Under a different kind of empire in an earlier age, there is little doubt what would have happened. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would have been paraded in chains past cheering crowds along Pennsylvania Avenue to bow the knee to the conquering president. The whole thing would have been straight out of Aida or Tamburlaine the Great. Even today, there seems to be a significant minority of US opinion that would probably get off quite happily on such a celebration of raw American power. \nAn empire based on laws and freedom, though, cannot go there. But that does not mean that the question of what to do with Saddam has an easy answer. Riding in triumph is not the only option that is placed off limits by political considerations. Even if he wanted to, US President George W. Bush cannot display the pragmatic magnanimity to Saddam that General Ulysses Grant and president Abraham Lincoln offered to General Robert Lee and the confederacy's leader, Jefferson Davis, after Appomattox. Nor can he look the other way and replicate the ad hoc national self-interest that General Douglas Macarthur applied to Japan's Emperor Hirohito in 1945. \nThe treatment of captive rulers is never easy. This has always been an issue that can divide allies who otherwise agree about almost everything else. As London exploded into victory celebrations after the signing of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill sat down to dinner in 10 Downing Street to discuss the aftermath of war. The talk centered on what they should do about Kaiser Wilhelm II. Churchill counselled caution. Lloyd George was for shooting him as soon as possible. The Kaiser abdicated but survived. \nToday, we inhabit the post-Nuremberg tribunal age, buttressed by the spread of international and human rights law, and spiced by the revival of moral interventionism. Yet even so, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his advisers are no clearer about Saddam's fate than his predecessors were about the Kaiser's. As US troops powered towards Baghdad this spring, Blair was asked whether his preference was for Saddam to be taken dead or alive. Not sure, replied Blair, what do you think? \nThere was no agreement, but nothing was ruled out. \nEight months later, it is unlikely that they had resolved the issue before the news came through from Tikrit. \nThe only reliable rule is that enemy leaders who are dead as well as overthrown are generally a lot less trouble to those who have ousted them than the living. The corpses of Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Salvador Allende and Nikolae Ceausescu all prove the point, in their different ways. \nWith the living, on the other hand, politics will always loom as large as power. The dispute about the Kaiser was not a one-off. \nRemember Charles I after his capture in 1647, or the problems that Napoleon repeatedly caused his opponents in defeat. Or the difficulties that the overthrown czar presented to the Bolsheviks. \nThese issues are never either pleasant or simple. Even after thousands of years there are no absolute rules. The Bush administration has held hundreds of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay for two years while utterly ignoring international law and opinion. \nYesterday, on the other hand, Bush was quick to promise Saddam a trial that would stand international scrutiny. A new approach? Or merely the different exigencies of a changed time? The latter is more credible. Treason, the wily Talleyrand observed, is all a matter of dates. He could have added that often in war and politics it is not what happens that does most to shape events, but also when it happens and how. \nThe capture of Saddam is a classic case in point. The tyrant's detention is an unreservedly welcome event. It removes the threat of a restoration that, however distant, had to be obliterated if Iraqi freedom is ever to mean anything. It heralds the possibility of a form of closure for the generations of Iraqis who suffered at the hands of his regime. It takes the occupation of Iraq over a significant watershed that had to be crossed if a credible transfer of authority is to be carried through. It makes the talk of a new Iraq based on freedom and democracy seem more plausible, if still some way off. \nYet these are all big picture conclusions. They do not offer any guidance on the more immediate question of what should be done with Saddam. The former Iraqi leader has been in American hands barely for 72 hours. Yet already some extremely awkward consequential issues begin to loom larger than they might have done had he simply been captured and executed in the heat of the invasion. \nIs Saddam to be tried by the international community, whatever exactly that means in this context, or by Iraqis? In either eventuality, under what code and jurisdiction would such a trial take place? What punishment -- and what rights of appeal -- await him if and when he is convicted? US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says Saddam is to be treated as a prisoner of war; but prisoners of war are entitled to significant rights, including the right not to be demeaned in public and the right not to answer detailed questions. \nIf the dictator had been run to earth in April, in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion, how different it might have been. \nRough justice would have been easier to carry out and might have had potent effects. The invasion would have been more conclusive, probably more tolerable and perhaps even more popular for longer among liberated Iraqis. Sustained resistance would have been harder, and the defects of the Pentagon's post-invasion planning less cruelly exposed. Conceivably there might even have been some closure on weapons of mass destruction, while a significant number of people from many lands who have since perished might still be alive today, not least British scientist David Kelly. \nSaddam's arrest, in other words, is both a great event and, because of its timing, a mixed blessing. Its consequences are not what they would have been in April and are now by no means predictable or easy. One thing that is certain is that it does not vindicate ex post facto the British invasion of Iraq, since the government justified the invasion on the basis of the need to defend ourselves from the threat of attack by weapons of mass destruction, not on the basis that it was desirable to overthrow Saddam. \nIt is hardly surprising that the government is cock-a-hoop about the arrest. In Whitehall, there is a mood of celebration that is all the stronger for having been so long denied. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw seemed almost lighthearted at his press conference Monday morning, almost giving the game away. \nThe government therefore feels a great weight off its shoulders. All this is only human. Yet it does not follow that things will now change for the better in Iraq, where there were serious car bomb attacks again on Monday. And it does not follow either that the domestic political clouds still hanging over Blair will lift quickly, or even at all, merely because Saddam is at last behind bars.
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