Stephen Colbert had a great reaction to the Saddam verdict last night: "Now, obviously there's going to be an appeals process, but by Iraqi law that has to be over in two months. Now, I don't want to get my hopes up, but could it be" ... (Colbert crosses his fingers) ... "a Christmas hanging?"
Celebrating someone's execution, which was the response of the New York Post, is barbaric. There are times, as Christopher Hitchens argued in Slate Monday, when executing war criminals may be a necessary catharsis. He cited Nuremberg. But he's right to question whether Saddam rises to this level.
Hitchens -- though a raving lunatic on the Iraq war, the Plame affair, the Niger connection and pretty much every single foreign policy-related subject you can think of -- is also right to point out that keeping Saddam alive would be historically valuable, as he could shed light over time on all the crazy shiznit he got into. Not to mention the goldmine of psychological data the guy could yield.
Moral questions aside, and I'm 98.7 percent anti-capital punishment, for me the question is pragmatic. How much more insurgent violence will hanging Saddam cause? How much more damage to our reputation in the Arab world will it cause? We're now viewed as an immoral occupying power that has killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqi civilians, which tacitly and materially supported Israel's bombing campaign against Lebanon, which seeks to gain control of the Middle East's oil resources and defile Islamic culture. If we're ever going to make an attempt to restore our moral standing, now's the time.
Yes, technically, the decision is not up to us but to the Iraqi courts. But for the Bush administration this is a desired outcome. If the good Christian in Chief and his faith posse had wanted to, they could have avoided this scenario.
The only possible reason I can see in favor of hanging Saddam is also pragmatic. Whenever we begin pulling out of Iraq, be it this year or when Bush is carted off to the happy ranch in 2009, the Sunnis and Shiites will either engage in full-scale combat or manage to find some sort of political settlement. When that happens, is there any guarantee, given the chaotic power struggle that will ensue, that Saddam would remain in prison? Is it not possible, however remotely, that the Sunni-led insurgency, recognizing the opportunity for an off-the-charts propaganda victory, would do everything in their power to free Saddam from prison, either through negotiation or force?
So from my view it's possible that there are people in power in Baghad and Washington who recognize that they'd better kill Saddam while they have the chance rather than face the small but real risk of the greatest embarassment in the history of U.S. foreign policy.