The Sideshow's Over

Now it's time to get back to the main front in the War on Terrorism


"This is a great day in the history of Iraq," declared the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, when he announced that Saddam Hussein had been pulled out of his rat hole. Bremer's absolutely right: The day Saddam was captured was a great day for the Iraqi people, who can now turn more fully to the difficult and daunting task of creating a decent future for their country. Yet whether it's a great day for U.S. foreign policy is a very different matter. In two representative responses from the pro-war side of the debate, Saddam's capture has the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan humming My Fair Lady lyrics and Joe Lieberman slamming the Eliza Doolittle of the Democratic candidates, Howard Dean—even as the Connecticut senator struts his pro-death penalty stuff.

Upon hearing the news, Noonan recalled "the age when Americans whistled Broadway show tunes on the street" and praises the Bush administration for not "spinning" the capture for rank political advantage (it doesn't have to, since it has Noonan and others for that, at least in the short term). Representing a party and a political ideology that heaped scorn on Bill Clinton and the Democrats when they conceived of "humanitarian" foreign policy and nation-building, she is a latter-day convert not simply to nation- but even region-building. "America did this. American troops did this," she writes. "What do we learn? …You don't have to sit back and accept…You can take action. You can go in and remove a threat to the world. You can make the world safer. You can help people."

For his part, Lieberman couldn't make it through a brief statement without declaring, "This evil man has to face the death penalty" and that, "if Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place." Even as I recoil from the crudeness of Lieberman's ploy, I have to admire that it took him until his third paragraph to bring up the death penalty (his pro stance makes him stand out among his fellow Dem hopefuls) and until the fifth paragraph before ripping into the frontrunner Dean. Then again, foreign policy is always mostly about domestic concerns, and Lieberman (like Dean—and like Bush, too) has a political campaign to win. Contrary to Noonan's exhortation—"let's not talk about the domestic political impact"—that's really impossible.

But the removal of Saddam from power, much less his eventual capture, did very little to remove an actual threat against the United States. As has only become clearer over time, Saddam had been effectively contained long before the invasion of Iraq; the desultory performance of his army and the continuing inability to locate weapons of mass destruction underscore how degraded Saddam's supposed military might—which also failed to show up in the first Gulf War—really was.

As the Cato Institute's Charles Pena has noted, forgotten in the understandable exhilaration that has accompanied the capture of Saddam is the fact that the shift from hunting Al Qaeda to invading and occupying Iraq contravened one of George W. Bush's basic directives. "No government," said Bush before the United Nations earlier this year, "should ignore the threat of terror, because to look the other way gives terrorists the chance to regroup and recruit and prepare." Yet as Pena writes, "That is exactly what the United States did by going to war against Iraq." In fact, continues Pena, the U.S. turned its undivided attention away from Al Qaeda, "ostensibly the only terrorist group with demonstrated global reach."

Which leads to the real payoff for the U.S. in terms of Saddam's capture: It makes it that much easier for us to wind down the American presence in Iraq—something Bremer had already signaled was in the works—and to go after Osama Bin Laden and his minions with a single-minded focus. That will safeguard American lives far more effectively than the second Gulf War ever could have.