Saddam's defender and chief apologist

Section: Main,  Page: A7

Date: Monday, December 12, 2005

Not many months ago, on the op-page of the Los Angeles Times, a former attorney general of the United States defended his decision to appear as an attorney for Saddam Hussein. In his article, Ramsey Clark made the perfectly obvious and indeed irrefutable point that his infamous client - his "demonized" client, as he phrased it - was as much entitled to a defense counsel as the next man.

Nobody disputes this proposition, least of all the Iraqi court that Clark described as illegitimate before it had even opened proceedings. So now, Clark - one of the chief spokesmen of the American anti-war movement, leader of the coalition that filled the streets with protesters and compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler - is indeed in Baghdad, seated at the defense table for a client who last week terminated the proceedings by loudly comparing his own stand in the dock to the heroic struggle of Mussolini. Any reporter with the smallest talent could make good copy out of this zoo-like scene. But a core of principle is involved here, and it ought not to be overlooked. Saddam stands accused of some of the most revolting crimes ever perpetrated by any despot. A defense lawyer is (presumably) engaged to acquit him of such charges. Yet before he had even had his credentials accepted by the court, Clark announced that his client was a) guilty of disgusting atrocities and b) justified in having committed them.

To be exact, in an interview with the BBC two weeks ago and another last week in The New York Times, Clark addressed the charge that in 1982, after an apparent attempt on his life in the Iraqi town of Dujail, Saddam had ordered the torture and murder of about 150 men and boys from the area.

Far from denying that any such horror had occurred - and it is one of the smaller elements in the bill of indictment - Clark asserted that it was justifiable. He has now twice said in public that, given the war with the Shiite republic of Iran, Saddam was entitled to take stern measures.

"He had this huge war going on, and you have to act firmly when you have an assassination attempt," he told the BBC.

To this, he calmly added that he himself had more than once been shoved aside by Secret Service agents eager to defend the president of the United States (and of course one remembers the mass arrests, beatings and executions that followed the assassination attempts on Presidents Ford and Reagan). It is as if Saddam had not started, by his illegal, blood-soaked invasion of Iran, the "huge war" that Clark cites as the excuse for Saddam then turning his guns on Iraqis.

I wonder, does the former absolute owner of Iraq quite realize that one on his team of attorneys is proudly trumpeting his guilt?

Never mind for now whether the despot has engaged a bad counsel. This raises another subject that ought to concern all serious Americans. In the run-up to the war, almost whichever way the debate was going, one could count on the President's opponents to stipulate that, yes, Saddam was certainly a dreadful and criminal figure. This position was hardly optional, given the Alps of evidence assembled over the years, much of it later excavated in mass graves and torture centers and in the ruin of two neighboring states.

Yet now, one of the best-known spokesmen for the anti-war cause appears across the world's TV screens, openly saying that the Hussein system was justified all along in its aggression abroad and its fascism at home.

I was, and still am, one of those who advocated publicly for the overthrow of Saddam. In debates, I proposed that most participants could at least agree on something. Whatever one's view of the propriety and competence of the intervention, it could surely be accepted that human rights groups in Iraq could use some help digging up the mass graves and identifying the missing; that women's organizations needed allies against the fundamentalists on both sides of the argument; that the Kurdish people - the largest stateless minority in the region - were in need of solidarity; and that the "marsh" Arabs, victims of one of the worst genocides ever inflicted, were calling for help.

For the most part, the anti-war faction has subordinated everything to its hatred of Bush, folded its hands and watched coldly as Iraqi democrats struggle in a sea of chaos and violence. That sham neutrality is bad enough. But now, the antiwarriors do have a permanent representative in Baghdad, in the form of an apologist for the past crimes and aggressions of a man who makes his hero, Mussolini, seem like an amateur.

I wonder. What will Cindy Sheehan and the other humanitarians say this time? Or are they not "anti-war" at all, but simply pro-war and on the other side?

Christopher Hitchens' most recent book is "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America." He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.