There can be no doubt about the moral justice of Sunday’s Baghdad tribunal judgment on Saddam Hussein. He was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, chiefly Kurds and Shias, and arguably for many more killed in the Iran-Iraq war.
Yet it is quite another matter whether it is right or politically prudent to execute him, after the shambles of a trial that he has undergone. Washington was always determined that Saddam should die — but at the hands of his own people rather than those of Americans. George Bush’s handling of this issue restores one's respect for Pontius Pilate. The president has achieved the almost impossible feat of generating some sympathy for Saddam, at least in Muslim societies.
The Iraqi judicial system is incapable of conducting a plausible hearing. Instead it staged a farce: judges changed, defence lawyers murdered, interminable rambling orations from prosecutors and defendants. Bush should have got some old Soviets to advise the locals about how to run a proper show trial.
The biggest American mistake was to capture Saddam in the first place. In the House of Commons in 1944, the foreign secretary was asked what instructions had been given to British troops on what to do if they encountered Hitler. Amid laughter, Anthony Eden said: “I am quite satisfied to leave the decision to the British soldier concerned.”
Among the allied leaders, only Stalin wanted Hitler alive, for the pleasure of hanging him. Everybody else was appalled by the prospective perils and complexities of trying and executing a head of State in partnership with the Russians. Hitler’s suicide came as a relief.
Almost everyone involved in the Nuremberg trials of his subordinates felt uncomfortably conscious that they were administering victors’ justice. The proceedings proved valuable, however, in placing on record for all time some of the monstrous crimes of the Nazis. Also, in 1946 the Nuremberg judges possessed a critical advantage. Even if the wartime allies did not represent absolute good — how could any such partnership that included the Soviets? — few people doubted their overwhelming moral superiority over the Nazis.
By contrast, the moral authority of the Iraq coalition led by the US has been blown to rags since 2003. President Bush's achievement has been to convert an almost impregnable American position in the world after September 11, 2001, into a grievously damaged one today. It is believed that more Iraqis have died since the US invasion than were killed by Saddam Hussein. Most have fallen victim to fellow countrymen rather than to American fire. Yet this seems irrelevant, since Washington chose to assume responsibility for the country. The dead have perished on Bush’s watch.
Yet we should at least consider the pragmatic argument for executing Saddam. Alive, he remains a focus for the Ba’athist fanatics who spearhead the Sunni insurgency. They cling to a fantasy that one day their old leader will regain power and restore Sunni primacy.
However angry many of us are with George Bush and Tony Blair, we must never succumb to an unworthy desire to see coalition policy fail merely because this would humiliate the US President and British Prime Minister. Only one question should matter now: what is the best course, not for our consciences or political satisfaction but for the Iraqi people?
Western actions have precipitated the descent of their country into chaos. Whatever we do henceforward must be designed to promote the restoration of order, however remote such an outcome may seem.
Many Kurds and Shias want Saddam to die. This is not only because they seek vengeance for decades of atrocities, but also because they think his removal will improve their future prospects. If Iraqis held a national referendum on Saddam’s fate, most would unhesitatingly commit him to the gallows. Bush’s people in Washington say: “Our policy is to empower the Iraqi people to determine their own future. Allowing an Iraqi court to condemn Saddam, Iraqi executioners to kill him, is a significant step towards that objective.”
Yet to many of us it is not that simple. Real power in Iraq today rests in the hands of the Americans or those of local factions on the ground. The so-called national government and its institutions are almost impotent, because they face such physical and political difficulties in exercising their functions.
The verdict on Saddam is just. Yet everything stinks about the process by which it has been reached. Sentence on the condemned tyrant will probably be carried out before the trial of his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as Chemical Ali. It is widely expected that the execution will be rushed so that Saddam cannot give evidence at Majeed’s trial about collusion between Washington and the former tyranny, which could grievously embarrass the US.
Once again it matters less whether this is true than that so many people around the world believe it to be so. It is dismaying to be obliged to acknowledge that Americans, British, Ba’athists, militiamen, national government representatives and insurgent suicide bombers in Iraq are all today perceived as coexisting on the same moral plane.
Rationally, we know that Bush and Blair want virtuous things for the country: democracy and personal freedom. Yet so incompetent has been the fulfilment of their policies on the ground that the leaders of Britain and the US now possess no more credible mandate than that of Iraq’s local mass murderers.
To justify hanging Saddam, Bush and Blair needed moral ascendancy, which they have forfeited. His execution will appear to be merely another dirty deed in the endless succession that have taken place in Iraq since 2003, backed by our bayonets.
Now the president will preside over a hanging that will be as much his handiwork as if he pulled the lever, with Blair performing the usual associated functions — attaching the hood, tightening the knot and otherwise making himself useful. In Texas this sort of thing is no big deal. But in Britain, Blair may need coaching.
It seems remarkable that on Sunday the two major political parties of a country that abolished capital punishment 40 years ago expressed satisfaction at the prospect of a hanging up the road, conducted by surrogates. How can Britain as a nation refuse to hang its own murderers, while being so eager to support the hanging of other people’s?
Only some Iraqi Sunnis will mourn Saddam, a monster of the 20th century as deserving of death as were the Nazis hanged at Nuremberg. But his execution will be widely perceived as devoid of legitimacy.
Max Hastings is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Telegraph and the former Editor, The Evening Standard