Saddam and Dean & beyond

It is far too early to know what effect the capture of a disheveled and dispirited Saddam Hussein will have on the war in Iraq — or on politics in this country.

For months, thousands of resistance fighters have been harrying U.S. occupation troops, ambushing and killing nearly every day, but totally unable to mount anything like a coherent military operation. Are these guerrillas Saddam loyalists? Will they give up now that their leader is in custody? Or will they be enraged and driven on to new levels of violence?

Most experts think that there is no one single group behind the fighting, and that much of it is not motivated by loyalty to Saddam at all, but by resistance to the foreign occupier — namely, us.

There are clearly many Iraqis who don’t want us there. What if the armed resistance, now freed from any worry the tyrant will come back, grows and multiplies?

What do we do then? And the bottom line, what happens to Iraq, an artificially created mishmash nation of different sects and ethnic groups, over the long run?

My personal hunch is that the capture of Saddam is likely to lead to a gradual rising of the Shiites, who are more than 60 percent of the 25 million Iraqis but who have been politically repressed for decades. They are far more likely to want an Islamic republic than some imitation of the Texas Legislature. It’ll be interesting to see how we-the-occupiers handle this.

Another great unknown: Now that we have ol’ Stinky, what will we do with him? Do we put him before a military tribunal? Do we let a puppet Iraqi regime try him? What happens after he is found guilty (any other verdict is unimaginable)?

Do we risk executing him and making him a martyr? Do we throw him in jail forever, and risk making him a rallying point? Undoubtedly, everyone on virtually every side would have liked it better if Saddam had been run over by a truck.

Instead, our problems may just be beginning.

Politically, the capture of Saddam is bound to be a huge boost to George Bush — in the short run, anyway. To many, his war now will really seem over — especially if there is a rapid decrease in guerrilla action against American forces in Iraq.

Which could put Howard Dean in somewhat of a difficult position. In the week’s second most startling political development, Al Gore suddenly endorsed Dean for the Democratic presidential nomination. What’s more, the popular-vote winner of the last presidential election said he did so precisely because of Iraq. “I realize it is only one of the issues, but, my friends, this nation has never in our two centuries made a worse foreign policy mistake,” the former vice president said at a rally in Harlem.

There are those who might think Vietnam was a contender for that title, but it is clear that Dean‘s principled stand on Iraq is what has propelled him to a long early lead, and more than likely the nomination itself.

Will the capture of Saddam shake those Democratic voters who thought the Iraq war was a bad idea to begin with? I doubt it, but the place to start watching is Iowa, which holds the first delegate selection caucuses on Jan. 19, barely a month away.

Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, from the neighboring state of Missouri, is battling Dean there. If Dean wins, then Gephardt is history. Barely a week later, Dean ought to win a smashing victory in New Hampshire, effectively ending John Kerry’s hopes. Then the race may boil down to a two-man contest between Dean and U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who ought to win some Southern primaries.

Wesley Clark is an interesting interloper, but has neither a natural consistency nor a machine to get them to the polls. The rest of the Democratic field — Joe Lieberman, Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton — haven’t a prayer.

So a family doctor and the fresh-faced former governor of somewhat trendy Vermont is likely to be the Democratic nominee for president. My guess is that he will tap Edwards, a handsome, charismatic man, as his running mate.

Yet can Howard Dean win?

If the economy keeps improving, and the war seems to be going well, the answer is probably no. But if, as I suspect, Iraq is still Iraq, and the Shrub is still the Shrub, there may be a shot. So how does Dean put together a victory?

The easiest way would be to win all the “blue” states which went for Al Gore — which is anything but a sure thing — and adding another 10 electoral votes. He could get them in Florida, of course, or Missouri. He could string together three little states Democrats lost last time — West Virginia, New Hampshire and Nevada.

But beyond that there is little hope. And most think the odds are tremendously against any Democrat winning this time, especially one from the Northeast.

So why did Gore, usually seen as a moderate from Tennessee, endorse Dean so early? Some say he did it to show up the Clintons. Others say he did it to build credit among liberals, and a few actually believe he is merely trying to unite the party.

There may be some truth in all that, but I think Al Gore’s real fear was that he might yet be dragged into a hopeless race by party leaders increasingly desperate over a field that, to be polite, lacks stature. That doesn’t mean Old Al is right.

Twelve years ago he also declined to run against a President Bush who had just won a war against Saddam Hussein. He left the field to a little-known Arkansas governor.

And guess what. As they say in downtown Tikrit, it ain’t over till it’s over.

What a country!

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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