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The Bush men are headed for a potentially huge debacle as pressures mount for a trial of Saddam Hussein. In the now familiar pattern of frenzied dysfunction, the administration constructs a wall of propaganda to frame a Disneyland of simultaneously false and contradictory premises, spinning wildly from one solemnly stated intention to another. The President speaks as if there is nothing that he wants more than a speedy and open trial of the demonized captive, yet that is precisely the last thing that the American occupiers of Iraq should wish for. The show trial that White House spin master Karl Rove envisions as an electrifying election year demonstration of the rightness of America’s “mission” in Iraq cannot possibly be made to conform to the facts as they exist.

The stage is being set for madness, in full view of the planet. In his zeal to cheer an ignorant American audience, Bush has promised Iraqis and the international community something he cannot deliver: a forum that allows Iraqis to present evidence and testimony on Saddam Hussein’s crimes as they perceive them, and that also garners some degree of international legitimacy. The Trial of the Century must somehow be pulled off in the absence of Iraqi sovereignty, and without exacerbating Iraqi frustration with that status. At the same time, interested international parties are expected to refrain from offering facts that contradict the solitary U.S. version of Middle East history, or to tamper with American prerogatives. Such stage-management in a foreign land is far beyond the capacities of the Bush men – as we have witnessed every day since the fall of Baghdad.

Irreconcilable promises

Even the President at times appears to sense the contradictions, yet he cannot escape them and reflexively opts for the sound bite, talking himself more tightly into his straightjacket. First, Bush frames the trial as primarily an Iraqi affair: "They were the people that was brutalized by this man: He murdered them; he gassed them, he tortured them." Yet in the next breath, Bush backs away from a trial by the appointed Iraqi Governing Council’s new special criminal tribunal, promising only to "work with Iraqis to develop a way to try him that will withstand international scrutiny."

With that attempt at clarification, Bush seemed to brush aside his “own” Iraqis while giving the merest nod to the United Nations and a host of watchdog organizations concerned with issues of law and sovereignty.

Saddam Hussein will be "accorded the protections" of a prisoner of war, says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. However, there is no legal basis for handing over for trial an American prisoner of war to an agency of a non-sovereign country – Iraq. And the dominant factions within the administration are determined to resist the encroachment of international authority, even as marginal voices mumble about consultations and other nonsense.

Indeed, it is clear that, less than a week after Saddam Hussein’s capture, the administration is attempting to run on two separate policy tracks, one that assures the Iraqis they will very soon have the head of the dictator, while the other speaks of six months before a trial, coinciding with the highly problematic handover of sovereignty to Iraqis. As should be expected, there is no serious consideration among the real powers in the administration for a substantial UN role in Hussein’s fate.

Thus, the Bush men have raised everyone’s expectations, but are prepared to satisfy none of them. It is as if, as thousands of troops scoured the countryside all these months searching for Saddam, there was no plan for what to do when they caught him. Karl Rove’s domestic policy brain may not know it, but his colleagues have stumbled into another crisis in the making.

Ephemeral options

The corporate media repeat each conflicting statement from different corners of the administration, and from different corners of the same officials’ mouths, all the while pretending that a coherent plan is evolving for the Trial of the Century. For example, a December 17 Associated Press headline proclaims “Options Emerge Around Saddam Trial Issue.” However, the text reveals that every option is at war with the other. The U.S. has “gone along with the Iraqi plan that Saddam's trial should be conducted by a special Iraqi tribunal that was set up just days before Saddam's capture last weekend,” the AP reports.  But it soon becomes clear that no one is actually speaking for “the U.S.” The Iraqis insist that their timetable is measured in weeks, and they are adamant that death is the penalty on conviction. In terms of international collaboration, “that could rule out all of Europe" said a former State Department official. No role for Europe means none for the UN. "There is no question that [the trial] has to be fair, it has to be transparent and it has to stand up to international scrutiny," said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s right hand man. He’s talking about a six-month schedule, for the benefit of an international audience that cannot participate under terms that will suit Rumsfeld’s Iraqis.

If there ever is a “fair” and “transparent” trial of Saddam Hussein, it will be impossible to suppress evidence that the U.S. was a co-conspirator in his crimes from the days of Saddam’s youth right up to the moment his army crossed the border into Kuwait, in 1990. Iraqi communists, who are represented in the appointed “government,” could not fail to testify that the Baathists’ first mission in their rise to power in the Sixties was to butcher hundreds of Communist Party members on lists supplied them by their financiers at the CIA. Iraqis anticipate a trial that remembers the martyrs, many of them victims equally of the U.S. and Hussein. Like Panama's Manuel Noriega, another demonized dictator captured by American troops after the invasion of his country, Saddam’s career is inseparable from the Americans.

It is difficult to imagine that the administration would allow such a productive proceeding to occur. However, events since Saddam’s capture last Saturday confirm that the Bush men are incapable of escaping, or even recognizing, the trap they have set for themselves, one that is likely to accelerate the dissolution of their fragile arrangements with the Iraqi appointees, and seems certain to further alienate world opinion.

Corporate media are no more capable than the Bush men of comprehending the dangers of treating Saddam Hussein like a domestic campaign prop – it’s all bells, whistles and logos to the vacant, talking heads.

Bush and his handlers see a great prize in the caged Saddam Hussein. In fact, their captive may be booby-trapped to explode in their blind, dumb faces.



December 18, 2003
Issue 69

is published every Thursday.

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