Mission Re-accomplished!

The capture of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein means one thing and one thing only: the 2004 presidential election is now underway.

The Republicans and their media operatives will exult and wax poetic about the capture, using the opportunity to start defining the public debate over foreign and domestic policy. Since no weapons of mass destruction have been found, the focus of the conflict will appreciably shift from that goal to ending the rule of a brutal tyrant. And the old canard that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 11 September attacks has already been resurrected with the subtle shots of gauging New Yorkers’ opinions about Mr. Hussein’s official demise.

Why New York? Why does their opinion carry more weight than in other major American cities? Simply put, it serves a political purpose and nothing else. The underlying message is that Saddam and 11 September are inextricably linked, and his downfall is recompense for the attacks. By looking to New York, the message gets reinforced, and the entire invasion is now cast in terms of getting Mr. Hussein and nothing else.

It’s already begun, what with wall-to-wall coverage over the capture and expanded cable news coverage, replete with reports of people “erupting in joy.” Those who find no fault in the Bush Administration will now taunt their anti-war opponents (especially the Democratic presidential candidates) with the deceptively simple question: “Still think it wasn’t worth it?”, as if these people have some vested interest in leaving Hussein in power or on the run. Indeed, Senator Joe Lieberman threw the first punch at Howard Dean -- who opposed the war in the first place -- with the same, small-minded vindictiveness of a Republican agent. Mr. Lieberman’s comments strongly imply that Iraq and the war on terror are related, when the reality is, they are not. That if Mr. Hussein had been left in power, America would still be under a threat -- an argument that has decisively been refuted by the available intelligence. But it makes for a good sound-bite.

The political bump that Bush will receive is inevitable in these cases, and for the White House, it’s a welcome respite from the “mission accomplished” disaster that was staged several months ago. And this will invariably factor into Bush’s campaign commercials which will portray him as a valiant warrior fighting to keep America safe. It will play well in Middle America -- which can be so easily duped -- and among a wide swath of the population who believe the capture of Mr. Hussein will mean an end to attacks on American soldiers. It remains to be seen if there are louder calls for the military to return home now that Mr. Hussein is no longer Iraq’s most wanted fugitive.

The American voter is a notoriously unsophisticated specimen, subject to the notion that he’s an independent thinker while in reality, molded by what he sees and hears via broadcast journalism. Worse, the American voter has a very short memory and will dismiss any more calls for investigating the intelligence that was used as justification for the war in the first place. The capture of Hussein has all but closed the door on that. Republican operatives have been crying for months that “it doesn’t matter any more,” and that mantra will become louder now that Hussein is in custody. They will insist that his ouster was the true, noble goal of the war, accomplished by way of sophistry to compound several unrelated issues together and top it off with an appeal to “morality.” It’s worked in the past, and given the abysmal reasoning powers of the American voter, it’s bound to work again.

The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean an end to anything in Iraq: the reconstruction efforts will still require a heavy military presence and billions of American dollars. There still exists a viable resistance movement that Mr. Hussein may or may not have been directing, his taped calls for jihad notwithstanding. At this point, while many Iraqis will undoubtedly feel better that Mr. Hussein is out of the picture for good, their living conditions and the reality of the occupation has been breeding a different type of contempt that has nothing to do with Mr. Hussein’s status. Electrical grids still give out, goods are often scarce, and there is enough robbery and killing to still cause residents to long for the order Mr. Hussein’s Ba’ath party so ruthlessly implemented. If the situation doesn’t improve with an influx of rebuilding, Saddam Hussein’s capture will be a brief respite only.