The power and the snake hole

Posted: Dec 16, 2003 12:00 AM

    Ever since the Adwar snake hole yielded up a snake of the first order -- none other than Saddam Hussein -- giddy relief and exultation have swept the world. Why not? Haven't we earned it? Party on, dudes. But -- assuming I can make myself heard over the dance music -- we owe ourselves a moment for perspective.

            This Saddam thing is about a bad guy getting, we must presume, his just deserts. It is also about the means employed to make sure he gets them. It is about, in other words, sovereign power -- the power of the United States to get needful things done when no other means exist.

            American power, since World War II, has gotten a terrible rap -- depending on what Americans were doing at a given moment to exert that power, for instance, in the '80s, introducing intermediate-range missiles into Europe against the prospect of Soviet aggression.

            It is widely imputed, and not just by resentful foreigners but also by particular Americans, that we act sometimes like yahoos, what with our war-mongering and neo-imperialism and our propensity for throwing our weight around, trying to make the world jump through such hoops as our leaders wish.

            During the run-up to the Iraq war, international recriminations rained down on the Bush administration due to its determination to have done with a malicious, Nazi-like regime. The irony here was that, on the political left, comparisons of George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler abounded, whereas Saddam drew from these folk only the most routine kinds of censure, normally succeeded by pleas that we "go on talking" to him for the sake of "peace." Yes, it was conceded, maybe Saddam had some diabolical attributes. But with a long enough spoon, couldn't we sup with him a bit longer?

            Howard Dean is the presidential candidate who appeals to those who talk this way. Jacques Chirac and Kofi Annan are the models of international statesmanship to which these people point.

            Well, guess what. Saddam is in captivity. And Howard Dean did not put him there; nor Jacques Chirac, nor Kofi Annan. The 4th U.S. Infantry Division (commander in chief: George W. Bush) put him there: the spear tip, so to speak, of American "imperial" power, deployed in the right place at the right time.

            The capture of Saddam vindicates in one sense the Bush strategy of patience-cum-persistence. Perhaps equally to the point, it vindicates the understanding that sometimes you do what you have to do. This is what power is about in the end.

            I should have said "responsible power." There is a vital distinction here. Power is good, depending on the cause in which it is employed. Hitler used his power for unprecedented evil. Countervailing power and force were necessary to make him stop.

            So with Saddam Hussein, if in different degree. Forbearance we had tried already. It had failed. We fell back on military force -- "the last argument of kings" (ultima ratio regionis), as the inscription on French cannons noted, in an age when the French owned up publicly to what they knew instinctively.

            Again, military force -- as a last resort -- succeeded. The cheering Iraqi reporters at the Sunday morning press conference tipped us to just how well we had succeeded. Nationwide dancing and celebrating followed throughout most of Iraq. Suddenly, "Uncle Sam, Imperialist" looked plausible as a human benefactor. You might not have thought it up to then, had you paid undue attention to certain media and certain politicians.

            Let us give George Bush, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and other much-satirized military brains and brass the immense acclaim they are due, not just for military prowess but for moral courage. It takes moral courage to stay the course when your ideological opposites are damning you as power-happy. And if you do stay the rough and rugged course? Eventually, as we are reminded, you find that snake hole.