A few days ago, I talked to some of those involved with the Bush administration's Iraq policy. They all wanted the same Christmas present. Saddam Hussein. They believed that his death or capture would be of great assistance to the President's policy. The same is true of the President's politics. In the polls, support for the Iraqi venture has been dropping. This does not mean that a majority of Americans would like to pull out, but it does mean that there are worries.
When I was in Washington, news broadcasts were full of interviews with a National Guardsman (military reservist) who was unhappy about being called up to serve in Iraq. He was never asked why he had joined the National Guard in the first place if he was only interested in the perquisites and not in the obligations. But the interviewer's sympathetic tone reflected the anxieties of middle America as well as the bias of the liberal media.
The President has been insisting that Americans would never leave Iraq with a job half done. That rhetoric has resonance. In the penumbra of danger prevalent since 11 September, a President can summon his fellow Americans to their duties. But he cannot deal with all their doubts.
The administration has been saying that the US will keep right on until the end of the road. A lot of voters were not sure if there was an end - or even a road. Saddam's capture will reassure them.
It will also be of immense strategic assistance to the coalition forces in Iraq.
In the final stages of the ground war, there was a fear that instead of ordering his men into the field for suicidal engagements, Saddam would instruct them to hide themselves in penny packets throughout the towns and villages of the Sunni triangle, including Tikrit. While this did not happen on any large scale, the Americans estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 Saddam supporters have still been willing to fight. But only a small minority of those are al-Qa'ida-style fanatics. Most of them are former Ba'ath party officials, the underlings of kleptocracy and torture, who were still hoping that a Saddam restoration would restore their way of life. They may now be demoralised enough to give up.
For millions of other Iraqis, there could also be a morale change, in a diametrically opposite direction. Saddam ruled by stamping fear into the Iraqi psyche. Such a prolonged, pervasive reign of fear cannot rapidly be eradicated. This helps to explain the ambivalence about the American presence that has emerged from all the reliable reports which I have read.
On one hand, many Iraqis resented the Americans; on the other, they were afraid that the US would suddenly leave. In that case, they assumed, Saddam would be back, inquiring of his loyal subjects how they had been passing their time over the past few months and what steps they had taken to show their loyalty to him. The wrong answers could lead to an early visit to the reopened torture chambers.
All that was a powerful disincentive to public displays of loyalty towards the coalition authorities. The capture of Saddam will create a different atmosphere. It will help more Iraqis to believe in their own future. Hitherto, the coalition timetables for handing over authority to new Iraqi institutions have seemed unrealistic. Now, they merely seem optimistic.
One question will have to be resolved. "Dead or Alive'', the "Wanted'' posters in the Wild West used to say, at least in the films. It might have been more convenient if Saddam had not been taken alive.
Eighteen months ago, a US senator was talking to Richard Armitage, Colin Powell's deputy at the State Department about Osama bin Laden. "I hope we capture that sonofabitch Bin Laden,'' said the senator, "and parade him through Kabul in a cage.'' "I hope we kill him, tie his bullet-ridden body to the ass-end of a donkey, and parade him through Kabul that way,'' replied Mr Armitage. "But hell, I'm only the diplomat.''
However exposed, Saddam's corpse might have been an easier solution. There are bound to be disputes over the code of law, the judges and the penalties. But these should not be impossible to resolve. Saddam ought to be tried by an Iraqi court, and there is no need to go into every detail of his atrocities. The prosecution case could be reduced to one indictment: crimes against humanity. One crime, one penalty: a felon's death on the gallows. It is hard to believe that a post-Saddam tribunal would be afflicted by squeamishness, however much embarrassment that might cause Tony Blair.
At least we are now arguing about trying Saddam instead of wondering what damage he will inflict next. This is a great day, not only for the coalition forces, but for the downtrodden population of Iraq. It is also good news for those of us who believe that the safety of the world is best secured by American strategy and the re-election of George Bush.Reuse content