Of all the mistakes that the Bush administration has committed in Iraq, none is as gratuitous and self-inflicted as the bungling of the trial of Saddam Hussein.
Although Hussein deserves to be shot like a dog -- or, same thing, like the Ceausescus -- we nonetheless decided to give him a trial. First, to demonstrate the moral superiority of the new Iraq as it struggles to live by the rule of law. Second, and even more important, to bear witness.
War crimes trials are, above all and always, for educational purposes. This one was for the world to see and experience and recoil from the catalogue of Hussein's crimes, and to demonstrate the justice of a war that stripped this man and his gang of their monstrous and murderous power.
It has not worked out that way. Instead of Hussein's crimes being on trial, he has succeeded in putting the new regime on trial. The lead story of every court session has been his demeanor, his defiance, his imperiousness. The evidence brought against him by his hapless victims -- testimony mangled in translation and electronic voice alteration -- made the back pages at best.
"This has become a platform for Saddam to show himself as a caged lion when really he was a mouse in a hole," said Vice President Ghazi Yawar. "I don't know who is the genius who is producing this farce. It's a political process. It's a comedy show."
There hasn't been such judicial incompetence since Judge Ito and the O.J. trial. We can excuse the Iraqis, who are new to all this and justifiably terrified of retribution. But there is no excusing the Bush administration, which had Hussein in custody for two years and had even longer to think about putting on a trial that would not become a star turn for a defeated enemy.
Why have we given him control of the stage? We all remember the picture of him pulled out of his spider hole. That should be the Saddam Hussein we put on trial. Instead, with every appearance, he dresses more regally, emerging from cowering captive to ordinary prisoner to dictator on temporary leave. Now he carries on as legitimate and imperious head of state. He plays the benign father of his country, calling the judge "son," then threatens the judge's life. Hussein shouts, defies, brandishes a Koran. The judge keeps telling him he's out of order. He disobeys with impunity, the guards not daring to intervene.
What kind of message does that send to Iraqis who have been endlessly told that Hussein and his regime were finished? "The performance has heartened his followers," writes The Post's Doug Struck from Baghdad. "In Tikrit . . . a large crowd of demonstrators chanted their loyalty on Tuesday. Several marchers said they were emboldened by his courtroom bravado."
This is absurd. If anything, Hussein should be brought in wearing prison garb, perhaps in shackles, just for effect. And why was he given control of the script? He shouts, interrupts and does his Mussolini histrionics unmolested. Instead of the press being behind a glass wall, it is Hussein who should be. Better still, placed in a glass booth, like Eichmann, like some isolated specimen of deranged humanity, symbolically and physically cut off from the world of normal human values.
Instead, he struts. And we are witness to a political test of wills between the new Iraq represented by an as-yet incompetent judicial system and the would-be tyrant-for-life defiantly raising once again the banner of Baathism, on a worldwide stage afforded him by us.
Until now the Baathists who constitute the bulk of this Sunni insurgency had no symbolic presence, no political platform, no visible leadership. We have now given that to them, gratis.
Both President Bush and his opponents in Congress are incessantly talking about "benchmarks" to guide any U.S. withdrawals from Iraq. But there is one benchmark that is always left unspoken: We cannot leave until Saddam Hussein is dead, executed for his crimes. No one will say it, but everyone knows it. As long as he is alive and well-dressed, every Iraqi will have to wonder what will happen to him and his family if Hussein returns. Only Hussein's death will assure them that he will not return.
Which is why the lateness of this trial is such a tragedy. And why its bungling is such a danger. Our only hope, as always with Hussein, is that he destroys himself with his arrogance and stupidity. He has stupidly walked out of his own trial. This is our opportunity. He should not be allowed back, certainly not without a glass booth. Only Saddam Hussein can save us from our own incompetence. We should let him.