Mission accomplished - 1991's, that is

The news of Saddam Hussein's capture is not merely an indication that the US and UK have accomplished their 2003 mission. Mr Hussein's capture represents the accomplishment of a much older goal - the goal of George W. Bush's father when he first went into Iraq.

Consider the history. Back in 1990 and 1991, President George H.W. Bush, known as a man of Realpolitik, had to respond to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The policy at that time was to guard our international Wilsonian order, to ensure that nations must respect each other's sovereignty. This comported with the then president's own career as a US and United Nations diplomat. The US and the Allies did not swear up and down they would "get" Mr Hussein. Rather, they promised they would force Mr Hussein back, to deter such breaches in future.

So much for the official line. But as Americans, Europeans, and Iraqis knew, the first President Bush, for all his diplomatic experience, did not see Desert Storm in entirely Wilsonian terms. He also saw the allied action as a moral campaign, something that fitted in with his second world war experience as a navy pilot.

In a letter to his children on the last day of 1991, he wrote: "How many lives might have been saved if appeasement had given way to force earlier on in the late 1930s or earliest 1940s?" In the same letter he concluded, sounding very much like the son we have come to know in the current conflict: "I look at today's crisis as 'good' vs 'evil'. Yes, it is that clear."

Naturally this crusading attitude was not lost on US and allied soldiers, whom it helped inspire in Desert Storm. But it was also not lost on the peoples of the Middle East, especially the Iraqis. They expected that the US would move on to Baghdad and topple Mr Hussein.

But the US did not. Mr Bush, largely because of his desire to keep the Nato alliance together, reverted to his UN self. By April 1991, he was saying: "I feel frustrated any time innocent civilians are being slaughtered. But the United States and these other countries with us in this coalition did not go there to settle all the internal affairs of Iraq." When the rescuers let the old regime stand, they sent a devastating message: a moral standard is necessary for us; it is not, however, necessary for you. Western-style freedom is necessary for us. It is not, however, necessary for you.

This fitted well with the old view of the US as a hypocrite. It seemed to prove that in the Middle East, as in the Vietnam of south-east Asia, the US was indeed the Quiet American of Graham Greene's novel. When the allies departed Kuwait and Iraq after Desert Storm, they left a hopeless vacuum.

In Iraq, Mr Hussein filled that vacuum. By April of 1993, he was already bold enough to try to assassinate President Bush while he was visiting Kuwait. By October 1994, Iraq had amassed 80,000 troops by the Kuwaiti border. And by 1998, it had stopped working with the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, Unscom. No-fly zones did not matter. Unscom did not matter. What mattered was that the west clearly did not "mean it" when it came to Iraq. A Bush-style statement from President Clinton that the US would not tolerate the Iraqi behaviour had little effect.

The ramifications of the Iraq failure were regional. The message was that regimes - however brutal - could do what they wished and the US and Britain would not stop them. It is possible to imagine the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 without its 1990s Iraq backdrop. After all, al-Qaeda built itself up in Afghanistan. Still, Iraq made September 11 more likely. That is because in Iraq, the US had ultimately proved reluctant to exercise its full power. Therefore, it might also be reluctant when attacked on home territory.

But back to Iraq: as UN violation piled up upon UN violation, a new mood took over the US. In October 1998 Congress passed, with bipartisan force, an act to "establish a programme to support a transition to democracy in Iraq". Lawmakers laid a precise framework for action after Mr Hussein's capture. The Congress "urges the president to call up on the UN to establish an international criminal tribunal for the purpose of indicting, prosecuting, and imprisoning Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi officials who are responsible for crimes against humanity," they wrote. In the same days, President Clinton called for "a new government" in Iraq.

There was a national recognition that Mr Hussein must go. Meanwhile, in Europe, especially after September 11, the talk of removing Mr Hussein also shifted to "not whether but how".

Now the "how" has happened. Shortly, the fussing will begin. We will hear that the fashion in which the US captured Mr Hussein was inappropriate, or the sort of trial that he gets is "unjust".

But this quibbling cannot obscure the good news. Mr Hussein's capture could vastly improve the authority of Iraq's transitional leaders and the cause of democracy. It will also likely yield the sort of superior intelligence that will help authorities catch the gangs who are making Iraq into a Lebanon. More generally, Mr Hussein's capture improves the hopes for democracy in the Middle East, and it improves the ability of the US to show leadership across the globe.

President George W. Bush has lived up to his father's original impulse and shown that the US does, indeed, follow through.

© Copyright 2003 Financial Times

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