Saddam, Celebrity Tyrant

At the end of his long war against the Roman Empire, the rebel chieftain of ancient Gaul, Vercingetorix, was captured and brought in chains to Rome, where he was dragged along the cobblestones of the Appian Way behind a chariot to the “ooohs” and “aaaahs” of the Roman public. And while Saddam, a petty tyrant, is no Vercingetorix – who had at least a few victories to his credit – and Bush is no Julius Caesar, a similar fate awaits the former Iraqi dictator.

The dancing in the streets that never quite materialized in Iraq on the occasion of our great “victory” is being broadcast, as I write [Sunday morning] – although the profusion of red flags emblazoned with the hammer-and-sickle is no doubt a bit embarrassing to the administration.

I suppose the Iraqi Communist Party has every right to dance in the streets, right alongside noted laptop bombardier Andrew Sullivan, Field Marshall Glenn Reynolds, and the general staff of the Weekly Standard – after all, Saddam did kill thousands of Iraqi Commies even after they endorsed the Ba’athist dictatorship. Revenge – for the loss of land, prestige, preeminence – is a major feature of Middle Eastern political culture, and the planting of a booted heel on an opponent’s neck is part of the ritual.

The same forced triumphalism that accompanied our quick “victory” in Iraq is now being bloviated all across creation: it will prove just as ephemeral. Saddam was hiding in his “spider hole,” we are told, he had a gun but chose not to “go down fighting.” The emphasis on Saddam’s personal cowardice is meant to rub in the weakness of Arab resistance to the American conquerors, and demonstrate to the Iraqis that they have no choice but to give up their old mindset, become Jeffersonian democrats, and start shopping at Wal-Mart.

The capture – and utterly revolting public display – of Saddam will not matter one whit to the growth and development of the insurgency in Iraq. Its significance is all about American politics, and that is just how it is being played in the American media. Immediately, each and every Democratic candidate was somehow obligated to make a statement, and Tom Brokaw approvingly noted that today was not such a good day for Howard Dean, who was somehow – we aren’t told how – diminished by the news of Saddam’s capture. Narcissism is as much a part of American political culture as the centrality of revenge is Mesopotamian, and the correct perception that this is a personal triumph for George W. Bush has crowded out what this means on the ground in Iraq. The capture of Saddam, Americans are convinced, is all about them.

The idea that the insurgents are all or mostly Ba’athist remnants, or “dead-enders,” as administration spokesmen like to put it, was always highly dubious: contrary to what in-the-know analysts have said, and the exact opposite of what’s being reported. Saddam’s capture will make this “dead-enders” caricature even less convincing.

Resistance to the American occupation is now shifting from the infamous “Sunni triangle,” to the Shi’ite south, where Iranian influence is spreading. This is the domain of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and their party militia, the Badr Brigade. In the run up to war, SCIRI was the only Iraqi opposition group that refused U.S. funding. (This may be the only known instance of such a refusal.) SCIRI was hosted, armed, and trained, during the Saddam era, by Iran: their goal is to set up an Islamic “republic,” modeled on the one in Tehran. Their leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, was mysteriously assassinated as he visited a Shi’ite shrine in Najaf. Before the invasion, SCIRI officials predicted that they might one day fight the Americans just as they fought Saddam, and the hour may be fast approaching.

A recent pronouncement by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a powerful Shi’ite cleric, condemning the American plan to rig the upcoming elections in favor of Washington’s handpicked candidates was a shot fired across the bow. American viceroy Paul Bremer and his sock puppets on the Iraqi “Governing Council” were quick to fire back with an outright rejection of the Ayatollah’s fatwa. That the occupiers are headed for a collision with the majority Shi’ites is bad news for the War Party, and an unbelievably stupid blunder on Bremer’s part. If his days at the head of the occupation aren’t numbered, then this administration really is headed for a cataclysm of historic proportions.

In his statement hailing the capture, the President said:

“I also have a message for all Americans. The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq. We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East. Such men are a direct threat to the American people, and they will be defeated.”

“The rise of liberty”? Not when we’re opposing direct elections in Iraq, and holding up some “caucus” system that gives all power to our Iraqi surrogates.

“A direct threat to the American people”? Yeah, just like those Iraqi drones that – according to the President – were supposedly armed with weapons of mass destruction and programmed to rain destruction on the streets of Brooklyn.

The President was right, however, to warn us that the capture of Saddam doesn’t mean an end to the insurgency. If anything, this will merely intensify the violence, and not solely on account of Sunni resentment at the ignominious fate of their deposed champion. The elimination of the Saddam factor will pave the way for anti-Saddam Ba’athists (whose hatred of the old regime is rooted in clan politics), Arab nationalists, and neo-communist militants to push their way to the front of the growing resistance.

The capture of Saddam alive has the potential of becoming the biggest circus since the arrest of pop-singer and alleged pedophile Michael Jackson. The two media carnivals, I fear, will prove alike in ways that are just as obvious as they are disturbing. Both Whacko Jacko and Saddam Insane have popular nicknames that are less than flattering, and not without reason. Both lived in palaces, and now face the prospect of life in a jail cell. Their faces are instantly recognizable to millions, their alleged crimes are infamous (if not
equally so), and their respective trials will be the focus of international attention, morality plays in which the values and conceits of the judges and the judged will be enacted on the world stage.

This may be stretching an analogy to the breaking point – after all, we’re talking about a ruthless tyrant and an eccentric pop star here! – but if Saddam’s prosecutors have more on Saddam than Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon has on Jacko, they have yet to show their hand. Time magazine has a bit of a scoop, with an early report of Saddam’s interrogation in which he confirms that the “weapons of mass destruction” he supposedly had existed only in the collective imagination of the Office of Special Plans and in Dick Cheney’s dreams. Time reports:

“Saddam was also asked whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. ‘No, of course not,’ he replied, according to the official, ‘the U.S. dreamed them up itself to have a reason to go to war with us.’ The interrogator continued along this line, said the official, asking: ‘if you had no weapons of mass destruction then why not let the U.N. inspectors into your facilities?’ Saddam’s reply: ‘We didn’t want them to go into the presidential areas and intrude on our privacy.'”

These Arabs just don’t get modernity, do they? There is no privacy, anymore – especially for celebrities in the Saddam-Jacko mould. But this could prove just as problematic for the U.S. government as for the celebrity tyrant. He may prove more of a rallying point for Iraq’s Sunnis in prison than he ever was hiding in a hole in the ground. Having a talkative Saddam around creates a whole lot of problems for the U.S. that will no doubt make more than one official wish the Iraqi leader had put up a fight so they could have offed him when they had the chance. Among the embarrassing tales he might tell:

  • And, most intriguingly, the inside story on why the U.S. turned against a sometime ally.

The bidding war for his memoirs, if it hasn’t started already, is going to be hot and heavy. It’s sure to help defray his legal expenses, although the trial, if it ever comes, is bound to be delayed. There is the question of jurisdiction: will the U.S. try him, in an American court? As an “enemy combatant,” if ever there was one, he may just be delivered over to a military tribunal. The cry has already gone up to hand him over to the International Tribunal at The Hague, but this will doubtless cause an outcry from the unilateralists, and the anti-UN crowd, and the controversy will be grist for nearly everyone’s mill.

Oh, what a brouhaha it all promises to be, what a spectacle! With the economy up, for the moment, and the entertainment about to begin, Americans can rest content, this Christmas, in the knowledge that they are possessed of the two essential ingredients necessary to the happiness of an Imperial people: bread and circuses.


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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].