. Hussein just became another rambling old man with all of his power stripped away. His victims had become a faceless, almost unfathomable number, while he looked like a pitiful victim. Even his final words, released in a letter, mocked us with its call for peace and restraint from his followers who have sworn vengeance against us. Maybe Saddam wrote those words because he thought it would sway a U.S. court from handing him over to the Iraqis. Whatever the reason, Saddam inadvertently reminded us once again he was not responsible for the horrific tragedy of 9/11. We are reminded Osama bin Laden is still free, so Saddam’s hanging lacks relevance for most, except George W. Bush.

Maybe it would be different if Saddam’s death came while a new democratic Iraq sprang from the ashes of his atrocities. Instead, the killing continues unabated. We haven’t freed Iraq from torture and death; we just exchanged the tyranny of dictatorship for that of chaos and civil war. I am not one to make the cynical case Iraq would have been better off if Saddam were put back in power. But I am not the one without adequate water or electricity. I am not the one who has seen his family raped and murdered by one of the death squads roaming the country. So, on the simplest level, our failure to give the Iraqis something better in return for the death of their dictator robs us of any righteous exultation.

There is another darker reason for our moral confusion in the face of Saddam’s execution. We were once complicit in his atrocities. Page through the old photographs at any newspaper morgue and you will come up with one circa 1982 of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. The youthful Rumsfeld doesn’t yet have the distinguished salt-and-pepper hair of the mature architect of shock and awe, but he still has that jaunty manner, that cocksure smile of one who is never wrong, who never has to say he is sorry. Saddam’s hair and beard are coal black. He has the glint in his eye of one who enjoys raw power. Perhaps this is the picture taken after Rumsfeld sealed the deal with Saddam whereby we would send him military assistance to keep Iraq from losing its war with Iran. It turns out Saddam also would use the weapons to slaughter the Kurds and his Shiite enemies, too.

Sure Saddam was a mass murderer back then, but he was our mass murderer, our guarantee the oil would keep flowing. Who knows? If Saddam hadn’t gotten greedy and tried to take over Kuwait’s oil fields when George Herbert Bush was president, perhaps he’d still be in power today, our buffer against Iran and its nuclear ambitions. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "Isn’t it pretty to think so?"

So they have hanged Saddam, but no one on this side is predicting his death will make things better. The president no longer is willing to stake his faltering performance on the rosy supposition that, as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down. He wants to pour more troops into the quicksand of certain defeat. This president is reckless with civilian lives, too. Believe it or not, Mr. Bush is still deploying American civilians — buyers and contract administrators and the like — to Baghdad, even though the situation inside the green zone is sure to become almost as unsafe as the outside areas. These are civil servants doing jobs routinely handled by people with a desktop computer hundreds of thousands of miles away. If a person in India can provide technical help or perform telemarketing for the U.S. market, why do we feel the need to deploy American civilians to Baghdad to do desk work? Why provide additional kidnapping targets for terrorists?

The tyrant is dead. Long live whomever or whatever replaces him.

It is ironic: In a week when James Brown, Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein passed, Saddam’s death would be the least meaningful for most Americans.