December 18, 2003 | Front Page Magazine

Symposium: Snatching Saddam

Saddam has been captured. What does this development signify for the Iraq war and the War on Terror? Frontpage Symposium explores the issue with three distinguished guests: James Woolsey, director of the CIA from 1993-95 and a former Navy undersecretary and arms-control negotiator; Jacob Heilbrunn, editoral writer and staff member of the Los Angeles Times, in Washington, DC; and Cliff May, President of the anti-terrorism think tank Foundation For the Defense of Democracies

FP: Gentlemen, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium today. Let's begin with the obvious questions: What is the significance of Saddam's capture? What are the implications?

May:  The significance of Saddam's capture should be apparent from the faces of the cheering crowds in Baghdad and Dearborn, Michigan.

Hundreds of thousands of Saddam's victims are dead and buried — for them, Saddam's ouster and capture has come too late. But there also are hundreds of thousands of Saddam's victims still alive, as well as the relatives and friends of those he ordered murdered, tortured, mutilated and raped. Hopefully, they can still feel satisfaction seeing Saddam disarmed and exposed as the coward he is.

The former Iraqi ruling class has lost it leader and symbol. Some will no doubt lash out in a final fury. Others will resolve to fight on – unwilling to make the transition from Baathist aristocrat to kabob seller or, worse, prison inmate.

Deluded reporters, editors and editorialists will continue to refer to such criminals as “the resistance,” a slur against all those who have resisted tyranny in the past.

If President Bush wants to put up a new banner, this one should say: “One more Mission Accomplished.” An important battle has been won in the global war against the ideologies that justify and drive terrorism. But it was only one battle. There will be many more to come. History tells us that we can't reasonably expect to win all of them. What we are fighting is not really a small war – it's a big war, comprising many small battles.

It is likely that Osama bin Laden will now dispatch more trained Jihadi terrorists to Iraq. That represents an opportunity. As tens of thousands of terrorists were trained over the years in Afghanistan, Lebanon and at Salman Pak south of Baghdad, we pulled the covers over our head. Now, we have no choice but to fight this trained terrorist army. So we might as well fight them in Iraq, where we have skilled men and women ready, wiling and able to get the job done.

Dictators around the world today are shuddering. The clever ones are likely calculating that is no longer as safe as it once was to indulge in genocide even within the privacy of one's borders, and that threatening the United States may be ill-advised so long as the U.S. has a leader who responds to threats – even if Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac and Ramsey Clarke don't agree that such threats have become “imminent.”

Heilbrunn: Saddam's capture is utterly insignificant and has been ballyhooed by the Bush White House simply to distract attention from the imbroglio in Iraq itself. A credulous press corps, coupled with an inattentive public, has permitted the administration to stage one publicity stunt after another rather than face the grim truth that creating a stable Iraq is a hopeless task.

Something along these lines is congealing into conventional wisdom among opponents of the war. But Saddam's capture is momentous, even if Bush himself has failed to pound home the lesson sufficiently that the strongest case for war was not a direct threat to the U.S., imminent or not, posed by Hussein, but his decades of depredations against his own people and neighbors.

Woolsey: It's the end of the beginning of the struggle to free Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

Saddam's capture itself is a great achievement — finding one individual even within the Sunni Triangle, still a large portion of a large country, protected by his clansmen is not nearly as easy as kibbitzers suggested.  We — US intelligence and the military — failed to find Mohammed Aideed in Mogadishu in 1993 although we had many troops inside this one city and were pressing an intense manhunt.  The FBI took five years to find the Atlanta Olympics bomber looking inside a portion of the US.  The only people who opine that manhunts are easy are those who have never tried to conduct them.

The capture will bring despair to Saddam's supporters in the Arab world and there are still a substantial number, even if, as among the Palestinians, he is admired not for what he has done but for the fact that he opposes the US and Israel.  This despair will further weaken his supporters in Iraq and will substantially contribute to defections and to assistance being provided to the coalition.

He may inadvertently provide some intelligence in interrogation, although he will try hard there and in the coming trial to reverse the impression, which comports with reality, that has been left my his ignominious and humiliating capture: that he is a killer but not a fighter. But very useful intelligence may come from the documents that he foolishly kept with him.

There's still a great deal to do — years worth in Iraq, decades worth in the Middle East — before this region is moved sufficiently toward democracy and the rule of law for it to contribute to peace instead of to terrorism and proliferation.

