The Magazine

John F. Burns, the New Republic, and more.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Crime and Punishment, Iraqi-style

Never let it be said that The Scrapbook has no kind words for the New York Times. Even before the United States invaded Iraq, the paper's veteran foreign correspondent John F. Burns was on the ground in Baghdad, filing articles that dripped with telling details, sharp insight, and--most important--moral sanity.

Burns is still there, and his reporting is still leagues above the competition. Just consider his December 8 dispatch on Saddam Hussein's half brother and codefendant, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. Like Saddam, al-Tikriti has done his best to disrupt the courtroom. Last week, Burns reports, "in a 10-minute lecture from the dock," al-Tikriti

equated the defendants' privations in an American military detention center near Baghdad with the violence and hardships inflicted on victims of Mr. Hussein's repression in the former government's interrogation centers and prisons, as they have been described by witnesses at the trial. These have included, in one instance, seeing a grinding machine that had been used to crush a prisoner's head and, in another, the execution of a 14-year-old boy.

That's nothing, though, said al-Tikriti, compared with what he's been going through:

Among the "incredible punishments" cited by Mr. Ibrahim--who was chief of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency in the early 1980s, at the time of the killings, torture, and deportations that the prosecution alleges--was being restricted to six of "the worst cigarettes in the world" per day.

Mr. Ibrahim, 54, listed other privations including, in the first months after he was arrested in April 2003, being forced by American troops to take his daily exercise outside in the 130-degree noontime heat of the Baghdad summer and 4 a.m. in the cold of the desert winter. On top of this, he said, American soldiers guarding the former Iraqi leaders served them "food that should not be given to beggars."

Burns, it should be noted, has won two Pulitzer prizes, one for his coverage of the Balkan wars, the other for his coverage of the Taliban. He's past due for a third.

Not Fit to Print?

One of the best New Republic articles in recent years didn't appear in the New Republic. It was by Harvard law professor William J. Stuntz and was called "Noble Cause: Brief Wars Rarely Produce Lasting Results. Long Wars Often Do." It appeared last week, not in the magazine's print edition, which apparently had no room for it, but only on the TNR website. Here are a few highlights from Stuntz's very interesting argument (you can read the whole thing at www.tnr.com):

"Brief wars rarely produce permanent results, but long wars often do. Had McClellan's army taken Richmond and ended the war early in 1862, slavery and secessionism would have survived, and 'the South shall rise again' would have been a prediction rather than a slogan. . . .

"What would have happened had the second Iraq war turned out like the first, as the White House apparently expected? Saddam would have been toppled, the Iraqi people would have celebrated, order would have been restored quickly, followed by a speedy exit for British and American troops. Then what? Maybe the rule of Iran-style Shia mullahs, perhaps another brutal Sunni autocrat to take the place of the last one, possibly an endless civil war between the two. Today, there is a real chance of a vastly better result--precisely because the insurgency survived, because it wasn't quickly defeated. Sunni intransigence needed to be crushed slowly; a quick in-and-out war was not enough to kill the dream of forever tyrannizing Iraqi Kurds and Shia. More important, thousands of senseless murders over the past 32 months have taught Iraqis--Sunni, Shia, and Kurd alike--just how vicious Zarqawi and his allies are. That lesson will have very useful consequences for the long-term health of the region. . . .

"Thankfully, Lincoln saw to it that the war's purpose changed. George W. Bush has changed the purpose of his war too, though the change seems more the product of our enemies' choices than of Bush's design. By prolonging the war, Zarqawi and his Baathist allies have drawn thousands of terrorist wannabes into the fight--against both our soldiers and Muslim civilians.