Not Quite A Farewell to Kings
By A.D. Freudenheim  

14 December 2003

A couple of years ago, I wrote about political show trials, after Biljana Plavsic, the former president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, turned herself in to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia – and as Cao Maobing, a Chinese Labor Leader, was imprisoned, with supporting public statements by the Chinese government that he had been diagnosed with some kind of “paranoid pyschosis.”[1] Now the news is that Saddam Hussein has been captured. It will take much work – and probably much hand-wringing – to determine Hussein’s future, by trial or tribunal, and it may even call into question the desirability of the death penalty for one believed to be so guilty of so much. Unlike the boring, extended trial for Slobodan Milosevic and others, no doubt American influence will help make Hussein’s justice a spectacle worthy of CourtTV.

All of the newspaper headlines aside, it is difficult to say precisely what today’s capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein means. For the Iraqis, well, it is entirely up to them, or so President Bush would have us believe; with Hussein removed as the presumptive force behind much resistance to the U.S. occupation, we are told that the nascent police and state forces will be able to nurture the flickering stability and allow some kind of order to take hold, freed from the drama of suicide bombings and donkey-cart attacks. The U.S. and other occupying forces are surely happy, too; stability increases their potential for making money, and that is, after all, one of the major reasons we invaded Iraq in the first place.

However, I am still more troubled by – or perhaps merely mystified by – the implications for the rest of the globe. As I have written before, I was and remain ambivalent about this war against Iraq, not least because of the false pretenses under which President Bush initiated it. Saddam Hussein and his cronies deserved to be overthrown, and the Iraqi people probably deserved our support for such an effort; but whether it should have been our war (and whether we were really at risk from the still-missing “Weapons of Mass Destruction” Mr. Bush claimed) is an altogether different issue.[2]

What’s done is done. Yet Hussein was hardly the only despot around, nor was he the only one with likely access to dangerous weapons, to have a (theoretically dangerous) standing army, or to allow parts of his nation to be used as a base for and by terrorists. North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Myanmar all have nasty authoritarian governments, and all rank in the top 20 largest militarized countries – and this is ignoring that lumbering, still-authoritarian beast China, whose regular armed forces claims the number one rank at 2.3 million soldiers.[3] We have left these countries untouched, and show no inclination to broaden our fight for democracy and freedom to include them – or the many others, like Zimbabwe and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia – where people live oppressed lives under the tight thumb of regimes that rule by threat of force and intimidation.

Perhaps we expect that the example of Iraq will encourage these dictators to make greater efforts towards freeing their citizens, but that seems a vain hope. The hypocrisy of it remains tough to swallow, when we speak of freedom but fight for something else. Saddam Hussein is well deserving of whatever punishment is meted out to him by whichever so-called authority takes on the task. Still, in a dangerous world of increasingly constrained liberties at home and abroad, the randomness of what is to be Hussein’s fate should be all together too uncomfortable for the rest of us. It is not quite a real farewell to kings, is it?

[1] See my article Show Trials, Show Justice, from 11 February 2001. Presumably the Chinese diagnosis of mental illness fits, since in the official view Cao must have been “crazy” to think he could stand up to China’s leaders.
[2] See my articles Preemptive Powers, 22 September 2002, and Overthrown in Thy Name, 5 January 2003.
[3] Rankings from Pocket World in Figures, 2004 Edition, published by The Economist and Profile Books Ltd., London, 2003. See section titled “...and Wars,” page 97.
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