His crimes were among the worse of the last century. Cast against the long dark shadow of such figures as Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Slobodon Milosevic, Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein’s record of brutality certainly places him among the top tier of the world’s contemporary tyrants and genocidal murderers.
During the 24 years he and his associates held power, Saddam is believed by human-rights experts to have been responsible for the deaths of well over 300,000 civilians and perhaps another one-to-two million soldiers, whose lives were wasted in two wars of aggression against neighboring states Iran and Kuwait.
Ever since the fall of Iraq to Coalition forces, a growing chorus of victims and their families has called for the apprehension, trial, and immediate execution of those responsible for the injury of their loved ones. First among them is Saddam himself.
Now that the former dictator is in U.S. custody, these cries have grown louder. At least one member of Iraq’s Governing Council, Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite Muslim, told the Associated Press that in his view Saddam should be put to death the day after American Forces return sovereignty to the new Iraqi leadership on June 30, 2004. Even President Bush has made it clear that he believes Saddam deserves the “ultimate penalty.”
But should Saddam and his criminal cohort now in Coalition custody be executed for their crimes if found guilty in a duly constituted court of law? For the moment, the answer should be “no.” There are more important uses to which this monster can be put than simply to give him a martyr’s death at the hands of an angry Iraqi public.
That is not to say that Saddam does not deserve to die. He most assuredly does. But whether he should be killed is another matter. Keeping him alive to promote the cause of peace and democracy in the Middle East would serve a far higher purpose than would his quick and probably painless demise. For now, these considerations would appear to trump any thought of his execution. The logic is clear.
Across the Middle East Saddam Hussein has what the marketing moguls of Madison Avenue refer to as “brand recognition” or “star power.” Coupled with the reverence in which he is held by many in the Arab street, Saddam has for years been a celebrity among tyrants. He defied the U.S. in the first Gulf War and hurled scud missiles with impunity against Israel. Of late he goaded the Bush administration into war by threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction. Upon Saddam’s capture, thousands rioted in protest across central Iraq and throughout the Palestinian territories.
Conquered or not, Saddam is a character of mythic proportions to many in the Arab world. Surprising numbers even believe he holds mystical powers. And like the defeated Gamel Abd al-Nassir at the end of the 1967 Six Day War, or his successor, Anwar Sadat, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and even Yasser Arafat after his exile from Beirut in 1982, Hussein stands to remain a legend for some time to come.
Those who are disappointed that Saddam did not take his own life rather than surrender to the Americans should recall that neither did Nassir, Sadat, or Arafat. They each survived their ignominious brush with fate, their reputations bruised but intact. Honor, it seems, even in the Middle East, can be manipulated to suit the times.
The U.S.-backed Coalition and the nascent Iraqi government should think beyond retribution and cleverly map out a strategy for using Saddam to further their long-term objectives namely, de-radicalizing the Middle East. Saddam and his men will get the punishment they deserve, to be sure. Suffering the depravations of prison life for the rest of their days is bad enough. Serving as spokesmen in a freedom campaign is an added humiliation they and their families will simply have to bear. But that is what must be done to demonstrate to the 500 million inhabitants of the Middle East that evil in the modern world will be given no quarter.
The first order of business is for Saddam and his associates to publicly repudiate their past behavior and apologize for the death and destruction they perpetrated on the region. After that, they should be compelled to appear in what might only be described as public-service announcements, renouncing the use of violence and calling on their followers to lay down their arms. Via television and radio Saddam should speak directly to the leaders of the Middle East imploring them to free their countries of oppression. What a powerful and empowering message this would be.
To his fellow despots in Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Iran, Saddam’s new invocation should be clear and to the point: Tyranny in the service of Arab nationalism or Islamic radicalism is destructive and ultimately self-defeating. Pluralism and respect for minorities must be the cornerstone of a new Middle East or your fate will be the same as mine.
Saddam’s words should be used to encourage the Arab and Muslim masses across the Middle East to challenge the harsh and repressive conditions under which they live. His words should sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the young, caught between the pull of the West and the drumbeat of intolerance streaming out of the region’s mosques and madrasses.
And the Coalition should go one step further and pressure the government of Qatar to force Al-Jazeera, broadcasting from its soil, to regularly air the messages of a repentant Saddam. It would provide an important counterweight to the exposure the station regularly gives to the arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Will Hussein and his fellow confederates cooperate in this plan? That’s unclear. But judging from the bravado exhibited by Saddam upon his capture, and the extraordinary hubris they all exhibited while in power, it’s an approach that just might work.
Whether or not Saddam Hussein is ready for primetime is another matter. But as the Bush administration pursues a aggressive public-diplomacy program in the Middle East, it must remember that here, the messenger is as important as the message. We in the West may be repelled by the thought of Saddam returning to the spotlight. But in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world he may be our best hope. Killing him now might only hurt our ratings.
–Rand H. Fishbein is president of Fishbein Associates, Inc., a public-policy consulting firm based in Potomac, Maryland. He is a former professional staff member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and a former special assistant for national-security affairs to Senator Daniel K. Inouye.