Iraq Is Bush's Tar Baby

In commenting on Saddam Hussein’s trial, President Bush should have steered away from the subject of international law. Under international law, Saddam is right — he’s still the legal president of Iraq.

Don’t misinterpret any of this as a defense of Saddam. He deserves to be hanged, shot, chopped into little pieces, etc. His abuses of the Iraqi people are too well-known to be repeated.

Nevertheless, it is important for us to keep our facts straight. Saddam was not overthrown by the Iraqi people. He was overthrown by the U.S. Army. Furthermore, the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in his overthrow, was, under international law, illegal as heck.

Iraq was not at war with us. Iraq had not invaded us or even threatened us. It had not attacked us. Furthermore, it was in compliance with United Nations resolutions. That’s why President Bush could not persuade the U.N. Security Council to endorse his invasion. That’s why practically the whole world opposed our invasion.

It would have been better if Saddam had been kept on ice until a permanent government was elected in Iraq and we were on the way out. No matter what we say, this trial will be viewed by many in the Muslim world as a show trial staged by the Americans through their puppets in order to justify America’s invasion of Iraq. President Bush said publicly two years ago that Saddam should be hanged, so there is not much point in pretending that he’s going to get a fair trial. Americans are holding Saddam and his cohorts, and American lawyers trained the judges who will try him.

In fact, a fair trial could be embarrassing. When they try him for gassing the Kurds, his lawyers should certainly produce the U.S. Defense Department investigation that blamed the gassing on the Iranians. When he is tried for crushing the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions in 1991, his lawyers should point out that the U.S. government incited them to rebel and then stood by while Saddam’s forces crushed them.

And, of course, they can point to American assistance given to Saddam’s government through most of the 1980s.

Saddam’s trial, coupled with the constitution just passed — though there are clouds concerning the vote — will probably aggravate the divisions in Iraq rather than heal them. As bad as he was when he had power, some Iraqis will inevitably take the position that while he is a blankety-blank, he is our blankety-blank, and Americans should butt out of Iraq’s business.

At any rate, the president should not point to this trial as an example of international law. His administration has flouted international law too often. Saddam is not being tried by an international-war-crimes tribunal. He’s being tried by an Iraqi court essentially set up under our direction.

One final point to remember is that the Iraqi people who hate Saddam are not asking for justice. They want revenge. They would like nothing more than for us to physically hand him over to the survivors of atrocities so they could tear him to pieces and drag his body parts through the streets. At the same time, the old Baathist remnants are demonstrating in favor of him and calling him a hero. International law is no more popular in Baghdad than it is in Washington, D.C.

It’s too bad the Uncle Remus stories have been banned for political incorrectness. Somebody should have read the president the story of Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby. Like Br’er Rabbit, the president’s anger caused him to strike out and kick Iraq, and now he’s stuck fast, like the rabbit was stuck to the tar baby.

I don’t remember who said it, but it is certainly true that it is always easier to go into a country than to get out of it.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.