Saddam Hussein’s capture and eventual trial, if properly conducted, could begin a new and more positive phase in the saga of the United States and Iraq. Or it could devolve into a continuation of the pattern of exploitation of Saddam’s monster image that the Bush administration has adopted throughout the conflict to justify its actions.
Saddam Hussein was the most useful kind of villain—maximally useful to his enemies as a symbol of evil even as they destroyed him.
If there is any doubt about this, one need only witness the near-universal judgment that while Saddam Hussein’s capture is a military victory, it is primarily a political victory for President George W. Bush. Mere hours after the news of the capture, pollsters moved to gauge the effect of the event on the president’s popularity. The news media immediately turned from discussion of Saddam to the length of the “boost” that Bush would get from the capture.
In and of itself, Saddam’s capture has little real effect on the ongoing Iraqi conflict—it is an afterthought to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Saddam had ceased to have any real significance almost immediately after the first tanks rolled over the border from Kuwait. In subsequent months his sons and heirs had been killed, and his military infrastructure scattered in disarray.
Despite his terrible crimes, Saddam had been so weakened in the last decade that he was no longer a danger to the world, although he continued to oppress the Iraqi people. He had been contained so tightly that he would likely never have been able to deploy his purported weapons of mass destruction—if they even exist. He was easily toppled in March, and on Dec. 14, just as easily captured.
Saddam’s earlier, highly publicized crimes allowed the U.S. administration to exploit him as a bogeyman with impunity. Not only was invective and violence directed against him for his real crimes, but also for crimes he did not commit—most prominently the terrible tragedy of the attack against the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
When the U.S. occupation began to go sour, with attacks against troops resulting in more deaths after the invasion than during, Saddam was conveniently blamed for masterminding the opposition in spirit, if not in person. In fact, there are many disparate opposition groups fighting U.S. troops, largely without central control. As even U.S. officials now acknowledge, the attacks will continue for the immediate future.
Finally, U.S. administration officials and supporters tried immediately to squeeze the last drop of political juice from his capture in a manner particularly patronizing to the long-suffering Iraqi citizens. The picture they painted was one of an entire population cowering in fear and unable to move forward for fear that Saddam would return.
In the best of all possible worlds, Saddam would be tried by Iraqis in open court, where every mystery concerning his rule would be revealed to the world. Such an event would have a cleansing effect, allowing the Iraqi people and the world to move forward. It would show the world that the United States was committed to the rule of law, advocating treatment of even the worst criminals with equanimity. To his credit, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has called for just such a trial.
However, Saddam may know so much that the United States will try to control the proceedings. The ghost of Hermann Goering, who revealed every embarrassing skeleton in the Nazi closet at Nuremberg, hangs heavy over Saddam’s trial.
Having him alive and talking to the world may implicate his captors in a particularly uncomfortable manner. The decade-long Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s is one particularly thorny event, in which the United States is complicit in supplying intelligence support—and perhaps weaponry—to Iraq. The conduct of current U.S. government figures, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, and indeed, President George H. W. Bush during this period is especially problematic. Saddam can easily make the case that if he had not been boosted by the United States, he would never have been the international threat he was purported to be.
Providing Saddam with an open speaker’s platform in court will undoubtedly be uncomfortable, but it is the right way to proceed. The world will then see the real Hussein, rather than the symbolic villain the United States has been fighting for the past two years. The United States will survive the embarrassment arising from its past intemperate behavior. However, more important is for Iraqi society to experience the healing of the “truth and reconciliation” that will come from such an event.
William Beeman teaches anthropology and directs Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of the forthcoming book, Iraq: State in Search of a Nation.