WASHINGTON — The capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should, in and of itself, make a major difference in the U.S.-led operation to bring peace and stability to Iraq. But it is also important to seize this opportunity and go even further. As unpalatable as it may sound, we should consider a certain type of deal with Hussein — as long as it leaves him in prison for life. That could take us even closer to success in Iraq.
First, though, just how big is this news? Obviously we have captured one of the chief nemeses of the United States. Symbolically, that is gratifying. All of those hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost family members to Hussein can hope for justice; so can the thousands of American families who have had fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters and children killed or wounded in the two major wars the U.S. has waged against Hussein since 1991. Politically, the Bush administration will also benefit as those who have been mocking it for its inability to locate Hussein will now be silenced, at least on this important point.
But the real significance of this event goes deeper. In recent months, as the pace and lethality of insurgent activity have increased, and as attacks have taken on a nationwide character, it has become clear that there is some loose countrywide insurgency driving much of the violence in Iraq. Hussein may not have operationally controlled the resistance from the spider holes he was presumably frequenting over that time, but he probably was key player nonetheless.
Knowing he was alive and free, his subordinate commanders may have resumed jobs similar to their previous ones in the Ba’athist leadership rather than jockeying for power among themselves. That probably made their work more efficient and deadly. Hussein’s ability to elude capture also surely helped motivate his followers, who in the eyes of U.S. authorities probably continue to constitute the overwhelming majority of the 5,000 or so dedicated resistance fighters that coalition troops face in Iraq.
So eliminating Hussein from the picture probably weakens the Ba’athists substantially. Most of all, however, the general Iraqi population will gradually digest the news that Hussein is not coming back. This should allay the fears of many. It should help counter the prevalent impression that U.S.-led forces do not have a good strategy for victory. It should therefore help more people clearly choose to support the coalition and new Iraqi political leaders rather than hedge their bets out of worry of a possible return to power by Hussein.
But while U.S. President George W. Bush and all of us can be quite happy about this news, we should see this as a moment to build on opportunity rather than to celebrate too much. Clearly, coalition forces are looking for opportunities for followup raids that may net some of the dozen or so top Ba’athist officials from the famous deck of 55 cards still at large.
We should go even further. As counterintuitive as it sounds, Iraqi and U.S. officials should also consider offering Hussein a deal. 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 Hussein 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 Hussein). 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.
But 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 leader 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 Hussein — and the Kurdish insurgency has largely ended as a result.
Capturing Hussein 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.