Washington Saddam Hussein's lawyers have announced their intention to make past U.S. complicity with the Iraqi dictator an essential part of the defense in his Baghdad trial. Let's hope they keep their poisonous word.
The pledge to revisit the past came as Saddam's trial opened, and fed into a flurry of other helpful developments in Iraq last week after a draining summer and early autumn. The White House seems to have noticed that the war's critics are in the ascendancy.
"We needed to go back on the offense and offer clear leadership on Iraq," one official said in explaining new emphases laid out in testimony by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Staying the course" is no longer seen as sufficient, as strategy or as slogan.
The most important aspects of Rice's testimony may be its timing, and the fact that she has now put her stamp on Iraq policy. Doubts had grown in recent months over who in Washington - if anyone - was running the shop. For better or for worse, Iraq is now her project in a way it never was before.
Rice unveiled to skeptical senators a revised political-military plan to "clear, hold and build" in disputed areas. She indicated she would dispatch many more U.S. diplomats, aid workers and other civilians out of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone to be embedded with U.S-Iraqi military reconstruction teams in the countryside. And she plans to visit Iraq's Arab neighbors in the next month to press them to engage politically and financially with the permanent Iraqi government to be formed after December elections.
This suggests that Rice and her advisers share some of the sense of urgency, if not the underlying analysis, that is voiced by strong war critics such as Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who says the administration has "a window, at most, of six months" to persuade U.S. public opinion "that it has the ability to influence the outcome in Iraq." Otherwise, sentiment for withdrawal will become irresistible.
That estimate has a ring of political truth. A critical new period opened with the approval of Iraq's constitution a week ago. Voters went to the polls for the second time this year in a largely peaceful and orderly election - a psychological and political watershed in the Arab Middle East.
Saddam's lawyers - who asked for and received a postponement until Nov. 28 after a formal opening Wednesday - expect to use the past to demoralize U.S. opinion further. They will play a variant of the "shame game" that is a common tactic in Arab politics and culture to get opponents to yield.
"Americans ... want to blame Saddam for the mass graves and killing Kurds," Khalil Dulaimi, the dictator's lead lawyer, told The Wall Street Journal. "But they forget that they supported Saddam back then."
Counselor, make my case. The current debate here about Iraq pays almost no attention to the past - especially to the unique moral responsibility to the Iraqi people that successive U.S. administrations have taken on and failed miserably to meet.
Official Washington helped Saddam suppress Iraqis so he could fight Iran (Reagan), called on the people to rise up against the dictator only to abandon them when they did (Bush 41) or relied on economic sanctions that slowly ground Iraqi society into dust while providing a political alibi at home for not acting (Clinton). The unnecessary misery, political strife and corruption that a misbegotten and mismanaged occupation now contributes to Iraq must also be added to the list.
Americans cannot simply walk away from that history - or from Iraq. They owe Iraqis - and themselves - more than a sudden case of moral amnesia to bolster precipitous withdrawal. So, counselor, be thorough in airing who did what when.
Before Rice goes to visit them, remind us what Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab League members also did for the Baathist dictator. That will help us understand what kind of Iraq they want to emerge from this conflict. Remind American officials of the terrible consequences of doing those countries' bidding in using Iraq as a human-rights-free bulwark against Iran.
Somehow, I doubt you will do that. But others do. A powerful new book published in Paris, "Le Livre Noir de Saddam Hussein," describes in astonishing detail his crimes, which probably took 1 million lives and created 4 million refugees.
Iraq's "most important weapon of mass destruction was Saddam Hussein," writes Bernard Kouchner, a leader of France's Socialist Party, in the introduction. Yes, it is worth remembering - and atoning for - those who blindly or deliberately helped a monster.