WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- In a speech in St. Louis Wednesday, President Bush partly confirmed what United Press International was reporting more than two weeks ago: The United States plans war crimes trials after a successful Iraqi invasion.
Assuming the obvious -- that the Iraqis will crumble like a shortbread cookie in the face of U.S. and allied firepower -- putting on the trials will not be hard.
Victors in war do it all the time.
But holding war crimes trials and at the same time capturing the legal and moral high ground will not be so easy.
In one sense, Bush's warnings this week were a pre-emptive strike.
The president told Iraqi commanders that if they followed Saddam Hussein's orders and used chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops they would be tried as war criminals.
Hoover fellow and Yale lecturer Charles Hill said this month that such warnings from the administration were part of an overall strategy to sow doubt in the top echelons of the Iraqi military.
If the United States times such warnings "wisely ... they (the Iraqis) might not fight at all," he said.
In other words, Iraqi commanders faced with responsibility for their actions might switch sides during a U.S. invasion.
But the threat of criminal trials is more than just a tactic. The threat is real. In an interview with UPI on Jan. 8, a senior administration official said the only open question is what form the trials would take.
Trials would be "more likely an international effort," the official said, rather than U.S. military tribunals.
Bush's national security team was discussing a variety of venues, including "the U.N., The Hague, ad hoc tribunal, military tribunal. A post-conflict Iraqi government could conduct some of these trials itself."
How widespread the trials will be depends on the reactions of Iraqi officials and commanders if the United States and its allies invade.
The use of chemical or biological weapons is one obvious war crime. Another would be the use of Iraqi civilians -- men, women and children -- as human shields.
Let's be brutally honest. The Iraqi military has little chance of standing up to the U.S. armed forces on the desert plains of Iraq. That's part of the reason this country is so eager to begin hostilities.
The most the Iraqis could hope for would be to lure U.S. and allied troops into a killing zone. But even if such a trap were successful, and significantly increased U.S. and allies casualties, it would not change the final outcome of the war.
The only serious resistance would occur if the fighting devolves into a struggle for the streets of Baghdad. If that happens, the Iraqis would use their own civilian population as a weapon of war, launching attacks from apartment buildings and hospitals.
And if the war reaches this point, you can be sure of two things:
Some American soldiers will give their lives conducting risky infiltrations rather than indiscriminately killing civilians to get at Iraqi soldiers with superior firepower.
And some American soldiers will be accused of war crimes when bombs or tank cannons or howitzers kill civilians along with the Iraqi military.
In a post-war Iraq, the United States will be faced with the prospect of trying Iraqis -- including Saddam Hussein and his two sons, if this country can catch them -- while simultaneously fending off accusations of U.S. "atrocities."
Western nations putting Arab leaders on trial in a heartland of Islam will not be popular among our Arab friends to begin with, no matter how guilty the Iraqis are. The United States might have very few public Arab friends left after such a process.
At the same time, this country will be fighting a public relations war on a global front, trying to convince most of the world that the trials of Iraqis would be legitimate, while trials of American soldiers would not be.
Then there is the question of Baghdad itself.
The city is not as old as Damascus -- which appears to be as old as human history -- but Baghdad has its own special place in the Arab and Western imaginations.
Nowadays, it is the center of everything in Iraq: transportation, manufacturing, oil refining, you name it.
In centuries past, it was the center of romance and wealth and adventure. It was where Scheherazade told her thousand-and-one stories, and where the great Caliph Haroun ar-Rashid learned to play chess.
How much moral authority will the United States command if most of the fabled city is destroyed in a war, even if the destruction is mainly at Iraqi hands? How much credit will the rest of the world give this country if the phrase "Arabian Nights" brings to mind not the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, but the silent sweep of Stealth bombers in the darkness?
Well, actually, quite a bit.
Most of the rest of the world is sane, after all. You can argue with Bush's timing, but it's hard for reasonable people to argue with the notion that Saddam Hussein would have to be dealt with sooner or later.
He's used chemical weapons on his neighbors, chemical and biological weapons on his own people, invaded Kuwait, tortured and killed political opponents and kept the vital oil-producing region on edge for most of two decades.
He's one kooky, crazy kind of guy.
Still, the United States will have a different kind of battle on its hands once the real war, if there is a war, is finally won.