The capture of Saddam Hussein raises a troubling question for Howard Dean and other critics of the war: What if this were a movie?
Let me back up for a minute. You see, I have an odd habit. OK, I have many odd habits, but that's not important right now. The relevant one is that sometimes, during major international events, I ask myself, "What if this were a movie?"
The reason I ask this question is threefold. First, I'm an incurable movie buff. Second, I find this to be a useful means of reducing the basic morality of a situation to a simple narrative. And, last, I think many people, including the majority of Americans, do the same thing.
For example, World War II was a hugely complex world-historical event with layers upon layers of interconnected subtlety, nuance and intrigue. But, at the end of the day, most people rightly see it as the familiar Hollywood story: Good guys joining up to stop bad guys.
The events leading up to Pearl Harbor may have been far more complex than a mere sneak attack, and it may be true that stopping the Holocaust was a motive discovered after the fact, but when it comes time to make the movie, that stuff ends up on the cutting room floor.
Conversely, some events don't make for good movie plots. World War I, a metaphysically stupid and disastrous event, is just too complicated and, more important, too morally ambiguous to make for a good plot.
It's true: Some events make America look bad. Bill Clinton, for example, understood this when he lied about not knowing about the genocide in Rwanda. What kind of movie would it make if a million men, women and children were being slaughtered with machetes while the U.S. cavalry stood by and did nothing? Clinton saw that the only defense in the eyes of history was that we didn't know it was happening.
Now, I should offer the caveat that this is not always the greatest way to look at the world. Policy shouldn't always be set by Walter Mittys who see the whole world as a movie set. But, it is a useful means of sifting out essential moral elements.
Ronald Reagan was notorious for doing this very thing, and whatever faults you may have with his foreign policy notwithstanding, his penchant for dividing the world between "freedom fighters" and tyrants worked out very well for him and for humanity.
One irony is that prior to Ronald Reagan, conservatives were usually denounced for not seeing the world through such a moralizing lens. Richard Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's realpolitik disgusted liberals (and many Reaganites) for its complete lack of sentiment and morality. A second irony is that today liberals are donning the green eyeshades as they bean-count costs and benefits in the face of staggering moral truths.
And that's why I think Howard Dean is in big trouble. When he says we aren't better off with Saddam in chains, he is essentially saying that it's utterly inconsequential that one of the greatest mass-murderers of the post-Hitler and Stalin era has been stopped. From a purely cold-hearted and calculating perspective, he may have an argument, though I don't see it. Ultimately, Saddam himself was a weapon of mass-destruction and his defiance of America encouraged our enemies.
But seen through a moral prism there's simply no defensible case on his side. In other words, what if this were a movie?
Imagine a film - set against the backdrop of a global war on terror - about a dictator who launched vicious wars of aggression for personal gain, causing death and destruction on a massive scale. Imagine a movie where the tyrant uses rape the way the IRS uses audits and where untold hundreds of thousands of citizens are murdered.
Imagine sitting in the theater as the first half of the movie recounts one scene of torture and mutilation after another. Then, enter the good guys. Risking exposure to chemical and biological weapons, they ride in and depose the tyrant, taking extraordinary care to spare the lives of civilians. They free a political prison of hundreds of children. They pull the tyrant from his rat hole and deliver him to justice.
Now that's a feel-good movie.
Yes, you can make the Kissingerian case that the war wasn't as good for America as the Bush Administration claims. That's a fair argument. But Dean & Co. thinks the whole war was a mistake. Indeed, he only "guesses" it was a good thing Saddam was deposed and he still insists the war wasn't a net good. Indeed, Dean insists his spoilsport interpretation of these events is what qualifies him to lead America. I think voters will reject him at the box office.