WASHINGTON — When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told President Bush before dawn Sunday that Saddam Hussein had indeed been captured, she was delivering news that was good for the U.S. leader in a multitude of ways.
It will help Bush with a U.S. public increasingly skeptical of his Iraq strategy, and it will at least temporarily silence his Democratic rivals. It might also help calm the roiled Iraqi people, many of whom have been unwilling to embrace a new government as long as Saddam was at large.
The war in Iraq — which sent Bush’s poll ratings soaring and then falling to pre-Sept. 11 levels as the postwar situation grew increasingly dangerous — began March 19 with a dramatic round of missile strikes aimed at Saddam. They missed.
It would be only the first of many times over nine months that Saddam would prove elusive.
Now, having Saddam in custody is likely to pay dividends for Bush’s presidency on a number of fronts.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, speaking at a Baghdad news conference, described Saddam’s capture as a “defining moment in the future of Iraq.”
U.S. officials always have thought that taking Saddam off the scene would help defuse the still-dangerous situation in Iraq. If the deadly insurgency that has been killing American soldiers almost daily begins to subside, that could lead to a drawdown of U.S. troop levels there that would please many Americans.
“The capture of Saddam Hussein will clearly take the wind out of the sails of the Baath insurgents,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. “I think the road to a more stable Iraq is much clearer as a result of this capture.”
Having Saddam in custody is as much a symbolic prize as a tactical one.
At home, Democrats on the presidential campaign train and on Capitol Hill have latched on to the chaotic situation overseas to criticize Bush for not gaining enough international cooperation on the war and for not planning adequately for the war’s messy aftermath.
Partly as a result, the president’s poll ratings have leveled off around the 50 percent mark. They will certainly spike again, just as Bush’s Democratic rivals begin their primary battle in earnest with the new year.
Some of the president’s most fervent critics have also suggested that the Iraq war was a personal mission for Bush, saying he was only trying to complete the work of his father; the former president waged the United States’ first victorious war against Iraq but pulled out without toppling Saddam.
But there are some tricky decisions to be made ahead.
Without directly saying so, the White House had clearly preferred to see Saddam killed than captured, as having him in custody raises questions about a trial.
All this had the White House in the strange position of being in full gear early Sunday — but mostly silent.
Perhaps reflecting the desire not to gloat when U.S. troops are still in danger overseas and the fallout remains unclear, aides even declined to describe Bush’s reaction at the news.
Pressed on whether the day brought good news for the White House, all one aide would repeatedly say is: “This is good news for the Iraqi people.”