Back to work.
FP: What kind of trial do you think would be appropriate for Saddam? Is there a certain kind of trial that is important to have for the sake of the de-baathification of Iraq, as well as for the War on Terror in general?  What would you personally see as “justice” in this case?

May: There should be a war crimes tribunal in Iraq, led by Iraqis, with whatever assistance they require and request from foreign legal scholars and international judges – excluding those who opposed Iraq's liberation. That means, of course, that there is not much of a role in this for the UN.

The trial should uphold high legal standards. The burden of proof must be on the prosecution.  But the main purpose should be to expose before Iraqis and the world the crimes Saddam committed against humanity—crimes the international media were reluctant to reveal. (Recall Dan Rather's interview with Saddam shortly before the invasion – there was not one question asked about the gassing of the Kurds, the ethnic cleansing of the Marsh Arabs, the summary executions of dissidents, the Scud missiles shot at Israel, the attempt to annihilate Kuwait.)

For justice to be done, those who suffered under Saddam Hussein must be given an opportunity to speak out about the pain inflicted on them and their families. They should have a chance to ask Iraq's neighbours and the rest of the world why they didn't care, why for so many years they turned their backs on the people of Iraq while aiding and abetting Iraq's oppressor.

Heilbrunn: A trial held by Iraqis but with international advisors would have a salutary effect, not only for Iraqis but the region generally. It would be a history lesson for the world. The photos of an enfeebled Saddam have already been helpful in dispelling the preposterous dreams of glory, of an obliterated Israel and cowering U.S., that his reign awakened among many Arabs. Perhaps the central lesson of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials, which dragged on for more than a year was to show the German people, in stark detail, the barbarism of the Nazi regime. It's hard to imagine that Egyptians, Saudis, Iranians, and Syrians won't draw lessons about their own rulers, though Hussein was–how nice to be able to use the past tense!–obviously in a class of his own when it came to terror.

Had Hitler been at Nuremberg, I suspect many would have been stupefied at how little there was to the man. This snivelling mediocrity managed to plunge the world into war? Something similar is already happening with Saddam. After decades of being surrounded by yes-men, Saddam has only a tenuous grip on reality and lacks the ability to make rational assessments of his adversaries–a trait that he demonstrated, again and again, in his disastrous foreign adventures. It's doubtful that he even has a hard grasp on what weapons of mass destruction, if any, he possessed.

It's important to remember that Nuremberg was about holding the top Nazi leadership to account as well as the Generals. Iraq will require more than the trial of Saddam Hussein to make some kind of break with the past.

And the most interesting part of the trial for the U.S.? A detailed accounting of Saddam's former relations not only with the U.S. in the 1980s, but also Western Europe. That would make some people in high positions squirm indeed.

Woolsey: The Iraqis should be permitted to take the lead, probably under their new law establishing a tribunal for such cases.  This law permits foreign participation — e.g. three Iraqi, one American, and one British jurist might be reasonable.  There is no reason for the UN, the Hague, or nations that had no hand in freeing Iraq to be involved other than to provide evidence (fine for Iran to show evidence of Saddam's use of chemical weapons, e.g.).  Saddam should have counsel, who should speak for him — he should not be permitted to turn the trial into an opportunity to make speeches, although some short statement might be allowed.  The trial should proceed relatively expeditiously after it begins, probably this spring or summer, with large amounts of material introduced into evidence via documentary submissions but some witnesses invited to give testimony.  The death penalty should be available to the court.
FP: The Left is now unsurprisingly gnashing its teeth with the capture of Saddam. Can the Left get any more degenerate and pathological? What does it say about the psychology of a milieu that gets angry and sad that a despot as evil as Hitler and Stalin has been arrested?

Woolsey: The hard-core left continues its policy of giving a free pass to Saddam, Castro, and other despots and — like the hard-core right — need not detain us further, except that their pathologies should be the object of careful study to help us figure out how to continue to defeat them and their fellow totalitarians (as we did in WW II, the Cold War, Iraq, etc.).

Some define themselves as being at least partly on the left because, e.g., they are willing to pay higher taxes in order for everyone to have health insurance.  A number of us old Scoop Jackson Democrats could be said to be in that group on various issues involving health care, the environment, etc. Solidarity Forever.

