Joe Conason's Journal

Why an international tribunal may be the only place to try Saddam.

By Salon Staff
Published December 15, 2003 11:02PM (EST)

The ransom of "Red Dawn"
When George W. Bush wished "good riddance" to Saddam Hussein this morning, his sentiments weren't controversial. Few of those who opposed the war harbored any illusions about the hideous nature of the dictator's regime. His capture by American troops is an important achievement and an opportunity to bring this oppressor to justice. It may be premature, however, to slap an epitaph on him. By choosing survival instead of suicide, Saddam may be hoping to make more trouble in the months to come than he could while scuttling fearfully from one "spider hole" to the next.

Although the president has wisely avoided gloating about Saddam's snaring, not all of his political supporters are so circumspect. They will tell us that the presidential election is now preordained, possibly due to advance planning by the deity. They will assure us that the fate of Saddam, which we once were told didn't matter at all, is now of critical importance.

Last April, after attempts to kill Saddam succeeded only in massacring civilians, the White House press secretary explained that the dictator's presence or absence made no difference "in the bigger scheme of things" because his regime was coming to an end anyway. Today, with Saddam in custody, prominent conservatives predict that the success of "Operation Red Dawn" will devastate the Iraqi insurgents as well as extremists and terrorists throughout the region (and presumably, the world).

Let's hope the spin is correct, for a change, because hopes for the early return of our troops depend on the accuracy of such predictions. Yet let's acknowledge that Saddam's imprisonment may not much alter the social, political and religious factors behind the insurgency. For the sake of Americans and Iraqis, therefore, it is still imperative to internationalize security and reconstruction in Iraq -- and conclude the U.S. "occupation" as soon as possible.

On Sunday evening, I happened to be seated next to former ambassador Joe Wilson at the Nation Institute's annual dinner. Despite his disdain for the White House that attacked his wife, Wilson told me quite dispassionately that the Bush administration could make the seizure of Saddam into a real turning point by embracing multilateralism and seeking consensus on Iraq among our traditional allies -- including those that opposed the invasion.

And what about Saddam himself? As William Safire suggested this morning, the old monster may well be looking forward to his final appearance on the world stage, where he will justify his crimes and denounce his enemies in the style of Slobodan Milosevic. He is likely to argue, as he has reportedly done in preliminary interrogations, that his government was overthrown and his country bombed and devastated on a false pretext. He would surely have a lot to say that the White House doesn't want anyone to hear. That must be why the Army is more likely to hand Saddam over to an Iraqi tribunal rather than an international court.

In a persuasive essay, Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch mentions certain historical and ideological motives underlying that decision: "The Bush administration calculates that a tribunal of Iraqis selected by its hand-picked Governing Council will be less likely to reveal embarrassing aspects of Washington's past support for Saddam Hussein, more likely to impose the death penalty despite broad international condemnation, and, most important, less likely to enhance even indirectly the legitimacy of the detested International Criminal Court."

Roth argues that an internationally led tribunal would provide greater transparency and fairness. I would add that such a tribunal -- rather than a political show trial overseen by the Iraqi Governing Council -- will help to repair American and Iraqi relations with the rest of the international community. (Today's Washington Post poll, which doesn't show an enormous political bounce for Bush or the war, indicates that a majority of Americans believe Saddam "should be put on trial by a United Nations tribunal.")

The president acknowledged this morning that "whatever justice is meted out needs to stand international scrutiny." He may or may not understand what that objective would require -- and why the Iraqis so understandably eager to try and execute Saddam should be restrained.
[3 p.m. PST, Dec. 15, 2003]

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