The Impact of the Capture of Saddam

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

The capture of Saddam Hussein by American forces on December 13 has the potential to have significant short and long term favorable impacts in the United States and around the world. In the near term his capture will increase support in the United States for bearing the growing financial and human costs of rebuilding Iraq.

As the cost in lives and money has mounted over the eight months since the fall of Baghdad, support among the American people for remaining in Iraq until the situation is stabilized has been declining, especially since the U.S. has not yet found any weapons of mass destruction or links between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda. In fact it was because of this growing concern on the part of the American people about the progress of the occupation that forced the Bush administration to decide to hand over sovereignty to a provisional Iraqi government by the end of June 2004, even before elections could be held or a Constitution written.

As a result of Saddam's capture, the American people are less likely to force the Bush administration to withdraw before a unified stable Iraq that does not support terrorism comes into existence. A premature American withdrawal from Iraq would have created chaos in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

Capturing Saddam will also improve the morale of the U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and make it more likely that they will reenlist when their tour in Iraq ends. As the occupation had dragged on with no end in sight and with the insurgents becoming bolder, the morale of the soldiers has declined significantly. In a recent survey of nearly 2000 American troops, approximately one third complained that the war in Iraq was of little or no value and that their mission lacked clear definition. And 40 percent said that their goals had little or nothing to do with their training. But most ominously, about half of the soldiers indicated they would not reenlist when their tours end. Keeping experienced soldiers in the Army will ensure that the returning units will have sufficient readiness to deal effectively with a crisis in another area of the world, for example, on the Korean peninsula, or a subsequent deployment to Afghanistan.

Capturing Saddam alive should help mitigate the fear among ordinary Iraqis that the U.S. with all its military might was not invincible and that Saddam could have returned and exacted revenge on those who cooperated with the U.S. and other members of the coalition. With this increased cooperation from the local populace, the coalition forces should be able to pre-empt more of the attacks on their men and women. This in turn will probably make it more likely that the citizens of other nations will support their governments sending troops to Iraq. The lack of security in Iraq has already discouraged several nations from joining the coalition.

Saddam's capture will also make it easier for the United Nations and the major continental European powers, like France, Russia, and Germany, or a major Asian power like India, to support the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Capturing Saddam alive should give more legitimacy to the decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq without a second U.N. resolution. However, the impact of the capture of Saddam on the international community will also depend upon the willingness of the Bush administration to use this occasion to heed the advice of British Prime Minister Blair to reach out and reconcile with the rest of the world, especially with those nations that did not support the invasion.

President Bush did not take advantage of the fall of Baghdad to take such a step. In the wake of Saddam's capture, French President Chirac, German Chancellor Schroeder, and U.N. Secretary-General Annan have all indicated a willingness to put past differences with the United States behind them and become more involved in Iraq.

If the Bush administration is willing to turn over more control of the reconstruction and occupation to the United Nations and to allow that body to have more say in such areas as awarding contracts and putting Saddam Hussein on trial, this will benefit both the U.S. and the international community and help stabilize the situation in Iraq. If it does not, the Bush administration will squander whatever short term gains it achieves from capturing Saddam Hussein.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.

This article originally appeared in The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper.