Snuff film

The video of Saddam Hussein’s execution is shaky and grainy and lasts only two minutes, but by showing the world what happened when he was put to death, it crystallizes the ugly reality of the new Iraq.

Executions ordinarily are solemn affairs, ritualistic in their formality and designed to showcase the rule of law. Hussein’s was instead a celebration, with hooded guards taunting the condemned man and cheering their Shiite heroes. The message it sent to Sunni Iraqis was that the Shia who now control the government care more for sectarian revenge than justice.

And it did incalculable damage to the hope for a unity government in Iraq. Hard-line Sunnis afterward took to the streets to demonstrate their utter disillusionment, while more moderate Sunnis—those who still seek reconciliation—could only wonder what the future held for them with such a government in power.

Ironies abound. One thinks of the infamous 1983 photograph of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld, President Reagan’s special envoy, shaking Hussein’s hand. The dictator was in the midst of a disastrous war with Iran he’d started three years earlier, and we, like our allies the Saudis and the Israelis, saw him as the lesser of two evils—and so we sold him weapons and provided invaluable intelligence information, despite being fully aware of the extent of his butchery. Even so, Iraq was lucky to come out of the war with a draw—after eight years and the deaths of nearly 2 million people.

Twenty years later, then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld headed up a U.S. invasion of Iraq that he said would be a cakewalk. Now, three years and 3,000 American lives later, occupying U.S. forces are bogged down in a nasty and unwinnable contest with insurgents, while the country has a Shia-led government that is cozying up to Shiite Iran, one of the members of President Bush’s “axis of evil.”

Such unwelcome unintended consequences are often the price of hubris, especially in the Middle East, which has a way of chewing up invaders and spitting them out—a historical reality of which the Bush administration apparently was profoundly ignorant. As this paper noted in February 2003, right before the invasion, the Bible warns, in Proverbs 16:18, that “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”