It is hardly surprising that in such a media-saturated culture many Americans view foreign affairs in a personalized and dramatized fashion. If this were a movie, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the quintessential villain, would be the triumphant end of the story, with the music coming up and viewers assured that the good guys had won again.
In the real world, however, the capture of Saddam, as satisfying as it is on several levels, might come to be seen as only a marginal episode in a much longer and less dramatically satisfying story.
Perhaps Saddam helped to coordinate the increasingly violent attacks on occupation and friendly Iraqi forces in recent weeks, perhaps he didn’t. It seems unlikely that he supervised everything personally. Perhaps he served as an inspiration to some insurgents, but others might be pleased that he has been captured so it will now be clear that they are not stooges for Saddam.
The capture of Saddam might even unleash divisive forces within Iraq that had been held in check until now. The Shiite Muslims of the southern areas, who constitute 60 percent to 65 percent of the population, have been fairly cooperative up until now, probably believing they will eventually prevail if a reasonably democratic regime is established. With Saddam out of the way, they might become more aggressive in asserting their claims to power.
The Sunni Muslims of the central region, whose leaders had benefited most from Saddam’s time in power, might now see their situation as desperate and begin an even more comprehensive and violent campaign.
Then there’s the question of what to do with Saddam Hussein. President Bush and the Iraqi Governing Council have said there will be a trial of some kind, and the governing council last week proposed a framework (at least on paper) for such tribunals of Iraqis. But the governing council was appointed by the United States, and its credibility as a genuine representative of the Iraqi people is hardly secure. And it is not a fully functioning government yet.
There are essentially three options for trying Saddam, and each has benefits and drawbacks: the Iraqi option, the international option and the U.S./coalition option.
The Iraqi option, as Laurence Rothenberg, an international lawyer who is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, has the virtue of having at center stage the Iraqis, against whom most of Saddam’s alleged crimes were committed. While it would probably (although not certainly) be viewed as legitimate inside Iraq, it might not be accepted as such by the international community.
An international tribunal, like the current trial of former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, would likely be costly and lengthy.
Milosevic’s trial has been under way for two years and is expected to last another two. Rothenberg noted the international tribunals also have little credibility in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.
Trying Saddam in a U.S. civilian or military court, or in a court run ostensibly by the coalition of the willing, would look too much like victor’s justice — and it would be.
Then there’s the question of the death penalty. An international court would almost certainly not impose it. An Iraqi court would have the option, as would a U.S. or coalition court. The issue will inevitably be divisive.
Saddam Hussein has been captured and muted celebrations are in order. But the complications may have just begun.