Any doubt that the Bush administration is prepared to invade Iraq without another U.N. Security Council vote was laid to rest this weekend in the mountains of Switzerland. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Secretary of State Collin Powell renewed his pledge that the U.S. “will not shrink from war if that is the only way to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. . . . we will lead; we will act, even if others are not prepared to join us.”
There is little chance of the U.S. acting alone. At the very least, any “coalition of the willing” will include Britain, Australia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. Spain and Italy are also likely to join. That said, a number of Iraq’s neighbors — most notably Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia — are now scrambling for a last-minute solution to avoid a war. In recent weeks, they have come up with several proposals, all of which share a common element: a grant of amnesty, perhaps under U.N. auspices, to Saddam Hussein in exchange for his resignation — or to his generals if they agree to overthrow him.
Under such proposals, the world would offer Iraq a basic trade: impunity for the tyrant or his henchmen in return for his removal from office. The war-crimes trials Washington has promised would be scrapped. Justice would be sacrificed in the name of peaceful regime change.
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Such a trade might seem appealing to many, especially those countries like France and Germany that want to avoid war at all costs. Certainly there would be plenty of precedent for such a deal. This is evidenced by the number of former dictators (Baby Doc Duvalier, to name one) now living in comfortable exile in spots like the French Riviera, relics of an age when prosecuting strongmen seemed impossible.
But high-level trials have become more common today, and a closer look at history shows that forgoing prosecution is almost always a mistake. It is not merely a question of deterring other abusive dictators; the viability of a future democratic Iraq also hangs in the balance. Washington and its allies must therefore resist any negotiated deal that lets Saddam or his circle avoid justice. Partial solutions that leave the vicious Baath Party or the Republican Guard in place — even without Saddam at the helm — will only lead to more misery for Iraq and the region.
To understand why, it helps to consider the similar experience of countries in Latin America and elsewhere, which avoided trials but paid the price for it. Prosecution, widespread reform, re-education, and some kind of reconciliation process — a South African-style truth commission, say — turn out to be essential for traumatized, corrupted societies to make the transition to real democracy. This isn’t just fuzzy-headed psychobabble. Without comprehensive measures to provide a precise accounting of past crimes, countries simply cannot shake off their bloody histories and achieve lasting peace.
Amnesties, of the kind now being contemplated for Iraq, prevent reform, let murderous or corrupt officials keep their jobs, and deprive their victims of any sort of recognition. Lessons go unlearned and crimes continue to be denied. Thus old wounds fester, with disastrous results.
Consider Guatemala. At the end of its bitter civil war in 1996, the two sides agreed to widespread pardons for both government troops and rebels. Although this deal ended the fighting (at least temporarily), it left the country deeply divided and increasingly criminalized. As a result, although it is nominally democratic today, Guatemala has again become one of the most dangerous places in Central America. Riven by old hatreds that were never addressed, it is sliding back into the widespread violence it suffered in the past.
Elsewhere in Latin America, the desperate need for trials is starting to be accepted. Both Argentina and Chile, for example, granted general amnesties to the military juntas that ruled them throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But the failure to prosecute allowed many midranking former human rights abusers to hold on to office and influence long after their leaders had stepped down. This in turn contributed to intimidation and great tension, and inhibited the progress of democracy in both countries. And thus in the last several years, Chile and Argentina have starting chipping away at their amnesty laws and hauling more and more of their former tormentors into court.
While flawed, however, aren’t amnesties still preferable to the bloodshed that comes with war? Wouldn’t it be worth letting Saddam or his cronies escape justice if that meant a peaceful regime change in Iraq?
Maybe. But in practice, the choice seldom turns out to be so stark. Dictators tend to hang on until they are forced out; voluntary retirements are extremely rare, whether or not trials are in the offing. For example, the existence of a UN war-crimes court in the Hague played little role in Slobodan Milosevic’s eventual overthrow in Serbia. He simply held on as long as he could, and only let go once he had no other option. Despite entreaties from abroad, Saddam, similarly, will almost certainly do whatever he can to stick to power. The man who sees himself as a latter-day Saladin will not to be enticed into retirement by the promise of immunity.
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As for his cronies, the answer — whether it is better to buy them off or overthrow them too — depends on how much one really cares about the future of Iraq. Washington must recognize that establishing a true democracy there will require uprooting and prosecuting large segments of Saddam’s regime. At the very least, former henchmen and functionaries must be barred from office. Without war-crimes trials, deNazification would not have been so successful in post-war Germany. And German society would not be nearly as liberal and pacific as it is today without the widespread, forced re-education that followed.
Iraq now deserves similar treatment. Anything less and the country will simply end up under another tyrant with a different name. And that’s an option the long-suffering Iraqi people can ill-afford.