The most interesting part of the left in today's terms are those who argue that we could have defeated Saddam more easily, and indeed could do a better job now of pacifying and moving Iraq toward decent government, if we would just acquiesce to the views of, say, the Government of France and the UN Secretary General.  Mark Steyn in today's Wall Street Journal has this group's number.  He says that they have “the air of a gormless twit in a drawing-room comedy coming in through the French windows every 10 minutes and saying, 'Anyone for tennis?'”
May: Ambassador Woolsey is quite right, as he usually is. The phenomenon we are now witnessing might be called the emergence of the Post-humanitarian Left. There's been nothing quite like it since the days of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

(There are exceptions, dissenters on the left. Christopher Hitchens springs to mind. But such leftists are a fairly small minority and they are seen as apostates by their fellow leftists. And, by the way, even Christopher, clear-eyed as he is about Iraq, can't seem to condemn with equal vigor the slaughter of Israeli children by Palestinian terrorists.)

For the Left to cut slack to dictators and despots who call themselves Communists or Socialists would not be news. They've done that for generations. Jim mentions Castro. Among the others: Stalin, Ho Chi Min and Robert Mugabe. And how many times have we seen, when some well-known old Communist dies, The New York Times running an obituary sympathetically chronicling the life of a determined if thwarted idealist?

But for the Left to act also as apologist and enabler for Islamo-fascist dictators such a Saddam has to be seen as a stunning development.

This is, indeed, a phenomenon that deserves comprehensive study. But I think that the brief explanation is that the Left, facing failure and irrelevance, has decided that it has no choice but make common cause with the only anti-Western movements that still have energy: The anti-globalization paranoiacs and the Islamist totalitarians who are now also in alliance (along with anti-Americans and Jew-haters of various stripes).

Heilbrunn: The Left, Jamie? Some on the Left supported the war–Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Mitchell Cohen, co-editor of Dissent, and so forth. A left-wing, humanitarian, human-rights wing exists that believes taking out Saddam was undeniably a good thing.

What's more, opposition to the war was not illegitimate or confined to the Left. Don't forget the realists from 41 E.B. (era of Bush 41) like Brent Scowcroft who thought Bush was headed for disaster. And speaking of someone on the right gnashing his teeth over the Iraq war–What about Pat Buchanan?

FP: Mr. Heilbrunn, you can't possibly be serious. Yes, there are always some exceptions. But the hysteria against Bush/America in this war is overwhelmingly a leftist phenomenon and a pathological one at that. Go to any anti-war rally and who do you find? Leftists. All because a few leftists dissent against the Party Line and a few people from other political spectrums have problems with the war, does not change the reality of the anti-war lunacy being a leftist phenomenon.

Heilbrunn: I haven't made it a practice to attend any anti-war rallies, Jamie, so I can't pretend to the expertise that you apparently have in this department. But my strong suspicion is that fervent opposition to the war, such as it is, remains confined to a small fringe. With the GOP en route to a likely 2004 victory in the House, Senate, and Presidency, I'm sceptical that any significant leftist phenomenon, as you put it, really exists in the U.S. Now Europe, there's another matter entirely.

FP: To suggest that there is no significant leftist phenomenon in our midst in the U.S. leaves me speechless. We must be living on two different planets. I think we will have to continue this argument in another forum. Mr. Woolsey, you want to say something here?

Woolsey: There is no single body of opinion today, if there ever was, that can be called “Left” or, for that matter “Right”.  As I noted above, I guess I would be considered by some as listing to port on health care and the environment and to starboard on bashing Baathists.  So which list defines my position on the political spectrum?  It depends on what subject you're talking about.

Some people have migrated across the political spectrum, but not all parts of them: some members of the generation who in the seventies were called “neocons”, because they were newly conservative, shifted their views on foreign policy but not on domestic.  So, Neocons or Paleolibs?

Further, the most important intellectual of the 20th century in the struggle against totalitarianism, in my view, was George Orwell.  He was most definitely a man of the left his whole life.  Yet he proved more deadly to Communism than any ICBM force, beginning with the publication of “Homage to Catalonia” — his seminal work which chronicled for a generation how Spanish democracy's ostensible allies, the Communists, came to be as big a threat to the democratic left in Spain as the Fascists Orwell was facing in combat.

