Tragedy, Farce, and Worse


The last-minute Surprise is a great American political tradition, but the Bush administration should get the award for the most preposterous and strategically wacky.

The death-penalty verdict against Saddam Hussein in Iraq — imposed by a US-controlled court backed by a US-protected government — was timed to give a lift to the Republicans before the elections.

But no one has yet explained why precisely the American people should celebrate what is so obviously a victory of Shiite ultras bent on establishing a fundamentalist regime. Sure, it’s fun to dance in the streets, but the Republicans might take a second look at who their partners are.

The “Islamo-fascists” that the pundit class warns us about are the group that wins if Saddam is killed. His execution virtually guarantees further civil war and American deaths. Every mother and father of an enlisted person serving in Iraq should shudder.

Further, it unleashes the Shiite death-squads against the Sunni minority, as never before, and inspires the Sunnis to step up extreme suicidal tactics, while leaving the few Christians and handful of Jews remaining in Iraq to the mercy of their sworn enemies.

And this is supposed to be good news?

One can only rub one’s eyes in disbelief at the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. The Bush administration and its apologists have used talk of democracy and freedom to justify their war on Iraq, and raise the specter of fanatical Islamic extremists as the great bogeyman of the moment. And yet what does US policy in Iraq amount to? Handing over the central state to sectarians and executing the man they hate precisely because he did not make Islamic law the civil code of Iraq.

Truly, this verdict unleashes a hell that the US will not be able to control. The US has imposed curfews and controls over the country but after the verdict was read, people poured into the street firing guns in the air — an act of both celebrators and protestors — while parades and gatherings spontaneously broke out everywhere. The Sunnis carried posters of Saddam. The onlooking Iraqi police did nothing, knowing better than to try to stop it.

What power does the US-backed government have? It can string up Saddam, but it’s not clear that it can do anything else. It certainly cannot control its future.

When you consider the charges against Saddam, the scene grows ever stranger. The crime he is said to have committed was from 1982. Some Shiites tried to kill Saddam while he was visiting Dujail. Saddam was not pleased. Some 150 people were killed and the land was destroyed, with thousands jailed and tortured. Saddam says he was justified because he was at war with Shiite Iran.

It is generally true that heads of state get upset with people who try to kill them. Bush will forever believe that Saddam tried to kill his father, for example. As a result, perhaps hundreds of thousands of civilians who had nothing to do with the alleged plot have been killed because of the invasion and occupation.

What’s forgotten is precisely who or what was supporting Saddam in the 1980s. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 with US approval. Reagan removed Iraq from its list of known terrorist countries. The US shipped weapons and the Department of Defense provided intelligence to assist Iraq. A 1983 National Security Directive said that the US would do everything possible to prevent Iran from winning. In 1983, Rumsfeld even met with Saddam to assure him of US support. The CIA supported Iraq’s mustard gas attacks on Iran.

In other words, the government that now says that Saddam has to be killed for his crimes is the very same government that supported him while he was committing those crimes. There ought to be a word more poignant than hypocrisy to describe such a case as this.

If you want to make the best case for the US’s support of Saddam in the 1980s, it would observe that despite his brutal methods of political control, he remained the only non-theocratic and relatively liberally minded dictator in the region. The country was booming commercially, it had religious liberty — Christians and Jews lived there peacefully and securely whereas they were not safe in neighboring states — and there were separate codes governing religious and secular life.

Hop forward all these years, and we see the US orchestrating the killing of Saddam in the name of making the region safe for democracy. Do the blood-thirsty clerics now cheering his demise share the democratic dream? Not likely. Had the US pulled out of Iraq years ago, there might still be a chance for pluralism. Now with the US responsible for killing Saddam, we are faced with a long and protracted internal war run by fanatics bent on killing more of their enemies.

The Bush administration must be in some form of internal meltdown, so much so that its political strategists have lost all connection with reality. It’s hard to know how else to make any sense of the idea that this death penalty for Saddam would somehow shore up electoral support for the Republicans.

And here we are repeating history again: just as the US-funded freedom fighters in Afghanistan later became the Taliban, so the Saddam killers in Iraq will form the basis of a new despotism. It’s either crazy, or perhaps the explanation is right before our eyes: the Republicans find their true foreign allies in religious totalitarians who see killing as the answer to all human problems.

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