A five-judge tribunal in Baghdad today declared Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death by hanging.
Do you feel better about the war now? More confident about the president's "strategy for victory" in Iraq? Are you more likely to vote for a Republican on Tuesday?
Saddam's sentencing was supposed to have happened on Oct. 18, but the tribunal last month rescheduled it for today, a date that happens to fall just two days before the 2006 midterm elections in the United States. Coincidence? A spokesman for the Iraqi High Tribunal insists that it is, that the question of timing belonged "100 percent" to the tribunal, and that the judges who serve on it care "nothing about American midterm elections."
Perhaps that's right. But Dick Cheney would have us all believe that terrorists in Iraq are focused on Nov. 7, so is it such a stretch to think that the judges hearing Saddam's case might be, too? In fact, Saddam's lawyers have accused the court and the Bush administration of conspiring to time the verdict and sentence to coincide with the elections. As Media Matters has noted, it wouldn't be the first time the Bush administration timed Iraq-related events with political considerations in mind. Among other things, the administration delayed assaults on insurgent strongholds in 2004 until right after the presidential election so that Americans wouldn't read of significant U.S. casualties before they voted.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow denies that the administration has engaged in that sort of handiwork this time around. At the same time, the White House isn't exactly steering clear of the gift it thinks the tribunal has left on its doorstep. The president will take a victory lap before the press this afternoon, and you can bet that the Republican Party and its candidates will use the news to full political advantage between now and Tuesday.
Or at least they'll try. Sixty-four percent of Americans now say they "oppose" the war in Iraq. Fifty-six percent believe the United States "made a mistake" when it invaded Iraq in the first place. Saddam Hussein may loom large in the minds of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but those poll numbers suggest to us that Americans aren't all that focused on him anymore. Americans know now -- or at least they ought to -- that Saddam wasn't much of a threat to them before the war; sentenced or not sentenced, he's certainly no threat to them now. This isn't a scary new tape from Osama bin Laden, let alone news that a terrorist leader has been captured or a deadly plot foiled. It's a mopping up of an old mess, one handled so badly that it has created a much bigger one in its wake.
So maybe we're underestimating the Republican noise machine, but we have a hard time seeing how today's news changes much of anything on Tuesday. Indeed, by putting Iraq back on the front page -- by reminding Americans that they've lost nearly 2,900 of their own to oust someone we didn't need to oust -- the verdict and sentence could hurt the GOP more than it helps, particularly if the news leads to even further violence in Iraq. And maybe our own views about capital punishment cloud our thinking here, but the news of how Saddam will be killed -- by hanging -- suggests just how far Iraq has to go before it's the hopeful, modern society Bush used to promise it would be.