The point is that the central divide, in both the 20th and now in the 21st century, on the right and on the left, is between those who are committed to democracy and the rule of law and those who believe in rule by fear and assassination.  It doesn't matter whether those who have rallied to Saddam's cause have done so because they consider themselves to be leftists or admirers of Timothy McVeigh.  On the questions that really matter Orwell and Hayek are brothers under the skin, as are Hitler and Stalin, Saddam and the Dear Leader.

FP: Gentlemen, let's turn now to the Democrats. What you think about how the Democratic presidential candidates have dealt with Saddam's capture and Iraq in general? What does it say about the Democratic Party?

Heilbrunn: As for the Democratic candidates, they're really spectators at this point. Howard Dean's appeal to the Democratic base won't fade, but if Bush manages to subdue the insurgents by mid-summer, the issue of a bungled Iraq will. The U.S. has the upper hand, for the moment, in the propaganda war inside Iraq, which is really half the battle. Given that Bush has been lurching back and forth on the issue of whether Iraq should be a democracy or simply stabilized, I wouldn't be surprised if the capture of Saddam may have gone a long way toward bolstering the president's own resolve.

Woolsey: Of the serious candidates, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt have supported the use of force to free Iraq, and they have voted for the war and the funds to support it.  Although they have criticized various actions by the Administration their criticism has seemed to me to be reasonable within the context of a race for the Presidency and they have made some sound points.  Joe Lieberman has been particularly candid and forceful.

Howard Dean has said that he wanted Saddam disarmed and for the US not to quit in Iraq, but he has consistently opposed the steps and funds necessary for both disarmament and perseverance.  He also stated that the “most interesting” theory behind the executive branch's opposition to publishing certain materials about the Saudis is that the Saudis gave President Bush advance warning of the attacks on 9/11.  I consider the former behaviour duplicitous and the latter remark despicable.  I do not believe he is qualified to be President.

Regarding the other serious candidates, I can't at this point figure out what their views are on this question.

May: Again, I agree with Jim and would just add these footnotes: Joe Lieberman has taken the opportunity to throw some hard right hooks at Howard Dean – the first blows landed against the doctor in the entire primary contest to date For example, in his first major foreign policy speech on Monday ((12/15)), Dean asserted that, “the capture of Saddam has not made America safer.”

To which, Lieberman replied: “If he truly believes the capture of this evil man has not made America safer, then Howard Dean has put himself in his own spider hole of denial.”

Lieberman added: “I fear that the American people will wonder if they will be safer with him as president. …Howard Dean hardly talks about the war on terrorism. …The American people are not going to elect someone who doesn't want to fight terrorism.”

Dick Gephardt, the other Democratic candidate who has been consistently strong on national security, has been less rhetorically deft but he may be using Saddam's capture to gain traction in Iowa – where he is the only Democratic candidate who stands even a remote chance of stopping Dean's momentum.

John Kerry and Wesley Clark have been trying to have it both ways in regard to the war in Iraq and the broader War on Terrorism. As a result, they have not been able to deal in any effective way with the capture of Saddam.

John Edwards is simply MIA. The other Democratic candidates – Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton — are not serious contenders for anything except guest appearances on Saturday Night Live and are not worth talking about.

FP: Well, our time is almost up. Any final thoughts? Mr. Heilbrunn?

Heilbrunn: Both Jim Woolsey and Cliff May seem to believe that the Iraq war and capture of Saddam will have dictators around the globe, or at least in the Middle East, trembling. I doubt it. The Middle East does not resemble Eastern Europe, where the opening of the Hungarian border to Austria set off a chain reaction that resulted in the collapse of the Warsaw pact. The difference in the Middle East is that the Warsaw pact was held together by an outside force, while Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other countries have established their own repressive regimes. Look at how tough the sledding is in Iraq itself, where a functioning democracy seems a hope rather than a reality.

What's more, for all the furor surrounding Bush's pre-emptive war doctrine, I don't think it amounts to all that much. The Iraq war looks more like a one-off affair than a sustained attempt to topple dictatorships around the globe. If Bush were so eager to promote democracy, or, more modestly, simply to eliminate enemies, as the pre-emptive doctrine would indicate, then why is he behaving so cautiously towards North Korea? What about Taiwan? Bush is far more cautious than his critics or his admirers are ready to concede.

FP: Bush is proceeding cautiously toward North Korea and Taiwan for obvious reasons – and caution is crucial. In terms of Taiwan, China has tremendous leverage on the dynamics involving North Korea, as well as Pakistan, the War on Terror in that sphere etc.  There are a lot of tough things to balance here. Mr. May and Mr. Woolsey, what are your thoughts on this?

