commentary (2007-02)

We missed the chance for more of Saddam ’s explanation of himself and his troubled land

Ending an Ugly Life

by Barry Henderson

The execution of the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein was justified as an act of vengeance. It was appropriate in that light. He and his henchmen were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people during his reign. But putting the bloody despot to death was unsettling, somehow.

He should have been kept alive, I think, and allowed to spout his venomous responses to his captivity and to those, including the U.S. government, who brought his government down and hounded him until he was taken into custody. His rhetoric underscored the depths of his regime’s depravity.

Were he taken to a court of international justice like the one in The Hague, he might have been questioned on the whole range of murky circumstances that lay behind his role as a dictatorial leader of a troubled and divided people.

That he was a murderer is beyond question. His relationships with world leaders and governments are not so clear. The fact that he was allied with the United States before and during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War might have been explored more fully, were he left alive to talk about it. It does seem ironic that during Saddam’s bloodthirstiest spells, when he was using poison gas on Iranian troops and his domestic nemeses, the Kurds, we were rooting for him or sitting tacitly by. It would have been instructive to hear more from him about those times and conditions.

Instead he was hanged on Dec. 30 in an act that seems barbarous in retrospect. The hanging has been deplored widely in both the Arab and Western Worlds. Most of his Sunni followers believed he should never have been tried and executed at all. Some of his detractors in the Shiite majority in Iraq thought what he got was too good for him. European and some Asian governments were disgusted that he was taunted by his executioners and witnesses, and that his drop through the gallows trap door was recorded by cellphone camera and distributed over the Internet.

Even President Bush suggested that the execution, which the U.S. government welcomed as a way to avoid further discussion of its earlier complicity with Saddam, should have been handled with more “dignity.”

That was a charge that was bandied about all around the globe. “Undignified.”

Well, hangings are nothing if not undignified. I don’t know how many, if any, hangings the president may have witnessed, but there is no such thing as a dignified death at the end of a rope, and if he believes that dignity is possible in that situation, Bush is dreaming again.

The president has prosecuted a war in Iraq that he keeps rationalizing as one to secure a democratic government for Iraqis, yet he fails to comprehend, four years into the war and with 3,000 American soldiers, hundreds of our allies’ troops, and untold thousands of Iraqis dead, that his stated goal of “winning” isn’t attainable in the classic sense.

History, cultural and religious differences and geography conspire to prevent President Bush from understanding the folly of our persistent interference in Iraqi affairs. He doesn’t waver from insistence on seeing an outcome acceptable to him as the only acceptable outcome of what is now a civil war among Iraqi factions. The insurgencies, as the domestic, factional side of the war is called, are over power, land, oil, and the imposition of certain religious customs onto the question of governance.

We can be of little influence in those internal matters, no matter how superior our superpower position may seem to our leader.

Bush now appears poised to expand the U.S. presence in Iraq, rather than withdraw troops and cede what central authority is left there to the existing government. That’s the equivalent of thrusting another limb into the irretrievable clutch of a tar baby. Military advice goes against further troop involvement, but Bush is not persuaded.

Had he instead pursued Osama bin Ladin and his al-Qaeda terrorists until they were brought to justice for their real attacks and threats against the United States, the president might have claimed victory in what began as a “war on terrorism” and degenerated into the morass we’re slogging through in Iraq.

A government spokesperson made a remark last week that emphasizes how far the Bush administration has strayed from reality. Questioned whether bin Ladin’s remaining at large, nearly six years after the horrors of Sept. 11 were visited on us, constituted a failure on the part of this administration, the spokesperson said, “It’s not a failure; it’s a success that hasn’t occurred yet.”

That pretty much describes, in pathetic euphemism, the entire U.S. experience in the Middle East. Anyone care to hazard a prediction of just when this country will be able to realistically declare success in that perennially discombobulated corner of our world?