Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Edit: thanks to Marc Ramsey, who pointed out a nasty little mixup of mine.

Be warned- this is a long 'un.

Molly Ivans is pissed. Why? Well, I'll let her put it in her own terms:

Excuse me: I don't want to be tacky or anything, but hasn't it occurred to anyone in Washington that sending Vice President Dick Cheney out to champion an invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein is a "murderous dictator" is somewhere between bad taste and flaming hypocrisy?

This is the opening paragraph to an essay where she lays out precisely how and why Cheney profited from Saddam's regime and others like it- how his old company, Halliburton, made billions of dollars dealing with just the sort of dictator that he's attacking now that he's the infamous Saddam Hussein. Atrios wonders why nobody else had said it before; he has a good point, but I think it's besides the real point.

See, whether or not Dick Cheney made millions off brutal dictators isn't the issue, not really. It's an issue, and an important one, but it's not the issue. Right now he's more than just Dick Cheney- he's the spokesperson for the administration, and in some respects should be criticized in that respect. No, the important issue is, as always, "why Saddam"? As Ivans points out in the essay, Halliburton made billions of dollars not just from Saddam but from all manner of dictators just as evil as he is.

There's the rub. "Just as evil". Seems odd, doesn't it? This is Saddam Hussein we're talking about... he's supposed to be the reincarnation of Hitler, right? Gassing his own people and everything? Well, not really; I think anybody who sits down and studies his past behaviour would quickly notice that on comparison with any number of dictators, past and present, he's not actually that different. Although the right takes great pains to try to portray him differently, those who call him "just another tinpot dictator" are essentially right- there's little that seperates him from many other dictators, and compared to some, he's downright pleasant. (Mugabe easily comes to mind, but anybody who studies the history of African and South American dictatorships could probably come up with lots of others.)

See, there's been an excellent public relations job done on behalf of the United States government to demonize Saddam more so than any other dictator around the planet, it's been going on for a long time, and I personally believe it's one of the real reasons why invasion may be inevitable. What started it is simple- poppy had a war to fight. No, don't worry, I'm not about to pull out the whole "the Gulf War was all about oil" argument. The Gulf War was about a lot of things. It was about oil, yes, but it was also about national sovereignty, international stability, national security, middle eastern security, the reputation of the United States as a peacemaker (a role that Bush the Elder took seriously), and perhaps most importantly, the credibility of the United Nations as a body for resolving national disputes and organizing collective responses to unilateral attacks on one of its members by another of its members (or a non-member). Saddam did something Very Wrong, and he knew it, but he also thought that the U.S. would let him get away with it (thanks to the infamous contradictory signals he was getting at the time) and there was no way that was happening. Not where he was- not with Kuwait being what it is. Maybe if he lived in Africa it would be different, but he doesn't. The United States takes the middle east seriously.

Unfortunately, however, none of these particular justifications, as valid as they were, were really useful in convincing the U.S. to stay onside, and everybody and his dog remember that the last major conflict the U.S. public paid attention to, Vietnam, was a complete public relations disaster. One of the responses to that was the tight control over information that characterizes the U.S. military to this day, but one of the other responses was to make damned sure that the public was onside for this one. The fact that the Gulf War was probably not going to lead to heavy casualties outside of worst-case scenarios didn't matter. Generals famously always fight the last war, and the last war was Vietnam, a war that many believe was lost in the minds of the American public long before it was lost in the jungles of Vietnam. They had to make sure that people didn't sympathize with Iraq. So, they took Saddam Hussein, the dictator, and turned him into Saddam Hussein, the monster.

They did a fantastic job. (Who is "they"? Excellent question, and I won't presume to guess, although I had a friend who swore he knew somebody who worked at the P.R. firm who were the architects of the whole thing.) The news before the Gulf War was covered with stories of Iraqi atrocities, and carefully guided and shaped stories about Saddam Hussein that portrayed him as (as I said earlier) the worst dictator that the world had ever seen, basically the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler. The rhetoric was fierce and unrelenting, and soon became a vicious circle, with both politicians and journalists outdoing each other in digging up rumors, stories, and theories to make the man into the monster.

By and large, the public believed it. especially convincing was when they heard that he "gassed his own people"- an act hauntingly familiar of Hitler and his horrific factory-like gas chambers. What Saddam and Hitler did are hardly the same, of course, but they're still close enough to make the connection viable and plausible, so the connection can be made and on some level justified. (It's a tactic that Cheney, and others, deliberately exploit when they pull that out to demonstrate Saddam's supposed irrationality.) Not that Saddam's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds is in any way defensible, of course, yet neither is it unique- it's only the nature of the weapon that seperates it from the sort of "ethnic cleansing" and pacification that is probably going on somewhere as I write this. The choice of weapon does not make someone any more or less dead- the genocide in Rwanda was no less a genocide because it was due to machete-wielding Hutus hacking Tutsis (and suspected sympathizers) limb from limb, over and over and over and over, day after day, as others call on the radio to slaughter the Tutsi "cockroaches"...