May:  Mr. Heilbrunn is setting up straw men and knocking them down. The point is not that dictators around the world are trembling. The point is rather that they now have to factor in the possibility that they may end up suffering the same fate as Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar.

Compare that to the days when our response to threats, aggression, and terrorism was to draft subpoenas and fire cruise missiles into empty factories and abandoned tent camps.

Imagine the conversation today between say, the Pakistan president and his cabinet on whether to give offense to (A) al Qaeda or (B) the Americans. Imagine how that conversation would be different had we refrained from securing regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And where did Mr. Heilbrunn get the idea that the Bush Doctrine is “a sustained attempt to topple dictatorships around the globe”? On the contrary, the President has made it very clear (to anyone paying attention) that his administration will deal differentially with different regimes — North Korea is a case in point. (I have no idea why Mr. Heilbrunn has mentioned Taiwan in this regard.)

As both an admirer and occasional critic of Mr. Bush I am quite willing to concede that he is cautious – as he should be. “Pre-emption” is merely one arrow in the American strategic quiver. It needs to be there because in a world afflicted with terrorism and the proliferation of WMD, we cannot expect to know for certain when a threat has become imminent. We must have the latitude to choose to act preemptively. We should not do so promiscuously but only when we judge that such extraordinary measures are prudent.

This is a vital component of 21st century strategic doctrine and it's disappointing that Mr. Heilbrunn and so many others fail to grasp it.

Woolsey: To paraphrase something Mister Kennedy once said to Mr. Nixon, I don't recognize myself as the straw man Mr. Heilbrunn seems to want to debate.  Who said that dictators “around the world” will “tremble” as a result of the Iraq War and Saddam's capture?  What a goofy notion.

This won't occur because the US can't and won't go off and serially start attacking the world's 43 dictators (down from 45 after the recent misfortunes to befall those of Liberia and Iraq), nor does anyone seriously advocate or believe that.  Nor did I understate the obvious differences between the Middle East and Eastern Europe (although the world has gone from 20 democracies in 1945 to 121 today, according to Freedom House's count — note to Mr. Heilbrunn:  there are not 101 countries in Eastern Europe.  So something more has been occurring than democratization there.)

A further thought for Mr.Heilbrunn.  Even very powerful nations can't do everything at once.  I suspect that the Bush Administration is being cautious about North Korea because in spite of its nuclear programs and the risk that it would sell plutonium or highly enriched uranium to terrorists (as it now sells to all sorts of rogues its two main exports, ballistic missiles and heroin), the Administration figures that al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Iraq constitute a pretty full plate for a while.

But it is rather significant, I would submit, that Bush announced over a year ago that the twin criteria of work on WMD programs and willingness to sell their products to terrorists are the characteristics which could trigger preventive war against a regime.  I would say that definitely amounts to something, but I think that as a doctrine it deserves praise, not furor. Whether it was wise to state it publicly is another matter.

Heilbrunn: I plead guilty as charged–to Jim Woolsey. I was wrongly inferring from his remarks that he subscribed to May's contention in this forum that dictators would “tremble” around the globe.
But I'm glad to see that my own preemptive strike did succeed in arousing a skirmish. Now it's time for a truce, guys. 
I'm not sure I was contending that Bush wants to upend dictators around the world; rather the reverse. The administration may also be the victim of its own hypertrophied rhetoric. In seeking to define a new era, something almost every administration seems prone to, the Bushies trotted out preemption. But the U.S. has always reserved the right to attack, if necessary, and sometimes employed less exacting standards, so how revolutionary is the Bush program?
I instanced Taiwan merely as a sign that Bush does not always seek out confrontation with dictatorial regimes, but, rather, to propitiate them when deemed necessary. So I don't think May and I are at loggerheads here.
And I wholly agree with May that it would be nice if the ouster of Saddam would unnerve other bad guys. Whether it's actually had that effect is another matter. It's certainly given America's allies a few sleepless nights.
FP: Well, well, so we depart in peace with one another. Very fitting for the holiday season. It was a pleasure to have been graced by your presence gentlemen. Jacob Heilbrunn, Jim Woolsey and Cliff May, thank you. We hope to see you again soon.

Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Soviet Studies. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz's new book Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of the new book The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev's Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist.


Read in Front Page Magazine