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Sunday, December 14, 2003

VOA: Me on Saddam's Capture

Today, at 9 am Eastern Time, I received a call from a reporter (I didn't catch her name) at Voice of America. She wanted to obtain my views on the "big news" that was all over the media this morning. Since I had been out of bed for less than half an hour, and hadn't even had caffeine yet (3 holiday parties last night), I noted that this news wasn't yet familiar to me. In my defense, I had checked CNN for news headlines just before 1 am and did not see the story.

Anyway, the reporter agreed that we would talk at 11 am. I do not know if our conversation will be webcast, but if a press release or story appears on the web, I'll provide a link when I see it.

Meanwhile, I can blog about the interview.

The reporter had a handful of questions. Below, I'll try to recall them -- and provide a summary of my answers. The interview lasted less than 10 minutes, but we covered a lot of ground.
Initially, she asked what this would mean for the US and Iraq.
First, I said this was good news for everyone because it helps resolve the past. Hussein was a horrible leader of a Stalinist state who could now be held accountable for his past crimes.

I then said it might not mean much in the present. For example, it is unlikely to decrease the insurgency against American occupation since even US officials have said that Saddam Hussein was probably not directing the opposition. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld expects a "long, hard slog" in Iraq and I don't see any reason this has changed. Reconstruction, state building, security -- these all remain difficult problems.
She asked what I made of the difference between the positions taken by the Iraqi Governing Council and the US government on the potential trial of Saddam Hussein.
This was the really odd question in the mix. So far, I have seen reports from the Governing Council that they want to try Hussein, but have not seen anything from US government officials that conflicts with that. I even asked her to clarify, but she basically repeated the question.

So, I said it was highly unlikely that the US would be opposed to a trial for Saddam, even if they want first to interrogate him. Iraqis naturally want to try their former leader themselves and there are a lot of obvious reasons for thinking that is a good idea.
She asked me if I thought Saddam Hussein should be tried in Iraq.
Since this question seemed related to the prior one, I started to wonder if this was a trial balloon by someone to see what the reaction might be if the US were to do something odd (like a military trial, or a US-based trial). Voice of America is, after all, owned and operated by the US government. I might also note that the reporter seemed to be reading prepared questions.

In any case, I noted that in an ideal world, a venue like the International Criminal Court might be best. It is designed to try individuals charged with crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, since most of Hussein's crimes occurred before the ICC existed, and since the ICC does not cover offenses committed before it was created, then the more appropriate format would be something like the international tribunal that has tried Milosevic and others in the former Yugoslavia.

However, other states have tried former human rights violators under other formats, and many would be fine for this trial. The key, I said, was a transparent process that clearly accused Hussein of specific crimes, heard evidence of these crimes, and provided appropriate punishment. It is also important to assure various legal protections.
She asked me if this arrest would hurt the electoral prospects of Democratic candidates like Howard Dean who had staked their candidacies on an anti-war position.
I said this was highly unlikely. First, the general election is 11 months away and I do not think people will vote based merely on the capture of Saddam Hussein. Second, as I stated previously, the situation on the ground in Iraq is unlikely to improve very much as a result of this arrest.

Over the next few months, if American occupation forces continue to suffer casualties as Iraq moves towards sovereignty next July, then many potential Dean voters are going to continue to oppose the Iraq war. This arrest likely changes nothing for them.
She asked me if the arrest was likely to influence reluctant allies and help garner their cooperation on the Iraq issue.
Again, I said no. Both France and Germany, for example, opposed the war for a variety of reasons and this arrest is unlikely to sway them one way or the other.

I pointed out that leaders all over the world, including France's Jacques Chirac, have expressed their pleasure about this news. Indeed, through appropriate diplomatic measures, it might still be possible to win greater support for reconstruction. However, that is a different and difficult task.

Update: Newsday has an article ("U.S. Won't Concede Trial to Iraqis") that helps clear up the mystery of the possible "trial balloon." As everyone knows, Iraqis want to try Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- and soon. So what is the US thinking?
"If we are in a position to build a case against Saddam, we will take a hard look at that," the State Department official said when asked about a U.S. prosecution. "We reserve the right to do that ourselves." ...

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday night that while Hussein is being treated as a prisoner of war, his status could change if it is determined he was involved in the postwar insurgency, suggesting that he might also be tried for the postwar death of U.S. soldiers.
Sunday on TV, I saw a former Reagan official talking about the possibility of a US military tribunal.

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