- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

Until the pictures of a disheveled Saddam Hussein flashed into our living rooms Sunday, the most vivid image of a defeated despot in most of our memories was that of a twitching Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena being riddled with bullets, up against a brick wall.

On that Christmas Day 1989, Romania’s new leaders replayed the video of the execution over and over on national television, to persuade the public he was truly gone.

Romanians chanted in the streets a rhyming couplet that translates, “Ole, ole, ole — Ceausescu is no more.”

Then they started the long messy slog of building a democracy in a society that had been looted, traumatized and twisted by a megalomaniacal tyrant.

The parallels between Ceausescu’s dictatorship and Saddam Hussein’s are striking. They were both cruel bullies. They each wielded their perverse power over about 23 million people. And they each schemed to hold on to that power for a quarter-century.

They used many of the same techniques, creating a climate of fear reaching beyond their direct victims. Both shaped extensive authoritarian systems of secret police to spy on their countrymen — and, more significant, to browbeat their citizens into spying on each other, embedding a national paranoia that may take a generation or more to fade.

Both of them systematically looted the enormous natural riches of their countries to finance illogical, even pernicious economic projects. Both starved their country’s‘ infrastructure — like roads and water systems that would have made their people safer and healthier — so they could pour the money into building and decorating multiple palaces of bizarre opulence in city after city. Both tolerated the trappings of democratic elections, but each intended to turn their power over to their sons.

Saddam Hussein, whom we label fascist, sent representatives or greetings to all the Romanian Communist Party conferences. In their own delusions, Saddam and Nicolae transcended ideology. They kept in touch — although each had reached such a level of psychotic arrogance that no one, not even their most loyal henchmen, could speak frankly to them.

For most Iraqis today, as for most Romanians over a decade ago, the apprehension of the dictator is liberation from a personal and national nightmare.

But what is unqualified good for Iraqis is much more complicated for Americans.

The Romanians liberated themselves. Whether you believe it was a popular revolution or a palace coup that shook Ceausescu from his throne, it was Romanian. Whether the firing squad was an impulsive act of cleansing or a calculated act of self-protection by those who had seized power — whatever it was, he was captured by Romanians, not American GIs.

This American “ownership” of the overthrow casts a shadow over the legitimacy of his successors that Romania’s post-communist leaders never faced. And it creates an ambivalence in Iraqi attitudes toward the U.S. that will be hard to shake.

A public trial, run by an Iraqi prosecutor and decided by Iraqi judges, may help build some degree of Iraqi ownership of the overthrow of Saddam. But it is unlikely to relieve the U.S. of the burdens, in blood and treasure, of occupation.

And war-crimes trials are not a one-way ticket to political oblivion for deposed dictators. Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, ousted by his own people but now on trial in an international court in The Hague, has managed to maintain enough political legitimacy at home that he leads his party’s ticket in parliamentary elections later this month.

Even in the prisoner’s dock, Saddam may have some more cards to play. Whether or not he does, the American challenge in Iraq will continue to wildly exceed our efforts to support post-communist transition in Romania.

As a replay of a tyrant brought low, Iraq this week looked a lot like Romania in 1989. For that, we can rejoice.

But the road forward has been tough in Romania. It’s fantasy to believe the transition to peace, democracy and alliance with the U.S. will not be even more difficult in Iraq. The cost of this liberation will be more time, more money, and more American lives.

Jim Rosapepe was U.S. ambassador to Romania, 1998-2001. His wife Sheilah Kast is a journalist.

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