IS IT TRUE that the United States is no safer with Saddam Hussein in custody?
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has a reasonable argument that the war to overthrow Mr. Hussein has not, on balance, improved U.S. security. It did eliminate Mr. Hussein's ability to threaten his neighbors and pursue nuclear weapons that he or one of his sons might have someday wielded aggressively against another state. And it has contributed to Muammar el Kadafi's decision to give up Libya's weapons of mass destruction.
But at the same time, the war exacerbated Arab anger at the United States, failed (to date) to produce a stable Iraq and gave Osama bin Laden additional arguments to use against the United States when stoking the anger of his faithful.
I find the threat posed by Mr. Hussein to have been so great - and the damage to America's image caused by keeping sanctions on the Iraqi people and U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia so considerable - that this argument about America being no safer after the war to overthrow Mr. Hussein does not convince me. But the point is admittedly arguable.
Similarly, if Dr. Dean's comment is taken to mean that the current threat of direct terrorism against the United States has not diminished since Mr. Hussein's spider-hole capture, it has further plausibility. The immediate risks to the United States were hardly different on Dec. 14 than on Dec. 12. Al-Qaida, not Mr. Hussein, poses the most acute threat to this country's territory and citizens, which explains why we could have an orange terrorism alert even though the Iraqi dictator was in custody.
Despite the Bush administration's claims, there have been only minimal contacts between al-Qaida operatives and Iraqi Baathists over the years, with no evidence of any Iraqi role in 9/11, as Mr. Bush has acknowledged and as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has just reaffirmed. So taking Mr. Hussein off the street did not, in one sense, make America safer, at least not from this particular threat.
But these charitable interpretations of Dr. Dean's comment only work if the comment is taken out of the context in which it was first spoken, and only if one adds further explanations, such as those above, that Dr. Dean did not provide. When Dr. Dean made his claim in his Dec. 15 speech in Los Angeles, he was not assessing the overall effectiveness of the war but responding to the specific effects of Mr. Hussein's capture.
"The capture of Saddam is a good thing which I hope very much will help keep our soldiers safe," he said. "But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer." Unfortunately for Dr. Dean, and for a Democratic Party that may soon nominate him, it is very difficult to sustain this position.
The chief reason Dr. Dean is wrong is that Mr. Hussein's capture should significantly help coalition forces quell the Iraqi insurgency and help produce a stable Iraq. That outcome will make America much safer, perhaps only marginally at first but more and more over time.
Of course, Mr. Hussein was not the sole cause of the violence against U.S. troops in Iraq. As Dr. Dean argued recently in Iowa, U.S. casualties did not decline after Mr. Hussein's capture relative to their levels of the week or two before (though they have been significantly lower than in November).
But the overall number of insurgent attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq have dropped a good deal since mid-December. This decline began before Mr. Hussein was found, but it continued thereafter. And intelligence leads that the coalition has developed since finding Mr. Hussein have roughly doubled the rate at which Iraqi insurgents have been arrested of late, to more than 80 a day.
If coalition estimates of the total number of Iraqi resistance fighters are roughly correct, and there are no more than about 5,000 hard-core foes of the coalition still to contend with, such an attrition rate for enemy forces bodes very well for the future success of the mission.
Taking Mr. Hussein out of the picture should help the counterinsurgency effort in intangible ways as well. He definitely helped motivate and focus his followers in their resistance efforts, even if he did not directly control or coordinate most attacks.
His ability to elude capture gave a sense of confidence to those who hoped they could drive the United States out of Iraq. That Mr. Hussein was still at large also put fear in the hearts of average Iraqis, who continued to believe he might return to power, reducing their inclination to cooperate with coalition forces and help build a new, stable, peaceful Iraq.
So capturing Mr. Hussein had beneficial effects on the U.S.-led counterinsurgency in Iraq. We have not yet won, and we probably would have prevailed anyway. But arresting Mr. Hussein increases the chances of quickly and decisively defeating the resistance while helping Iraqis build a new government and society.
It is unambiguously a good thing that should help produce a stable Iraq in a strategically critical part of the world for the United States.
Dr. Dean's decision to be argumentative about whether Mr. Hussein's capture made us safer may feel good to many Democrats tired of Mr. Bush and his policies. But it does not survive serious scrutiny on the merits of the issue, and can only be justified by taking it out of the context in which it was spoken.
If Democrats want a serious chance in November's election, they need either a different candidate or one who learns how to handle more thoughtfully the key strategic issue of the day.
Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.