Saddam's trial a calamity

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

The trial of Saddam Hussein has resumed. It has been going on for seven months -- a day here, a day there -- providing the former Iraqi dictator the chance to make the odd speech, to challenge the jurisdiction of the court and, in short, to turn the entire proceeding into a metaphor for the American occupation of Iraq: chaotic, endless and, worse, meaningless. The way things are going, the trial is more about George Bush than Saddam Hussein.

How this has happened is almost beyond comprehension. The Bush administration was out to make two points, one political, the other ideological. It was important for the trial to be an all-Iraqi operation, and it was equally important to impose the death penalty.

So we are all stuck with a trial that has become a microcosm of the way the Bush administration planned and executed the war itself. On most days, it has been a sputtering charade, which somehow has managed not to highlight the many crimes of Saddam Hussein but to obscure them. This is an important point, for behind the stated reason for the war itself -- ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction -- was the repellent nature of Saddams regime. It was no mere run-of-the-mill Middle Eastern dictatorship, like that of next-door Syria or, in its own way, Iran, but a place where the state could murder casually and with impunity -- and often did.

It was a place of torture. It was a place of massacre. It was a place of unspeakable terror. It was a place where children were killed. It was a place where women were raped. It was a place -- just to cite what happened to the Fayli Kurds, a small ethnic group from near the Iran border -- where families were rousted from their homes, the men separated from the women (and never seen again), the women raped and abused and sometimes forced at gunpoint across the frontier into Iran. Some died of exposure in the mountains and some died of fatigue and some were killed in the crossfire of Iraqi and Iranian troops then fighting their war in the 1980s. So far, none of this has been mentioned at the trial.

For many who supported going to war in Iraq, the nature of the regime was important, even paramount. It is disappointing that this no longer gets mentioned. I suppose the handwriting was on the wall when Michael Moore failed to mention Saddams crimes at all in his movie Fahrenheit 9/11. Years from now, someone coming across the film could conclude that the U.S. picked on the Middle Eastern version of Switzerland. Now, all the weight is on one side of the moral scale.

But what would have happened if the war had actually ended back when George Bush stood under that Mission Accomplished banner? The U.S. combat death toll then was 139. (Its now approaching 2,500.) Would it have been worth 139 American lives to put an end to a regime that had murdered many thousands of its own people and had been responsible for two major wars? After all, arent some of the people who want Washington to do something in Darfur the same people who so rigorously opposed the Iraq War on moral grounds? What if we could pacify Darfur -- immense, arid and without population centers -- at the cost of 139 American lives? What is the morality of that? Two hundred thousand have already died there. Should we intervene?

Pardon me for raising the question without answering it. I do so only to discomfort, if I can, some of the people who are so certain of their moral righteousness when it comes to the Iraq War. I want to know why the crimes of Saddam Hussein never figure into their thinking and why it was morally wrong -- not merely unwise -- to topple him. Raising this question in no way excuses the Bush administrations incompetence, fibbing, exaggerations and the way it has abused American democracy. All that remains -- but so does the lingering question about morality.

This is why the trial of Saddam Hussein is such a calamity. The only redeeming element of this wretched war is its moral component -- the desire of some people to do good by ridding the world of a thug and his regime -- and that story, once so simple, has been obfuscated by delays and antics. We have somehow turned a criminal into a clown. Its a metaphor, its a commentary, but mostly, like everything else about this war, its just a damn shame.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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