There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing a brutal tyrant like Saddam Hussein in the judicial dock, on trial for one of the outrageous crimes he committed against the Iraqi people. Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense policy and foreign affairs at the libertarian Cato Institute, said Saddam’s trial has the potential to be “cathartic for the Iraqi people who were brutalized by this thug for decades.”
Despite some criticism from human-rights organizations about how the trial is being conducted — defendants and their attorneys are not allowed to sit together, some of the research behind prosecution charges may be shaky, the trial is an example of “victor’s justice” manipulated by the Americans — the trial has the potential to put a sheen of legitimacy on the governmental structure that emerges from the constitutional process in Iraq.
There are pitfalls, of course. As despicable a human being as he is, and as much as his regime was based on the ruthless use of force, Saddam Hussein has to have had a certain combination of competence, bravado and charisma to have ruled as long as he did in a country where the long knives are seldom sheathed.
Saddam served notice in his court appearance that he will use his cunning to, as a Web posting in the name of his defunct Ba’ath party put it, “prosecute, expose and convict American imperialism and the vicious Zionist coalition.”
There is just a troubling chance that he will be successful enough to rally support and sympathy, helping to prolong the insurgency and undermine the perceived legitimacy of the Iraqi government.
As Carpenter also pointed out, the trial of Saddam is something of a sideshow. Much more important things are happening in Iraq just now, including processes and events that will determine whether Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can live together in a new Iraq without too much violence, whether an increasing number of Iraqi security forces can quell the ongoing insurgency, and whether sufficient Iraqi self-governance and stability can be established to permit U.S. troops to begin coming home.
It is hardly a tragedy, then, that the next phase of the trial has been postponed until Nov. 28. While a trial can be a fascinating focal point for public and media fascination — although Saddam Hussein is no Michael Jackson as a media magnet — Iraqis who want to build a new Iraq and Americans who wish them well would do well to focus on more substantive problems.