President George W. Bush and the provisional Iraqi authorities have promised that before Saddam Hussein is executed, he will most certainly receive a fair trial. Conveniently enough, the Iraqis set up a war-crimes tribunal in Baghdad for this purpose just last week. So sometime after Saddam's Army interrogators are finished sweating the old monster, the preparations shall begin for what promises to be a courtroom spectacle.
Advocates of human rights and international law hope that the prosecution of Saddam will improve somewhat on his regime's standard of criminal justice, which generally entailed horrific torture followed by confession and punishment. They have urged that Saddam's trial be conducted with complete fairness and transparency. Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon's favorite member of the Iraqi Governing Council, says that Saddam must be afforded the lawful treatment he denied his victims.
Those laudable aims presumably require that he be permitted to defend himself legally, no matter how indefensible he actually is. Human Rights Watch insists that the captured dictator "must be allowed to conduct a vigorous defense that includes the right to legal counsel at an early stage."
Apart from blaming his underlings for the genocidal crimes on his indictment, what defense can he (or his lawyers) offer? Following in the style of Slobodan Milosevic, he may well wish to spend his final days on the public stage bringing shame to those who brought him down.
Unfortunately, it isn't hard to imagine how he might accomplish that if he can call witnesses and subpoena documents. Charged with the use of poison gas against Kurds and Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam could summon a long list of Reagan and Bush administration officials who ignored or excused those atrocities when they were occurring.
An obvious prospective witness is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who acted as a special envoy to Baghdad during the early 1980s. On a courtroom easel, Saddam might display the famous December 1983 photograph of him shaking hands with Mr. Rumsfeld, who acknowledges that the United States knew Iraq was using chemical weapons. If his forces were using Tabun, mustard gas, and other forbidden poisons, he might ask, why did Washington restore diplomatic relations with Baghdad in November 1984?
As for his horrendous persecution of the Kurds in 1988, Saddam could call executives from the banks and defense and pharmaceutical companies from various countries that sold him the equipment and materials he is alleged to have used. He might put former President George Herbert Walker Bush on the witness stand and ask, "Why did your administration and Ronald Reagan's sell my government biological toxins such as anthrax and botulism, as well as poisonous chemicals and helicopters?"
Saddam could also subpoena Henry Kissinger, whose consulting firm's chief economist ventured to Baghdad in June 1989 to advise the Iraqi government on restructuring its debt. "After my forces allegedly murdered thousands of Kurdish civilians in 1988," he might inquire, "why would you and other American businessmen want to help me refinance and rearm my government?"
Indeed, Saddam could conceivably seek the testimony of dozens of men and women who once served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, starting with former Secretary of State George Shultz, and ask them to explain why they opposed every congressional effort to place sanctions on his government, up until the moment his army invaded Kuwait during the summer of 1990. Pursuing the same general theme, he might call Vice President Dick Cheney, who sought to remove sanctions against Iraq when he served as the chief executive of Halliburton.
The long, shadowy history of American relations with Saddam would also be illuminated by literally thousands of documents in U.S. government files. Memos uncovered by the National Security Archive show that Reagan and Bush administration officials knew exactly how the Iraqi government was procuring what it needed to build weapons of mass destruction, including equipment for a nuclear arsenal.
From time to time, during those crucial years when Saddam consolidated his power and prepared for war, U.S. diplomats issued rote condemnations of his worst actions. Then, as the record shows, they would privately reassure Saddam that the United States still desired close and productive relations.
Pertinent as these issues are to Saddam's case, they do not mitigate his record of murder and corruption. And the man dragged from his pathetic hideout near Tikrit hardly seems to possess the will or the capability to raise them. Yet it will be hard to boast that justice and history have been fully served if his foreign accomplices escape their share of opprobrium.
Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer.