"A dark and painful era is over," President Bush told America and the world after the weekend news of Saddam Hussein's capture outside Tikrit. The talking heads on television agreed; in opining that Saddam's arrest was a watershed event of the first order, most used words like "huge," "enormous," and "profound" to characterize the impact his capture would have on the domestic political scene.
End of what era, though? The situation on the ground in Iraq is as muddled today as it was yesterday. And while it made great television, the capture of a clearly broken tyrant will be seen, when the real historians get around to writing this all up, as much ado about nothing.
Does anyone honestly think that the scruffy buzzard we saw on television this past weekend was the guy somehow calling the shots in this Iraqi intifada in which we are currently embroiled? Does anyone seriously believe that Saddam of late has been functioning like the Joker -- Batman's nemesis -- pulling all the strings from some high-tech subterranean lair? Will we all in the next month or two witness a glorious end to armed resistance in Iraq?
Don't bet on it. The evidence suggests that many if not most Iraqis have over the past six months been perfectly capable of holding two thoughts -- hatred of Saddam and resentment of the occupying forces -- in their heads at the same time. And while the scriptwriters are probably already hard at work on the made-for-TV movie that will give Bush's Great Capture the golden glow it deserves, there is still a real world lurking out there beyond the movie scripts.
The administration may come to rue the day that Saddam Hussein didn't go out ingloriously, like his sons. Dead men, after all, tell no lies, and Saddam's capable of spinning more than a few, even still; disheveled and disconsolate, he's still very much alive.
Unlike that other jailed megalomaniac, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam will be able to paint himself as a genuine victim of bad circumstance, a reformed tyrant who was trying to play by the international community's rules until the U.S. put forward its own definition of what made him a menace to society. This focused upon the vaunted WMDs, remember? And while Fox News will scoff at the argument, Saddam will insist that, since there were demonstrably no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the real war criminals were the folks who took unilateral action against his country under false pretenses and killed thousands of innocent civilians in the process.
Exactly who will pass judgment on Saddam Hussein? A jury of his Iraqi peers, appointed by the Provisional Governing Authority? That might play in Peoria, but it sure won't in Pakistan, Palestine, and plenty of other places. What about the World Court? The Bush administration seems unwilling to go there, having made clear its opposition to yielding the issue to an international tribunal that A) can't be controlled and B) may not impose the tidy climax of a death sentence.
This isn't the happy ending of the "Democracy in the Desert" movie, folks. It's only the intermission.