The Man Who Hardly Matters Now is Gone
Friday, December 29, at seven in the evening here in Los Angeles, but six the morning Saturday the 30th in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein was executed, for one of his lesser crimes - the killing of one hundred twenty-eight men and boys he said had plotted to overthrow his government. All the trails on even more gruesome matters are now beside the point - the one hundred thousand Kurds gassed with what might have been our tacit approval, as at the time Saddam Hussein was also fighting the theocratic madmen in Iran who had held our citizens hostage at the embassy in Tehran and we thought needed taken out. What was Rumsfeld doing over there at the time, shaking his hand and smiling? We'll never know, and perhaps that's best. We dodged a bullet there.
The execution may make the next several months in Iraq dicey - but perhaps not much different. Saddam Hussein had been in our custody for the last several years, and no one was any longer fighting for him or his party. As he was a Sunni, the majority Shi'a had always considered him an apostate, as did the extreme Shiite al Qaeda. But that wasn't because he was a devout Sunni - it was because he wasn't much more than a brutal thug from Tikrit who ran a secular government, ruling by intimidation and torture and murder and all the rest, and making his family and friends rich in the process. He got religion in the last few years - it was useful to claim he was a martyr of Islam. He had never claimed that before, but times change. It was just another lever of power - something you grab when you're falling. The Sunnis now, it seems, consider him irrelevant, and do remember his apostasy - letting women go to school and have "western" rights, and his not shutting down all cultural stuff from the west, the music and the movies and all.
No one is fighting for him now, or against him. They've moved on to other matters. The Shi'a are clearing the south of Baghdad of all Sunnis to have an open line to the heavily Shi'a south. The neighborhoods everywhere are being cleansed. The Sunnis, now out of power, are doing everything they can not to be overwhelmed and rendered totally powerless - and the "everything they can" is pretty nasty, with a lot of car bombs. And they've got the west, Anbar Province, where any number of our troops are killed each week, trying to keep things there under control. The Kurds in the north - Sunni but not Arab - are watching it all warily, dreaming of a separate nation, or at least a separate peace. And anyone with a degree or set of useful skills is leaving - they are now in Amman or Cairo, or soon will be.
So the execution will please the Shi'a, in an offhand kind of way. The dead man is so last decade after all. Those who lost all to his vicious rule are no doubt glad to see him gone, of course. The Sunnis are rid of an embarrassment. The whole world is rid this really nasty piece of work. Fine, but the whole business looks like a show of some sort - a bit of proving something or other, and not the least what our administration would like to prove to us here, and to the rest of the world, that we finally got something right. It's too late for that, but could be worth a try. The approval ratings here, and certainly around the globe, could use a bump.
But this isn't it -
Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House, London -
It's tawdry. It's not going to achieve anything because of the way the trial was conducted and the way the occupation was conducted. Life in Iraq has become so precarious that many people are saying it was safer under Saddam Hussein - it makes the whole thing look like a poke in the eye as opposed to closure or some kind of contribution to the future of Iraq. The purpose should have been to see justice done in a transparent manner ... the trial was gruesome, occasionally farcical, and failed to fulfill its promise of giving satisfaction.
Kamil Mahdi, Iraqi expatriate, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University -
Quite honestly, I don't think much of it any more, given what's happening in Iraq. It will be taken as an American decision. The worst thing is that it's an issue which, in an ideal situation, should have unified Iraq but the Americans have succeeded in dividing the Iraqis.
Toby Dodge, expert on Iraq at Queen Mary College, London University -
The new elite were bound to go ahead with the execution because they suffered at his hands. In the long term, though, this means very little in terms of drawing a line under the last four years of occupation or creating a new Iraq. In choosing to kill him, the current government of Iraq have simply reproduced Iraqi history instead of stepping away from the past ... it completes the Islamicisation of the insurgency.
Chris Doyle, director, Council for Arab-British Understanding -
For Bush, Blair and their diminishing brotherhood of diehard supporters, Saddam's demise is their sole concrete victory in Iraq in almost four years. This should have been the crowning glory of their efforts, but instead it may pose yet another risk to their demoralized troops. For Iraqis, some will see it as a symbol of the death of the ancien regime. For some Sunnis, Saddam's death represents the final nail in the coffin of their fall from power. But Iraqis may also see this as the humiliation of Iraq as a whole, that their president, however odious, was toppled by outside powers, and is executed effectively at others' instigation.
