Sunday morning the nation awoke to the good news that U.S. forces had, at long last, captured Saddam Hussein. The subject dominated all network television programming -- including, of course, the Sunday talk shows. Among the questions everybody seemed to ask were: Now that we've got him, what do we do with him? How is justice to be administered here? The Iraqis, understandably, think they should try him, though they do not have a constitution yet, nor a national legal system. Others -- Iran and Kuwait, for instance -- have their own scores to settle. And many believe that Saddam should be charged with war crimes before an international court.

That idea has precedent going back to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal of 1945, which decided what to do with members of the Nazi hierarchy captured by the victorious Allies. This was a legal system made out of whole cloth, as it were. It invented new charges and applied them ex post facto -- after the fact -- to deal with those who brought World War II upon us and who created the Jewish Holocaust in the Nazi death camps. Defendants were accused of conspiracy to commit aggressive war and with crimes against humanity. Most of us who covered that yearlong trial thought then that the solution was brilliant enough to endure. The rationale for these new charges was not only the unprecedented scope and horrors of that war, but the knowledge that, with the new development of nuclear weapons, another war could well mean humanity's end. It was a chance to establish the legal precedents under which future dictators with a taste for mass destruction could be intercepted and legally punished.

The effectiveness of the legal precedents would depend on a world legislative body powerful enough to bring and enforce charges against such newly defined criminals. Thus was born the United Nations. This year, the United Nations established the International Criminal Court at The Hague -- a permanent Nuremberg Tribunal. This country, however, withheld its endorsement of the court unless Americans serving as peacekeepers are immune from the law and the court's jurisdiction.

There is an argument to be made for that position -- given the fact that American troops bear the brunt of peacemaking and peacekeeping assignments around the world. But the Bush administration's insulting arrogance toward the United Nations in general, and individual members in particular, has so far made an acceptable compromise impossible.

As pundits rushed to the television cameras Sunday (and since), there was the frequent suggestion that the capture of Saddam was a turning point, offering a grand opportunity for President Bush to abandon his dismissive unilateralism and invite our former allies to share in the victory. We might even swallow our haughtiness and offer to turn Saddam over to the International Criminal Court.

But the president's announcement that Saddam would be tried in Iraq seemed to dismiss the idea of taking this case to that court -- rejecting as well any thought of exploiting the trial of Saddam as a move toward reconciliation.

Of course, the International Criminal Court has no death penalty, and it's my guess that Iraqis not only will demand that, but believe it their right to exact it. That does not mean, however, that a compromise could not be found -- say, trying Saddam in The Hague for international crimes but letting the Iraqis have him last.

Most experts agree that we are not going to be able to bring our occupation of Iraq to an early and satisfactory conclusion until we internationalize the custodianship of the country.

Taking Saddam to the International Criminal Court not only would signal a change in the tone of American foreign policy, it might begin to heal the wounds in our relationship with the U.N. Security Council and with its members. It might even persuade such powers as France and Germany to join in the effort to reconstruct Iraq, to help it become a free, independent and democratic nation. It might also begin to restore our badly damaged reputation within the community of nations.


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(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

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