Quagmire seekers

Posted: Dec 18, 2003 12:00 AM

The capture of Saddam Hussein is good news to virtually everyone, except those who have been looking for a quagmire in Iraq from day one. Back when the war was just getting under way last spring, a dust storm that temporarily stopped the American troops advancing toward Baghdad was loudly proclaimed as a quagmire by some media deep thinkers.

With all the complaints about what has not been done yet in Iraq, we need to step back and think about the fact that less than a year has elapsed since the war began. This should be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest quagmire in history. Nothing is easier than to sit on the sidelines and demand that there be a "plan" showing what will be done when and how -- as if wars can be run on a timetable, like a railroad. Even after the capture of Saddam Hussein, there is still a war going on in Iraq -- a terrorist war fought by both outsiders and members of the murderous old regime who think that they can drive us out by making the country too hot for us.

Like a baseball game, wars are not over till they are over. Wars don't run on a clock like football. No previous generation was so hopelessly unrealistic that this had to be explained to them.

The capture of Saddam Hussein should signal to both the terrorists and the Iraqi people alike that the old regime is not coming back. Maybe that will save some American lives.

What should be done with Saddam Hussein? For reasons unknown, the American occupation authorities have suspended the death penalty in Iraq. But it would be an abomination and a mockery if this man were allowed to live, after all his mass killings of innocent civilians, including women and children.

It can only be hoped that the trial and punishment of Saddam Hussein will be left in the hands of the new Iraqi authorities, and that they have not bought into the weak-kneed squeamishness that has saved so many murderers in the United States and still more so in Europe.

The last thing we need is an international tribunal to try Saddam Hussein. Do we really want the Libyans or the Cubans playing international politics with this? Do we want some French judge to sentence Saddam to so many hours of community service?

For that matter, do we even want American laws applied in a country with such wholly different traditions? Certainly we do not need some lawyer like Johnnie Cochran to obfuscate the issues or -- heaven help us -- a 5 to 4 decision by our Supreme Court, after years of innumerable appeals.

Since stoning people to death is a tradition in parts of the Middle East, that might be the most appropriate way to execute Saddam Hussein.

If each relative of someone murdered by Saddam were allowed to throw a stone, the line might stretch back for miles. Television pictures of that line, broadcast throughout the Arab world, could completely undermine any notion that this is just an American vendetta against Moslems.

By the time the last person in line got a chance to throw his stone, Saddam would probably already be dead. But it could still be a catharsis for those who could feel that they had done something to avenge their loved ones.

Presiding over a matter of this magnitude and applying traditional laws and practices could help establish the credibility of the new Iraqi authorities. To our inevitable critics in Europe and elsewhere, we could say: "This is not the American way of doing things. But this is the Iraqis' country."

Moreover, some of our troops might start packing up while we were saying it. We don't need to stay there any longer than is necessary for the internal security of the country.

The worst thing we can do is bring in an international army of occupation. The United Nations has already cut and run after the recent terrorist attacks in Iraq. That is par for the course for the U.N.

There is something about international operations that attracts the intelligentsia like a moth to a flame. But it has been known for centuries that too many cooks spoil the broth -- and power in the hands of people who are accountable to no one is still a formula for disaster.