Adrian Hamilton: The meaningless execution of a tyrant

Saddam's hanging, when it comes, will produce neither universal relief nor outrage

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There won't be many people who mourn Saddam Hussein's imminent death - if he hasn't been executed already - any more than there were many who mourned the death of Slobodan Milosevic this year. They were both tyrants of the worst sort, ruling by fear and the word of the informant. Both were responsible for war on their neighbours as well as oppression of their own people.

The Serbian dictator managed at least to cheat the judge of the international court in The Hague by passing away from natural courses. Saddam Hussein hasn't managed that. But, like Milosevic, he has been able to turn what was meant to be a grand cathartic ceremony of closure and reconciliation into a desultory almost meaningless damp squib of a trial. His hanging, when it comes, discreetly and without ceremony, will produce neither a sense of universal relief nor outrage. It will simply happen, to be announced after the event, an event out of time and even place.

The occupying powers were always wrong, of course, to see the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein and his closest creatures as some kind of replay of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, just as the international community was wrong to see Milosevic's extradition to the international court in The Hague as some huge triumph of global justice.

It's an historical misreading for a start. Nuremberg was always victor's judgment dressed up as judicial decency. It was right that the accused were made to face the consequences of their actions. No one should doubt that. And Nuremberg at least had the pragmatic benefit of drawing a line under the number of Nazis to be punished for their misdeeds so the work of reconstruction could go on.

But the trials never really acted as a process of truth and reconciliation in the manner that South Africa has sought. Effectively they allowed the Germans to get on with the next phases with the feeling, however unsubstantiated, that Nazism was now over and done with. If the object of the Milosevic trial was to make the Serbs come to terms with their recent history, then it should never have been held outside the country. The fact that the international community - the victors of the Nato bombings and the intervention in Kosovo - felt it better to hold it abroad was as much an indication of their nervousness at Serbian popular feeling as an enthusiasm for international justice.

And so it has proved. There has been no purging of the past in the former Yugoslavia, or any of its parts. Perhaps there can't be unless the justice is summary and unjust in the manner of the Romanians who simply shot Nicolai Ceaucescu and his wife in 1989, much in the manner of the Italian partisans who shot Mussolini and his mistress and then hung their bodies upside down in Milan, leaving the parish priest to climb a ladder and tie down Clara Petrucci's dress, to preserve some modesty.

Certainly Winston Churchill seems to have thought that it would be better, should Adolf Hitler have been caught alive, to execute him summarily, preferably by electrocution. And he may well have been right. Victor's justice is better seen as just that, an act of immediate punishment so that society can proceed ahead regardless.

Had the US troops done the same with Saddam Hussein, and shot him on sight, or in keeping with the man, thrown him to the relatives of his victims to do their worst, it would not only have saved the hangman his task, it would also have avoided the whole drawn-out charade of a trial that was neither fair nor purgative.

They didn't because they didn't want Saddam to become a martyr of the Baathist cause and because they wanted his trial to act as means to destroy the old order and welcome in a new one. Both ideas reflected a total misunderstanding of the Iraqi dictator's personal position and power. Saddam Hussein was never personally popular, any more than Milosevic. He had made too many enemies, taken a life from too many families and tribes, for that. If he still has any resonance in the country, it is only because the insurgency has grown to a point when any nationalist symbol will be used to help their cause.

Saddam Hussein held power because he had the security apparatus to do so, because the West and the Arab world preferred him there to the anarchy they feared would follow his demise, and because the UN sanctions debilitated his nation and increased his direct power through his control over the oil-for-food regime. When he fell the regime fell because there was nothing very much left behind it. But equally there was nothing to replace it because a decade of sanctions and three decades of his rule had hollowed out the structure of political society.

The idea that Saddam's fall would be a great act of decapitation, the step that would automatically lead to a better society and a more cohesive country was always fanciful. Almost all the experts knew this and said so, on the few occasions that they were allowed to, so why did not the occupants of the White House and No 10?

The answer is that President Bush and Tony Blair chose to take Saddam Hussein at his own evaluation. As a symbol of militaristic Iraq, he could be demonised and his fall greeted as an historic achievement for the force of Western arms. The point was not primarily to help the Iraqis but to make a demonstration that would change the face of the Middle East.

The fall of the regime, the trial of a tyrant, the imposition of a new order were all part of a vision that was never grounded in the facts of Iraq, because the facts on the ground were secondary to the purpose. Had it been otherwise, there would have been a proper post-invasion plan.

Instead we have the results of the latest opinion polls, so beloved of those who cheered on the invasion. According to a survey by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies in November, 89.9 per cent of respondents felt that Iraq was worse today than when Saddam Hussein was in power. Just over 50 per cent wanted the multinational forces to leave immediately, with a further 20 per cent declaring that they wanted them to start to leave now on a set timetable.

To those who still claim that the invasion was right, because it removed a tyrant, one has this simple question: "Did we do it to make ourselves feel better or to make things better for the Iraqis?" For, if we ever thought they were one and the same thing, then we have been cruelly deceiving ourselves and even more cruelly deceiving them.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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