(Did I mention that there's much worse out there than Saddam? I don't know whether it's relieving or disturbing that most westerners have little idea just how bad it can get, and how relatively benign Saddam really is. To this day, I have trouble thinking about the genocide in Rwanda.)

In any case, the problem is that they did their job too well. Bush the Elder's administration knew that trying to depose Saddam would be much more controversial both in the U.S. and around the world than kicking him out of Kuwait. Many thought it wasn't an issue. Nobody expected Saddam to retain power after the Gulf War, yet he remains, defiant as ever. Yes, he was an international pariah, and ruled over a broken, poor, and besieged country by a combination of the fear of secret police and sheer force of will, but he still remained. This was, of course, a major problem for Washington. Between the end of the Gulf War and the start of the War on Terrorism there was a definite thread of latent hostility between Iraq and the United States. Remember, the United States never stopped operating in Iraq; the whole reason the inspectors got pulled was because the U.S. was going to start Desert Fox and resume bombing Iraqi targets. Any given issue of the National Review featured some hawk arguing that Iraq needed to be "dealt with", using the same arguments we hear nowadays- Iraq will (somehow) build up a vast array of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and (somehow) use them on the United States or its allies.

Of course, this line of argument, as old as the Gulf War, returned with a vengeance after 9/11. In most respects it's the same bloody thing we've heard for a decade now, but with a twist- Saddam's delivery system might be terrorists, and therefore getting Iraq is somehow part of the "War on Terrorism". The same hawks that were advocating the ouster of Saddam back then are either part of the administration or are closely listened-to advisors of the administration, and thanks to the War on Terror they're finally able to put their arguments into action- finally able to "get Saddam". It isn't new, of course; nothing about it is new. It's just hawks harnessing new fears to aid an old argument, nothing more.

The problem with this whole line of argument is that there's any number of dictators out there who could theoretically get ahold of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and who hate the United States. So why Saddam? Those of us who either didn't believe or didn't listen to the propaganda (for that is what it was) continue to ask that question, and with good justification. Despite Cheney's (and others') rhetoric, there are definitely worse than Saddam, and quite a few others who could theoretically develop NBC capabilities (or might even have them already) and who might theoretically use such weapons on the United States or its allies. Certainly Iran is higher on this list than Iraq, and I'd imagine that Syria, Egypt, and (possibly) Saudi Arabia would be more inclined as well. Saddam would be seriously foolish to even contemplate such a thing; he's suspect #1, watched like a hawk, is threatened from all sides, and has an uneasy relationship with theocratic Muslims that might turn his own weapons against him. So why him, as opposed to, say, Khaddafi?

If you think of him as "Saddam Hussein, the dictator", then it makes no sense, none at all. Even if he were irrational, he'd have to be near suicidal... not just suicidal, either, as it would endanger the carefully-groomed succession of his son, and his legacy as the leader of Iraq, something that he's obviously very, very interested in. It would mean that the United States would win the game he's playing, the game of survival. After all, as long as he stays in power it's a victory of a sort; the kind of victory that rankles those hawks who value U.S. preeminence over all else, but would hardly trouble anybody who understood the real interests of the U.S.

But. Look again. Look at him as "Saddam Hussein, the monster", the hideous mental creation of the Bush administration, born of the necessities of the Gulf War. Suddenly, it makes perfect sense. He isn't rational, isn't sensible, doesn't care about his own life, the lives of his family, or his precious power. He lives only to kill, to destroy, to (if he could) personally cut the throat of every westerner he sees. The Saddam of mythology is a madman, totally obsessed with the United States, and willing to do anything, sacrifice anything, if only he could kill just one more American. He gasses his own people, oppresses everyone around him, and leads a totalitarian state such as the world hasn't seen in decades. He is Cheney's "worst dictator in the world". He is Hitler reincarnate, with all that that implies, and cannot be predicted, trusted, understood, or bargained with any more than Hitler could have been. All attempts to do so are Chamberlain-like "appeasement" which, thanks to the obsessive focus on WWII by most Americans looking for historical comparisons to modern situations, are acts of almost transcendental cowardice, fear, and evil.

Unfortunately, outside of the United States this portrait of "Saddam as monster" never really took. Most see him as yet another dictator, but didn't really support him and hoped to see him gone. As I said, international pariah... at least up until the U.S. administration, emboldened by public support for the (somewhat unrelated) War on Terror/Islam/whatever and success (of a sort) in Afghanistan finally started talking invasion. When that happened, those who realized that really meant the end of national sovereignty as we know it started backing an unloved dictator whose ouster nonetheless represented something much bigger. Saddam was ignored- now, Russia is making deals with him, and country after country is lining up to publicly support his legitimacy. They don't see him the way Americans do- as this reincarnation of Hitler. They see him as what he is- a dictator, unremarkable (tragically) in his cruelty and desire for power, who invaded the wrong country and pissed off the wrong hyperpower. They wonder who'll be next.

They wonder if it might be them.

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