Andreas Whittam Smith: Saddam Hussein richly deserves his fate, but this verdict still does not justify the war

At the bar of public opinion, there will be no mercy for Bush and Blair - as there wasn't for Saddam
Click to follow

The trial of Saddam Hussein is over. The trials of George W Bush and Tony Blair at the bars of public opinion are just beginning. That a court in Baghdad has been able to find Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity and to sentence him is the sole benefit that has come from the invasion of Iraq. Nothing else. There have been no other advantages from what Mr Bush and Mr Blair have wrought, either for the Iraqi people or for Western interests. The verdict, and only the verdict, is the one achievement that the President and Prime Minister can put to their credit. Everything else is undiluted disaster. For this they are being called to account by their electorates.

As an example of how complete is the failure of the two leaders, take torture. More human rights abuses take place in Iraq today than did when Saddam was in power. In evidence there is the United Nations report published in September that expressed concern that "human rights violations, particularly against the right to life and personal integrity, continued to occur at an alarming daily rate in Iraq". The report noted that hundreds of bodies appear throughout the country bearing signs of severe torture and execution-style killings. And it added that in official detention centres, torture remains a widespread problem. One tyrant has been replaced by many.

Embarrassing for us is the discovery that the American and British governments have also used torture extensively. Just a few days ago, for instance, the US Justice Department told a court that a suspected terrorist who had spent years in a secret Central Intelligence Agency prison should not be allowed to speak to a civilian attorney because he could reveal the CIA's interrogation techniques.

First the suspect was taken to a secret place, perhaps on one of those mysterious CIA flights facilitated by the British government as it passed through British airspace. When the suspect reached his destination, he was subject to interrogation techniques so disgraceful that their nature cannot be revealed. And then, when he finally emerged from this nightmare, which will have permanently damaged his physical and his mental health, whether innocent or guilty, the US government wants to deprive him of the means of defending himself. Wasn't it the rule of law we were going to take to Iraq?

Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death by hanging. Under Iraqi law, death sentences automatically trigger an appeal, so any execution is likely to be delayed for several months and possibly by as much as a year. Which means that this single victory could be snatched away from Mr Bush and Mr Blair. Not because the verdict will be reversed, despite the serious shortcomings in the fairness of the proceedings, but because civil war rages around Baghdad where Saddam is held. And in such circumstances, it is not inconceivable that Saddam's numerous Sunni supporters will be able bring about his escape from goal. Fanciful? Yes. Impossible? No.

In the President's and the Prime Minister's trials by public opinion, which hand out punishments as they go along, it is difficult to say which of the two is being treated the more severely. Iraq is driving Mr Blair from office. But he still hopes to avoid a damaging inquiry into his actions. And in that endeavour he gained some time last week. For on Tuesday, the Prime Minister resisted with a majority of 25 a House of Commons motion to set up an immediate Parliamentary enquiry into the war. This was a bit less than half Labour's normal advantage, but a victory all the same. The price paid, no doubt in talks with potential Labour rebels before the vote, was that ministers agreed that there would have to be a fresh inquiry at some point.

Mr Bush cannot be ejected - unless he is impeached. But something almost as painful is happening to him. Leave aside for the moment the Congressional elections due to be held tomorrow. This weekend the President was publicly deserted by his chief ideological supporters in the most insulting way imaginable. In the columns of Vanity Fair magazine, they trashed Mr Bush. According to Richard Perle, who was an adviser to the administration until 2004, the unfolding catastrophe has a central cause: devastating dysfunction within President Bush's team. He told Vanity Fair: "The decisions did not get made that should have been. They didn't get made in a timely fashion, and the differences were argued out endlessly ... at the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible."

Turn to David Frum, who co-wrote President Bush's State of the Union address in 2002. The situation, he said, must ultimately be blamed on "failure at the centre" starting with President Bush. He went on: "I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the President to commit himself to certain words, he would feel committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the President said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything."

Most devastating of all were the comments from Kenneth Adelman, a lifelong neo-con activist who served as a Pentagon adviser until last year. "I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national-security team since President Truman was indeed going to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly. Dysfunctional."

On Wednesday morning, we may learn that Mr Bush's Republicans have lost control of both the House of Representatives and of the Senate. This in itself, if it happens, would be a major setback for the President but it wouldn't complete the travails that await him. For a Democratic Congress would mount a series of enquiries into the President's conduct of the war. As a result the shredding of Mr Bush's record would become ever more thorough, though like his friend in 10 Downing Street, he never accepts that he has made a mistake. And some of what would be discovered in Washington, if the Democrats get their way, would, I expect, severely damage the Prime Minister.

Contemporary opinion and then history will destroy the Bush and Blair reputations. Mr Blair will be forever struck with Iraq, whatever his other qualities, as Eden has been with Suez and Chamberlain with Munich.

When you make mistakes that cost the lives of many men and women, including your fellow citizens, you cannot expect that a rounded view will be taken of your strengths and weaknesses or of your achievements and failures. At the bar of public opinion there will be no mercy - as there wasn't for Saddam Hussein in a Baghdad court room yesterday.