Image: 020925_saddam_portraits_
An Iraqi salesman exhibits framed portraits for sale of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at a shop in central Baghdad Sept. 25.
By MSNBC

Progress is marvelous to behold, even when it is painful to watch. Despite all its unilateralist bluster - all the breast-beating about “with them or without them” - the Bush administration came to realize this past month that a war launched against Iraq without some kind of United Nations sanctioning would do more harm than good. As the focus shifts to winning U.N. Security Council approval, a slam-dunk method for unifying the world behind America’s goal of “regime change” in Iraq is there for the taking: rejoin the new International Criminal Court on the condition that Saddam Hussein be the first war criminal indicted.

IMAGINE, for just a moment, the case the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations would be making right now if the world body’s new criminal court had entered an indictment against Saddam — torturer, murderer, proliferator extraordinaire, a man demonstrably guilty of genocide (against his own Kurds), war crimes (the use of poison gas against the Kurds and against Iranian troops in the 1980s), environmental crimes (for lighting up the Gulf’s oil wells in 1991) and assorted other brutalities. He makes Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial for war crimes in The Hague, look like Joan of Arc.

Right now, rather than trying to overcome the enormous distrust that the Bush administration has incurred from the rest of the planet, the United States would be daring the United Nations to show that its precious International Criminal Court is more than just another talking shop.

By now, Saddam would have brushed off the court’s arrest warrant as just the latest American-inspired plot against him, and the court would be looking, longingly, to the only part on this planet that could make its writ stick: the United States of America.

SHORT-SIGHTED DECISION

Interactive: Conflict with Iraq - A look at the ongoing standoff with Saddam
Alas, the Bush administration did little to prepare the ground for the diplomatic battle it must now fight to win U.N. support for (or at least temper its opposition to) its foreign policy aims. Last May, at a time when Washington should have been courting international opinion, it instead made the enormous diplomatic blunder of withdrawing from the Treaty of Rome that authorized the new court. The excuse was less than convincing: The administration cited concerns that American soldiers or officials might someday face war-crimes charges stemming from their actions in the line of duty.

Worse still, the administration then set about trying to prevent the court from ever holding a session, demanding unilateral exemptions and changes that would ensure no American, regardless of what he or she did, would ever be subject to its jurisdiction. Killing the court became a fetish for a time, with Washington threatening, as leverage, to withdraw support for U.N. peacekeeping operations (again, just when it should have been trying to figure out how to expand them in Afghanistan).

CARPE DIEM

Luckily, it still is not too late to change course. Last week, the 78 nations that have signed the treaty met at the United Nations to ratify the procedures for electing judges, choosing cases to pursue and other issues. As if to plead for a sensible signal from Washington, Canada’s Foreign Minister Bill Graham told the delegates that “democratic, law-abiding nations have nothing to fear from the International Criminal Court.”

He is absolutely right. Just as George W. Bush’s speech at the United Nations completely changed the debate there as previously skeptical nations like Russia and France tried to capitalize on the sudden American willingness to have a dialogue, a second gesture toward the court could transform the issue. Within days of such a move, those resisting an American-led effort to remove Saddam would be themselves opposing the will of the Security Council. Let’s see the French rationalize their way out of that one.

FIXING WHAT’S WRONG

Honest people can disagree about the usefulness of the court over the long run, and even someone who supports it (as I do) has to recognize that, left in the wrong hands, it could become a shrill annoyance to American foreign policy. Should some poor GI get dragged before the court unjustly, by all means, withdraw. (Should William Calley be called to the dock, however, America might want to consider letting justice takes its course).

All of that is academic speculation, however. The fact is, America’s withdrawal last May was an unnecessary public-relations catastrophe — another in a drip, drip, drip of snubs meted out by the Bush administration to our allies and partners abroad. This has produced an atmosphere of profound distrust of America’s real motives toward Iraq or just about any other topic, not just among our rivals, but among friends, as well.

A European diplomat at the United Nations told me last week that, in his view, there would be little resistance to a tough new resolution on Iraqi disarmament if the action wasn’t playing out against a backdrop of disdain and double-standards from Washington.

“There is a fear among smaller nations who generally wish America well, that giving Washington a blank check at this point just rewards the attitude among the Bush people that the rest of the world has no right to an opinion.”

LET’S MAKE THE DEAL

None of this will go down well with those Americans who believe an international war crimes tribunal will somehow restrict our freedom of action abroad or even lead to indictments against, say, Henry Kissinger for the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia in 1969. But these people should not kid themselves about what is going on right now in the Security Council’s ante chambers concerning a proposed U.S. ultimatum on Iraq.

Dirty deals to win the support of veto-wielding powers like China, Russia and France are in the offing. Agreeing to support an international war crimes court would be far less damaging than, say, promising to look the other way as Russia crosses into Georgia in pursuit of Chechen guerrillas, or China jails thousands of Muslims in a new crack down on dissent. In the end, the world criminal court will open for business this year “with or without us.” The best way to ensure it doesn’t become a forum for anti-American rhetoric is to be on the inside appointing judges, prosecutors and administrators.

Mail your thoughts to Michael Moran, request to join (or be removed from) his email notification list.

Copyright MSNBC 2002

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