U.S. must prove itself in Iraq

Now that American forces have, to the manifest gratitude of the Iraqi people, overthrown Saddam Hussein and his despicable regime, several new questions confront the Bush Administration. Among the most pertinent are how we want to convince the skeptical Arab populace that America is not just another in a centuries-long string of colonial powers to hold sway in the Middle East.

On the one hand, there’s the “Bad Cop” option: threatening neighboring regimes into obeying our demands. This is what we saw in the Bush administration’s initial reaction to the problem of Syrian aid to the defeated Saddam regime. And, for things like getting Syria to hand over or kick out Iraqi ex-autocrats, threats are probably the right choice. After all, intimations by Don Rumsfeld and other American officials that, with the fall of their co-Baathists in Baghdad, Syria might be the next target, seemed to strike a chord in Damascus, producing that government’s quick change in attitude toward the problem of its complicity with Saddam during the war.

But this is not the way to win the War on Terror.

To win the War on Terror, we can’t simply threaten – America must also impress. This is option number two, the “Good Cop” option, and it demands that we dip into our oldest and most idealistic political traditions. We have to prove to a portion of the world which doesn’t believe us (maybe rightly so – a debate for a different column, though) that when we say we believe in the rights of man and the rule of law, we really do mean it.

So that means that the new Iraq can’t simply be a new “benevolent” autocracy built up over the old Baathist institutions; it has to be, and can be, more than this: a legitimately Arab and legitimately Islamic democracy. Lots of people make the condescending argument that Arab and Muslim democracy is impossible: Arabs aren’t “ready” for democracy, they say, or they’re somehow culturally incapable of producing free societies. This smacks of, in the words of one Cold Warrior, “the worst sort of cultural condescension.”

In truth, we don’t know if Arabs are capable of democracy or not – but we know that human beings are, and that Iraqi Arabs are fellow humans. The thrill of the crowds in Baghdad over Saddam’s dramatic fall attested to the fact that no culture endorses the arbitrary rule of cruel and violent men. There really is such a thing as a fundamental set of decencies that each human naturally demands – and to live without these decencies is intolerable.

To live without these fundamental decencies reduces us to the level of animals, as all the great anti-totalitarians (like George Orwell, who once compared totalitarianism to a jackboot continually stomping a human face) have recognized.

And if you don’t believe that totalitarian rule necessarily makes animals out of men and women, just look at Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – and of course Baathist Iraq. What was done in all these places, what enormities were committed – it was staggering, really, to read one a human rights watchdog group’s dossier on Iraq. What these people in the top echelons of Iraq have done must be exposed to the whole world.

Which brings us to the subject of the post-war trials: Once the major figures in Saddam Hussein’s old regime have been captured – those who aren’t killed, at least – there needs to be some kind of trial for the war crimes, pogroms and manifold slaughters they wantonly dealt out. This raises the thorny issue of the U.N. There are many reasons to despise the U.N. – the fact that it views Denmark and Libya as morally equivalent chief amongst them – but it nevertheless might be the best forum for such a trial. The United States needs to convince the world that this is no show trial, and doing it through a world body, like the U.N., would be effective.

Of course, it’s also true that certain countries – France, Syria, whomever – could block the U.N. from effectively and fairly trying Saddam’s coterie of cronies and murderers. Tom Friedman has suggested administering Iraq under NATO auspices; why not try its former rulers under NATO auspices as well? After all, all NATO member countries share certain legal standards of basic fairness that many U.N. member-states lack, and it would make even more sense, if NATO does end up administering Iraq, to conduct a NATO-run trial.

But then again, this is all very far in the future. For right now at least, the vital truth is that Saddam is gone from his old place of power, and he’s not coming back, ever. To make our efforts worthwhile, we have to help Iraqis construct a country that, in fifty years, we can be proud of.

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