Haass: Arrest of Saddam Is Welcome News But ’Not Really a Turning Point’

December 15, 2003

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the former director of policy planning in the State Department, says that the December 13 arrest of Saddam Hussein may improve the gathering of intelligence in Iraq, but he doubts that it will end the resistance or improve the political situation.

“So, as welcome as the arrest is, I don’t think there is any evidence that it will get necessarily any safer for our troops or for Iraqi civilian officials,” he says. “And it is not necessarily going to make any simpler or easier the questions of the political transition.”

Haass was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 15, 2003.

Is the arrest of Saddam Hussein a major turning point?

It’s one of those questions that only in retrospect will we know whether it marks the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning, or neither. My own hunch is that the biggest impact will be on increasing the willingness of Iraqis to provide the sort of intelligence that is essential to defeat the resistance. I don’t think in and of itself that it’s likely to do either of two things, namely lead to an end to the resistance, or secondly, lead to a sorting out of the political transition in Iraq. So, while it is obviously welcome news and then some, I suppose it is not really a turning point.

Will it lead to enhanced stability in Iraq?

My hunch is that we have to be prepared for increased resistance. It doesn’t look as if Saddam could have been controlling the day-to-day operations of the resistance. I think we should have every expectation that those who are out there will want to signal us that Saddam’s arrest does not end their activities. So, as welcome as the arrest is, I don’t think there is any evidence that it will get necessarily any safer for our troops or for Iraqi civilian officials. And it is not necessarily going to make any simpler or easier the questions of the political transition.

A major question now is deciding what to do with Saddam. The Iraqi Governing Council has already set up a war crimes tribunal and presumably the Iraqis would like to try Saddam themselves. Does the United States have any real say in this matter? Could or should it try to block a unilateral Iraqi trial and try to internationalize the tribunal?

I’m not a lawyer. But I think we are in a tricky position here. The United States probably does not have particularly strong war crimes claims against Saddam. Or to put it another way, whatever claims the United States has, I would think, are not nearly as strong as what Iraqis have, what Iranians have, and what Kuwaitis have. Also, it is probably best that any war crimes proceeding not look at the end of the day like something controlled or engineered by America. Whether one comes up with a series of separate war crimes proceedings or a hybrid one, I’m not sure. The only thing I would be uneasy with would be a proceeding dominated by Americans. What might be possible would be something where we and other members of the international community essentially arrange for some court proceeding in which it would be important that Iraqis, Iranians, and Kuwaitis all be seen to have the opportunity to press their claims.

Of course Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, was brought before a war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Well, that’s another option, which is to bring Saddam before an international court and, again, as long as you had Iraqi testimony, perhaps some Iraqi lawyers, and it was on Iraqi television, I think it would probably be acceptable. The only warning is to remember that Milosevic has used these proceedings, in some ways quite effectively, to make his case before the Serbian people. And one shouldn’t rule out the possibility that Saddam could use a war crimes proceeding as something of a soap box for certain Arab nationalist-type themes.

What will be the impact of Saddam’s capture on American domestic politics? Is it a major gain for Republicans or a setback to Democrats?

I think it has short-term impact on both sides. It clearly changes the perception of Iraq. For the administration, it is a significant help. It helps reverse the impression that things in Iraq were moving in the wrong direction. I think for the Democrats, it is a complication. Several weeks ago, the Democrats ran into the problem of the surprisingly high economic growth statistics, which took away, to some extent, the economic issue. And the arrest of Saddam, at least for a week or two, could complicate [the Democrats’ attempt to base] the campaign on the war issue. But again, if I’m right, this will not change the fundamentals in Iraq. So a month from now, two months from now, six months from now, it will be the situation in Iraq that will determine whether the Democrats have an issue on which the president is vulnerable.

When we last talked, it was just after L. Paul [Jerry] Bremer III had been in Washington but before the announcement of the plan to turn over sovereignty to the Iraqis by the end of next June. You anticipated the plan by saying that the United States had no choice but to speed up the turnover to the Iraqis. Is that still your view?

Do I think it is ideal? No. In the best of all possible worlds, the transition would go more slowly, and the government transfer would not occur until one had greater confidence that Iraqi society had evolved to a point where the rights of individuals and groups were more likely to be protected. That said, I don’t think we are going to have that luxury. My prediction is that we are going to face great pressure, particularly from the leadership of the Shiite community, to stick to this timetable. They are likely to be very suspicious that any delay is aimed at them.

The Shiites’ senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for direct elections to pick the next leadership rather than the local communal caucuses put forward by the United States and Britain. I don’t see how this can be possible, given the lack of a voting list.

Again, it is hard to see how elections could happen as soon as Sistani wants them, given the lack of voting lists and the lack of security in parts of the country. There is a tension here between the demands of the majority and both the concerns of the minority and the reality on the ground.

Is there any way the Bush administration can translate the arrest of Saddam into a vehicle for enlarging the scope of international cooperation in Iraq?

My own feeling is that the time for significant internationalization, particularly on the political side, has passed. The key dynamic now is between the coalition and the Iraqis. And I don’t see how creating a large international structure, a mechanism, at this point would be acceptable to either the United States or to the Iraqis. One could have made a strong case for doing it right after hostilities ended at the outset of the aftermath, but not now. I think the real question is more about military issues and economics. What is it the United States can do at this point to get Europeans and others to open up their checkbooks, to forgive debt, and provide troops?

Is the mission of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to settle Iraq’s international debts an important one?

I do think the Baker mission is important. The question is whether the United States is prepared to put forth compromises, potentially on the political side, that Europeans and others would deem essential if they are to become more forthcoming on the military and economic sides. I don’t think we’ll know that until Baker completes his mission.

What, for instance, do the French want?

Up until now, what they have wanted is some dilution in the degree of control the United States enjoys over the occupation, and essentially the dynamic right now is a U.S.-Iraqi one. What the French have wanted is that the United States would share responsibility with other governments, whether it is under the United Nations or something more ad hoc, a de facto coalition of the willing. I think that is the real question facing the administration and, up to now, at least, the administration has not been prepared to share responsibilities with others.

And of course, the statement issued by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz last week listing the countries eligible to bid for contracts in Iraq financed by the United States only exacerbated feelings among those left off the list.

It surely complicates the effort. It has to make Mr. Baker’s efforts more difficult, to deny countries the right to participate in contracts at the same time you are asking them to forgive debt.