Yeah we kind of stage-managed the thing - from advising the new Iraqi government on how to set up a court system to American legal experts training the judges and all. And we nixed the idea of this going to that international tribunal in The Hague. This was a demonstration to show everyone that the locals could handle this just fine - no need for an international war crimes extravaganza in Western Europe. It was a "look at the wonderful new government acting all grown up" showpiece. Everyone was to be quite impressed. No one was.
Josh Marshall nails it -
Convention dictates that we precede any discussion of this execution with the obligatory nod to Saddam's treachery, bloodthirsty rule and tyranny. But enough of the cowardly chatter. This thing is a sham, of a piece with the whole corrupt, disastrous sham that the war and occupation have been. Bush administration officials are the ones who leak the news about the time of the execution. One key reason we know Saddam's about to be executed is that he's about to be transferred from US to Iraqi custody, which tells you a lot. And, of course, the verdict in his trial gets timed to coincide with the US elections.
This whole endeavor, from the very start, has been about taking tawdry, cheap acts and dressing them up in a papier-mache grandeur - phony victory celebrations, ersatz democratization, reconstruction headed up by toadies, con artists and grifters. And this is no different. Hanging Saddam is easy. It's a job, for once, that these folks can actually see through to completion. So this execution, ironically and pathetically, becomes a stand-in for the failures, incompetence and general betrayal of country on every other front that President Bush has brought us.
Try to dress this up as an Iraqi trial and it doesn't come close to cutting it - the Iraqis only take possession of him for the final act, sort of like the Church always left execution itself to the "secular arm." Try pretending it's a war crimes trial but it's just more of the pretend mumbo-jumbo that makes this out to be World War IX or whatever number it is they're up to now.
The Iraq War has been many things, but for its prime promoters and cheerleaders and now-dwindling body of defenders, the war and all its ideological and literary trappings have always been an exercise in moral-historical dress-up for a crew of folks whose times aren't grand enough to live up to their own self-regard and whose imaginations are great enough to make up the difference. This is just more play-acting.
These jokers are being dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that the whole thing's a mess and that they're going to be remembered for it - defined by it - for decades and centuries. But before we go, we can hang Saddam. Quite a bit of this was about the president's issues with his dad and the hang-ups he had about finishing Saddam off - so before we go, we can hang the guy as some big cosmic "So There!"
Marx might say that this was not tragedy but farce. But I think we need to get way beyond options one and two even to get close to this one - claptrap justice meted out to the former dictator in some puffed-up act of self-justification as the country itself collapses in the hands of the occupying army.
Marty Peretz, with some sort of projection, calls any attempt to rain on this parade "prissy and finicky." [See Peretz in the National Review here.] Myself, I just find it embarrassing. This is what we're reduced to, what the president has reduced us to. This is the best we can do. Hang Saddam Hussein because there's nothing else this president can get right.
Well, something is better than nothing.
And we did try to do it right -
The physical transfer of Saddam from U.S. to Iraqi authorities was believed to be one of the last steps before he was to be hanged.
"We have agreed with the Americans that the handover will take place only a few minutes before he is executed," a senior Iraqi government official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
…"The Americans want him to be hanged respectfully," [Najeeb al-Nueimi, a member of Saddam's legal team] said. If Saddam is humiliated publicly or his corpse ill-treated "that could cause an uprising and the Americans would be blamed," he said.
And to that Ezra Klein adds -
And the last thing we'd want is to be blamed for causing trouble in the Middle East.
The Odd Quote Award goes to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: "Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him, and there will be no review or delay in carrying out the sentence."
Technically, one might argue that a respect for human rights requires only preventing him from perpetrating further human rights abuses, and that executing him is only the most drastic way of doing so. I get what he's saying, obviously, but it's still, well, odd, in a making-fun-of-a-mullet-while-wearing-a-Members-Only-jacket kind of way.
Meanwhile, American television networks are planning "tasteful coverage" of the execution, which has made me realize that the only thing more worrying than everything George Orwell said coming true is when everything George Carlin said starts coming true.
Yep, George Carlin could spin "the Americans want him to be hanged respectfully" into a fine four minutes of whatever it is he does.
