President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the aircraft carrier Lincoln is as much maligned as it is seldom quoted. That is a pity, for it was a vitally important speech. Among the many milestones President Bush marked on that day is the following:
In defeating Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, Allied Forces destroyed entire cities, while enemy leaders who started the conflict were safe until the final days. Military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war. Yet it is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.
The president could not have foreseen that the Saddamist and al Qaeda insurgency would eventually bring Iraq to the breaking point where our military power had spared it. But his fundamental point remains valid. In the modern era, the guilty will have more to fear from war than the innocent.
Dictators around the world can draw some comfort from the bloody nose America has taken since the capture of Saddam. But not much. They now know something important. Though absent from any formal articulation of international law, new standards of governance are evolving as a matter of state practice. Regimes that support terrorists or allow their territories to become sanctuaries for territorists risk elimination. Regimes that fail to account transparently for their WMD activities may be rendered transparent by force. And regimes that abuse their own people risk having to answer for their crimes eventually.
The capture, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein ends a terrible chapter in the history of Iraq, even if — thanks to the terrorists — things have gone from bad to worse for many Iraqis. Iraq has become today’s Russian Front — the terrifying center-of-gravity in a new world war.
And yet as that struggle continues, it is fitting and just to meditate a moment on something nobody could have imagined in decades past: Saddam got what was coming to him.
Dictators around the world have one more reason to think that they will get theirs too if they are not careful. America and its partners have made terrible sacrifices since the toppling of Saddam’s dictatorship. But we will never know how much suffering we saved future generations by making this example of Saddam. For the victims of future dictatorships as for the victims of his own, this just and fitting end to the career of one of the most sadistic and destructive criminals of modern times can only strengthen the vital hope that justice prevails in the end. And that is worth many sacrifices.