Monday, December 15, 2003

Dicing with the Devil

John Keegan describes the legal difficulties in bringing a tyrant to the gallows, the main obstacle being the Treaty of Westphalia, which "created the principle that sovereign states, and therefore their sovereign heads, are both legally and morally absolute," and that there is "no legal basis for proceeding against such a person, however heinous the crimes he is known to have committed". The price that the Kaiser paid for precipitating the Great War that killed millions was a comfortable exile in Holland. Unable to evade the issue, the Second World War allies had to invent a new legal mechanism, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, to deal with Nazi war crimes. But Hitler's suicide and Mussolini's death at the hands of Italian partisans spared the Tribunal from having to face what stares the United States inescapably in the face: what to do with Saddam Hussein.

Yet, as Keegan points out, it was the fate of the Emperor Hirohito that holds out the most hope for Saddam. The Japanese Emperor cut a deal with General McArthur for immunity in exchange for cooperation. It was hard bargain. On the one hand stood the ghosts of Bataan and the Nanjing massacre. On the other were the avoidable casualties to American occupation troops if Hirohito cooperated. The living won and the dead were forgotten. After all, the living vote.

Saddam's abject condition at the bottom of his Tikrit spider hole belies the strength of his hand. He has two major cards to play. The first and by far the most important, is knowledge of the location of the main Ba'athist treasury. That money, possibly amounting to billions of dollars, is almost certainly held in bank accounts either in the West or in neighboring Arab countries. US forces are now in a race against time to secure that money before it passes on to the Ba'athist second in command or into terrorist hands. If America seizes the money first, the Ba'ahtist insurgency is essentially over. If they fail, many hundreds of Americans and perhaps thousands of Iraqis will die before the terrorists are slowly crushed.

The second card, which is only marginally weaker, is the possession of information. Saddam Hussein stands at the nexus of decades of terrorist conspiracy and global corruption. American intelligence probably has a fair idea of which Western politicians were in Saddam's pocket; what the state of cooperation was between the Iraqi secret service and Al-Qaeda, and where the precusors to the WMDs went. But the key pieces, indeed the critical pieces, may all be in Saddam's head. Therefore they will coddle that head carefully, with as much loving care as a mother for her newborn babe, because the secrets in the tyrant's head mean all the difference between life or death for thousands. For the same reason, hundreds of unctuous politicians, all donning the garb of humanitarianism, will plead leniency or indeed call for his exculpation, the better to avoid mention in his testimony.

All that the tyrant's victims can set against that massively strong hand is the demand for simple justice. Yet what claim can the dead have upon the living which would be greater than those who might be saved by dealing with this devil? How do you set the satisfaction of a victim's mother against the grief of one whose son is yet to die? The unavoidable currency of war is death: a death spent here for deaths saved there. All a commander can do, with the power entrusted to him, is to decide which among his men are to die so that the rest might live.

The phrase "there are no atheists in foxholes" is often misunderstood to mean that men in battle pray to be spared; that is only partially true. They pray to be forgiven.

Hang him high.