But it was a good day for a hanging. We like those - this one made Jesus smile.
And anyway, Fred Hiatt, who writes the editorials for the Washington Post, said the trial that ended in the "hang him high" verdict, while not very impressive, was fair enough -
… his trial was in no sense the model of civilized justice that would have showcased a new, democratic Iraq - in large measure because that new Iraq has yet to materialize. Several defense lawyers were murdered; judges had to be replaced. Political interference was evident. Even this week, the appeals tribunal sent back one life sentence as insufficiently tough, in effect demanding death for one of the co-defendants. Still, there is something unreal about the cries of foul from human rights groups demanding perfect procedural justice from a country struggling with civil war, daily bombings and death-squad killings. The reality is that by the trial's end, there was no significant factual dispute between prosecution and defense: Saddam Hussein acknowledged on national television that he had signed the death warrants after only the most cursory look at the evidence against his victims. That, he testified proudly, "is the right of the head of state." Exactly what would a perfect trial be capable of discovering?
Due process thus is a sham, or a luxury and quite unnecessary. Of course we have due process rules in part because there are things that we might not know without those rules. But this is Saddam Hussein, so they don't matter.
Matthew Yglesias responds -
The Washington Post editorial page is mad at human rights groups for complaining about procedural flaws in Saddam Hussein's trial since, after all, we all know Saddam is guilty. Martin Peretz is upset that death penalty opponents oppose executing Saddam Hussein since, after all, we all know Saddam's a really bad guy.
Do these guys not understand the concept of principles? The point of the belief that all people are entitled to fair trials before receiving criminal sentences is that all people are entitled to fair trials. The point of the belief that capital punishment is immoral (not a belief I share, incidentally) is that it's always immoral. It's not as if Amnesty International is confused and doesn't understand that Saddam isn't a very sympathetic case. Rather, the point is that organizations committed to principles of human rights - fair trials, no executions - need to uphold those principles even when violating them sounds appealing. If they didn't, the groups wouldn't be standing for anything.
Do these guys not understand the concept of principles? That's easy. No.
Even the new German pope gets it - a "top Vatican official condemned the death sentence against Saddam Hussein in a newspaper interview published Thursday, saying capital punishment goes against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church." Cardinal Renato Martino reportedly said in reference to Saddam's pending execution that "no one can give death, not even the State." It's just the principle of the thing.
That's all just western reaction anyway. What about on the ground in Iraq? Try the famous Iraqi blogger Riverbend -
A day in the life of the average Iraqi has been reduced to identifying corpses, avoiding car bombs and attempting to keep track of which family members have been detained, which ones have been exiled and which ones have been abducted.
… Why make things worse by insisting on Saddam's execution now? Who gains if they hang Saddam? Iran, naturally, but who else? There is a real fear that this execution will be the final blow that will shatter Iraq. Some Sunni and Shi'a tribes have threatened to arm their members against the Americans if Saddam is executed. Iraqis in general are watching closely to see what happens next, and quietly preparing for the worst.
This is because now, Saddam no longer represents himself or his regime. Through the constant insistence of American war propaganda, Saddam is now representative of all Sunni Arabs (never mind most of his government were Shi'a). The Americans, through their speeches and news articles and Iraqi Puppets, have made it very clear that they consider him to personify Sunni Arab resistance to the occupation. Basically, with this execution, what the Americans are saying is "Look - Sunni Arabs - this is your man, we all know this. We're hanging him - he symbolizes you." And make no mistake about it, this trial and verdict and execution are 100% American. Some of the actors were Iraqi enough, but the production, direction and montage was pure Hollywood (though low-budget, if you ask me).
That is, of course, why Talbani doesn't want to sign his death penalty - not because the mob man suddenly grew a conscience, but because he doesn't want to be the one who does the hanging - he won't be able to travel far away enough if he does that.
Does that mean trouble is on the way? Heck, it was on the way no matter what. This just makes things a bit worse. Dick Cheney, speaking in 1992, put it well, asking a simple question in defense of not rolling on into Baghdad at the time and toppling Saddam Hussein - "And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth?"
Darn! The question has come up again. But it's too late now. Here we go. We can only hope all sides in conflict note the guy is dead and shrug.