On Dec. 13, 2003, not far from Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, U.S. forces dragged the disheveled former Iraqi dictator out of the hole in the ground where he had been hiding. In Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, charged with presiding over the U.S. occupation of Iraq, wasted no time in calling a press conference.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him,” he crowed. “The tyrant is a prisoner.” A gleeful Bremer wanted reporters to know that something momentous had just occurred. With Saddam behind bars and headed for the gallows, Bremer and other senior U.S. officials back in Washington persuaded themselves that America’s Global War on Terrorism had reached a decisive turning point. Victory was now in sight.
It was not, of course. In fact, in the immediate future, conditions in Iraq were destined to go from bad to worse. As an episode in a very long and ugly war, Saddam’s capture turned out to be a minor blip. The illusions to which it gave rise would recur in the years to follow, as other “we got him” episodes occurred, each one producing expectations that subsequent events would then demolish. In the nearly two decades since U.S. troops took Saddam into custody, the United States has celebrated many more “we got him” moments when some “high-value target” was taken off the board. None of these episodes has yielded a conclusive outcome.
The most recent such moment occurred in Syria this past week when a daring raid by U.S. special operations forces permanently took ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi out of circulation, after al-Qurayshi apparently blew himself up as they cornered him. “This horrible terrorist leader is no more,” President Biden announced with no small amount of satisfaction.
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