A future for Saddam

Posted: Jan 27, 2003 12:00 AM
The talk now is of contriving an exile for Saddam Hussein. We think back on the last impasse with Saddam Hussein. It was in November 1990 that the United States successfully urged on the United Nations a final date: a specific date (Jan. 15, 1991) by which Saddam would need to have removed his conquering army from Kuwait or else face a military showdown.

George Ball, the late, learned, omnipurpose diplomat, scolded Mr. Bush. He said that the president had gone from "a resolution" to "an ultimatum" and that ultimatums historically served as preludes to war. Moreover, "ultimatums are a decidedly 'non-Arab' procedure. The Arab peoples do not like irrevocable decisions that may lead to violence. There is an old Middle Eastern saying that if an Arab should ever cross the Rubicon, he would pick up the Rubicon and take it so that he could cross and recross it, as events evolved."

Well, of course the ultimatum was issued. Saddam did not abide by it; we went to war, defeated him, and liberated Kuwait. But lo! Saddam Hussein indeed succeeded in picking up the Rubicon and stuffing it, together with handbooks on atomic, biological and chemical warfare, in his pocket. And now we are approaching a fresh ultimatum-time, the first installment of which, of course, is Jan. 27, the date a wobbly U.N. Security Council has set. That threatened ultimatum, when activated, would accost the Iraqi problem by force of arms.

What is now apparently being considered as an alternative to war is an ultimatum of a different order. This one would call for Saddam to relinquish his power.

In January of 2002, the following lines were published in this space: An ultimatum should be made and "must specify that Saddam Hussein be removed from any cockpit from which he could give military or political directions that would obstruct our purpose. In short, the ultimatum should require Saddam Hussein to remove himself from office. To where? That is a matter of detail. St. Helena (looms) as an appropriate cloister. And arrangements could reasonably provide for a corps of aides of whatever reasonable number he wished, excluding only access by them to electronic communications."

It is easy enough to dismiss the idea on the grounds that Saddam would never accept it. What does that matter? The value of an ultimatum does not rest solely on whether it is acceptable. It defines a position. The accommodationist forces are at high speed mobilizing opposition to a ground war conducted by the United States. One set of reasons against such a war is vivid and undeniable. There would be casualties, including civilian casualties. There would be reprisals, conceivably featuring Saddam's (to be sure, nonexistent) apocalyptic weapons.

So Saddam turns down the ultimatum. In reasonable moral arithmetic, it becomes Saddam who, by the single act of refusing to step down, brought on war.

Objections to the idea of a comfortable exile are not only those of people who are soft on Saddam. There is a substantial body of plaintiffs who bridle at the thought of Saddam and his retinue living out air-conditioned lives, immune from the consequences of the leader's long life of torture, terrorism and genocide. The point is respectable. We took some justified satisfaction from the hangings at Nuremberg. We are taking satisfaction, if interminably attenuated, from the ongoing trial of Milosevic.

And of course some satisfaction was taken, almost 200 years ago, from Napoleon's sheer removal from his cockpit of imperial power, and that kind of satisfaction could be had from moving Saddam away from his hundred castles, to a single castle, in whatever island or enclave. There he could move his head in distemper from compliant executioner to designated victim, having to choose not from 24 million people, but from the 100 courtiers who elected to accompany him to exile. After a while they would diminish in number, even as Napoleon's court dripped steadily away from St. Helena.

Perhaps the suggested terms of exit have been forwarded to Baghdad and are being perused. The offer, of course, must have put in place wiles and seducements, and here Mr. Bush could be inventive. There would be scant opposition. The United Nations would quickly grant amnesty, as requested, sparing the exiled Saddam from any interference from Spanish judges. The ultimatum must of course shrewdly opportunize on the matter of Saddam's entourage. Exile would not be appealing to those generals and janissaries in and around Baghdad. The ultimatum should therefore provide for segregated isolation, something of a kind that would induce the Brutuses in Baghdad to make their stand -- which, if boldly executed, would end the whole problem, even without having to air-condition St. Helena.