Ace in the Hole

HOWARD DEAN WAS right, and his Democratic presidential opponents were crassly wrong for criticizing him, when he said that the capture of Saddam Hussein won't make America safer.

Dean was the spoiler of the party punch on Sunday, Dec. 14, and bully for him. Imagine any leading Democrat questioning Our Fearless Leader a year ago at such a moment of administration glory. They would have been lining up obsequiously, praising not only Saddam's capture but the policies that led to it.

Instead, we have Dean, who is hardly the most radical voice in his party: U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, for one, publicly questioned the timing of Saddam's capture, essentially suggesting it was a poll-grabbing stunt. One needn't be so cynical to have plenty of concern as to what happens nextboth to Saddam and to his American captors.

First, Saddam. The Bush administration is planning to turn him over to the "Iraqi people" for a show trial. What else could it be, when every decision thus far of "the Iraqi people" has been made by the same Americans who, for a dozen years, even and especially after 9/11, have turned Saddam into Public Evildoer No. 1; who have seized complete military control of Iraq's judicial system; and whose limited nods toward self-government have included only carefully vetted Iraqi exiles and the like?

THE GLOBAL COMMUNITY now has a procedure in place for international trials of war criminals like Saddam. The United States, under Presidents Clinton and Bush, has refused to honor it, concerned that a truly impartial process might target American foreign policy and its leaders.

It's easy to understand why. "The American Century" was also, not coincidentally, the bloodiest century in human history. Among its genocidal names, most recently we have Slobodan Milosevic, whisked off to a show trial of the NATO variety. His defenseinvolvement with a tawdry list of American and European administrations, arms financiers, and corporations that sold to and winked at the Serb butcherwas largely absent from U.S. media coverage.

There is Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, installed in a 1973 coup backed by President Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the CIA, and the Anaconda Chile mining company, then detained in the late 1990s by Spanish and British judges until "poor health" and heavy American diplomatic pressure arranged for his return to Chile, exempt from trial.

There is Efrain RĂ­os Montt, the general who led a President Reagan-backed 1981 military coup to "restore democracy" to Guatemala. Instead, during only 16 months of power, Montt delivered 70,000 indigenous corpses. While 440 Mayan villages and their inhabitants were being systematically eradicated, Reagan was signing a 1982 waiver allowing continued arms sales, insisting that Montt was being given a "bum rap" and was "totally dedicated to democracy." Today, instead of being in jail, Montt is president of the Guatemala Congress and recently placed third in a presidential bid. Because he retires from Congress next month, the 65-year-old will lose diplomatic immunity against two pending accusations of war crimes. Will the Bush administration pursue him with anything approaching the zeal of its Saddam hunt?

It's a safe bet not. The people who aided Monttand the equally murderous 1980s death squads in El Salvador, and death squads from that era until today in Colombianow pepper Bush's foreign-policy establishment. One of them, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, also helped seal the 1988 deal that sent military aid to Saddam Hussein, even as reports of the gas attacks emerged.

And so the bodies pile up, in Africa, in Southeast Asia. Despots now rule Muslim countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, with even more eager U.S. aid in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. As with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam's depredations were at best of no concern to Washington until he proved no longer useful. And framing it all for every Muslim is the U.S. backing of Israel's illegal, 35-year military occupation and subjugation of Palestine.

WITH THIS HISTORY of blood and convenience, many Iraqis will view Washington's trial of Saddam Hussein as a cynical foreign-policy showpieceor a bitter reminder that we Americans can remove pawns like Saddam as easily as we can install them. It is yet another reminder that they don't run their own country. It's anything but a down payment on democracy. Dean is right. More soldiers will die in the coming months, not fewer, and America will be no safer.

It's reasonable to ask, as Sen. Hillary Clinton, of all people, is doing: Why, if the Bush administration can get out of Iraq by next July, can we not do so sooner? The capture of Saddam leaves only the dreary task of nation building and crass profiteering, for which the administration's interest has been more than unseemly. Iraqis are, with international assistance, perfectly capable of the former and have suffered quite enough of the latter. As one Iraqi pithily told American media: "You can go now."

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