Charles Krauthammer has an amusing and insightful piece on the way Saddam’s capture was handled:

The race is over. The Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subject, goes to … “Saddam’s Dental Exam.”

Screenplay: First Brigade, U.S. 4th I.D.

Producer: P. Bremer Enterprises, Baghdad.

Director: the anonymous genius at U.S. headquarters who chose this clip as the world’s first view of Saddam in captivity.

In the old days, the conquered tyrant was dragged through the streets behind the Roman general’s chariot. Or paraded shackled before a jeering crowd. Or, when more finality was required, had his head placed on a spike on the tower wall.

Iraq has its own ways. In the revolution of 1958, Prime Minister Nuri as-Said was caught by a crowd and murdered, and his body was dragged behind a car through the streets of Baghdad until there was nothing left but half a leg.

We Americans don’t do it that way. Instead, we show Saddam — King of Kings, Lion of the Tigris, Saladin of the Arabs — compliantly opening his mouth like a child to the universal indignity of an oral (and head lice!) exam. Docility wrapped in banality. Brilliant. Nothing could have been better calculated to demystify the all-powerful tyrant.

It was a beautiful sight. But it was more than that. It was a deeply important historical moment. More than the fate of a man is at stake here. At stake is the fate of an idea, an idea of singular malignancy that has cost the Arabs not just countless innocent lives, but a half-century of progress.

Saddam was the most aggressive and enduring exemplar of a particular kind of deformed Arabism, a kind that arose in the post-colonial era, appealed to the greater glory of the Arab nation and promised a great restoration. Ironically, its methods and ideology were imported from the West, the worst of the West. The Baath Party was modeled on the fascist parties in early 20th-century Europe. Its economics were Western socialism at its most stifling and corrupt. Saddam then created the perfect fusion of the two, producing a totalitarianism of surpassing cruelty modeled consciously on Stalin’s.

Saddam’s destiny is important because he was the last and the greatest of these pan-Arab pretenders, though he gave it a psychotically sadistic character unmatched anywhere in the Arab world. This stream of Arab nationalism brought nothing but poverty, corruption, despair, torture and ruin to large swaths of the Arab world. The mass graves of Iraq are its permanent monument.

Which is why it was important not just to capture Saddam, but to demystify him — and with him, the half-century spell that radical pan-Arabism had cast over the entire Middle East. It was important that the God-King of pan-Arabism be shown as the pathetic coward he was. It was important to finally shatter what Fouad Ajami had called “the dream palace of the Arabs.” And to banish the grotesque fantasy, perpetrated by Saddam and his acolytes in the Arab intelligentsia, that Arab greatness — once built on a magnificent civilization of science, culture and tolerance — is to be built upon blood, power and cruelty.

Austin Bay makes a similar point, which he actually made more emphatically on NPR* this morning: The fact that we took this man who we’ve launched two wars against, who we believe to be one of the great tyrants of modern times, and immediately gave him humane treatment at the moment he came into our custody says more about the rule of law than a thousand lectures.

*An aside which will mean nothing to those who aren’t regular NPR listeners: I missed the first part of the commentary and thus the speaker identification. Bay sounds just like Baxter Black, Former Large Animal Veterinarian and Cowboy Poet. I was wondering what the hell Baxter was doing talking about this subject. . . .

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.