April 8, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Hitler, Elvis, Saddam

What if we never find out for certain whether Saddam Hussein is dead or alive?

What if – Hitler-like – Saddam has now vanished, with most of the world presuming he's buried under tons of rubble but with some “experts” speculating that he made a last-minute escape from Baghdad, moustache shaved, dressed in a soiled burqa like an old woman, hidden in plain sight among refugees of war, heading for Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia? What if even the most sophisticated forensic detectives turn out to be no match for the explosive power of a “bunker buster”? What if for years there are reports of Saddam-sightings from Buenos Aires to Ramallah?

From a military point of view, it makes no difference whether Saddam is alive or dead, in captivity or on the loose. Once we are certain he has been cut off from his weapons, his money and his thugs he won't pose much of a threat to Americans, Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Israelis or other civilized peoples.

Some will argue that if he is alive, Saddam will now become another Osama bin Laden, one of the “hundreds” that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has predicted this war will create. But the fact is that even bin Laden is not the terrorist he used to be – not since American military forces pried Afghanistan from al Qaeda's claws.

And bin Laden, at least, has had some experience operating within a subterranean environment. It is unlikely that Saddam – who is accustomed to palaces and personal trainers – would prove adept at organizing a terrorist campaign from a cave in the Hindu Kush or a shanty town in Mogadishu.

Even al Jazeera viewers must be slowing coming to comprehend that Saddam's reputation as a strategic thinker was exaggerated. He lavished billions of petro-dollars on his military machine – with ample assistance from France, Germany, Russia and others. In the end, that machine has held up about as well as a Ford Pinto at a monster truck rally.

Saddam evidently counted on winning this showdown by relying on the Appeasement Movement – the United Nations, France, Germany, Russia, the European and American Left and the neo-isolationist Right – to keep President Bush on a short leash. When that didn't work, he no doubt hoped to create a river of blood, enough casualties – U.S., British or Iraqi, it didn't matter to him – to cause a renewed outcry from that same motley crew. Such an outcry, he expected, would lead to demands for a negotiated settlement. Such a settlement would leave him and his regime standing yet again, thus demonstrating that he could successfully defy the Great Satan (or, Hyperpower, to use the term the French prefer) and that would have been celebrated as a great victory in parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds, and in parts of Europe and America as well.

Slowly, Iraqis are allowing themselves to believe that Saddam's reign of terror just might be over, that this time the monster will not rise from the grave. In northern Iraq, the Kurds were waving American flags from the moment the first airborne troops touched their soil. But now there are increasing reports and pictures of Iraqis in all regions of the country openly welcoming coalition forces, denouncing Saddam and cheering Bush.

It's possible that Saddam's portrait, along with bin Ladin's, will continue to be displayed in Arab capitals. But I'll be surprised if, over the next few years, many Arab parents name their children “Saddam.” As bin Ladin has so insightfully remarked: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”

Bin Laden looks less and less like a strong horse. And Saddam, based on his final trot across the world stage, resembles only the retreating portion of the equine anatomy. Will young Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia really want to emulate these examples, as Mubarak believes? Or will one lesson of Saddam's last days be that, in the 21st century, slaughtering infidels is a high-risk occupation with little opportunity for advancement? And might another lesson taught by Saddam and bin Laden be that it's time for the Islamic world to think seriously about joining the Free World?

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism.