Listening to Saddam


February 05, 1991|By MARTIN GOTTLIEB

DAYTON, OHIO — What, some people ask, almost rhetorically, is the point of CNN or anybody else giving Saddam Hussein free rein to spread his silly propaganda in a long interview in which he hardly even responds to questions, but just rambles?

Here's part of an answer: Mr. Hussein's interviews offer Americans a useful insight into Iraqi politics.

If you listen to him long enough, you can see why his pitch has some appeal in the Arab world generally, and why it probably helps sustain him in Iraq specifically.

Mr. Hussein's reign has been an economic catastrophe for Iraq. A country that was prospering when he took over has been devastated by his military adventurism. So how is he able to maintain support? Through terror, of course. But there may be more.

People are predisposed to believe and side with the leader of their country in international disputes. They want to believe. Look at how American support for President Bush has skyrocketed in the polls since the war began.

Given that, if you were an Iraqi, would you laugh at Mr. Hussein's points:

* The United States is the ruthless, power-mad aggressor in this war. It is the country that is sticking its nose into the affairs of another region, that is fomenting war on the land of other people, that has put together a massive coalition of great powers against one country of only 18 million people.

* The hypocrisy of the coalition is monumental. These people pour explosives all over a country, then express moral outrage that the victimized country targets civilian populations with not a thousandth of the explosive power it is targeted with. The U.S. argument -- that, unlike Iraq, it is not targeting civilians -- is hollow. The American air campaign is hugely more terroristic than the Iraqi one.

* The notion that Israel isn't a combatant country is just so much nonsense. Everybody knows that Israel is central in Washington's thinking. If Israel doesn't actually engage in fighting, that's only because the United States convinces Israel that the coalition will do on its behalf anything that Israeli forces might do.

* Iraq has the moral right to use chemical weapons because it cannot match the conventional power of the American-built coalition. America can't try to bomb us into the stone age then tell us what rules we must observe in fighting back.

* In sum, this is just another case of the West deploying its advantages in money, power and population to get our oil at their prices and to protect Israel.

If you are not powerfully predisposed to accept these arguments, you must see that he, not the coalition, is his country's great problem. But national pride is among the most powerful of political forces. Reason is not.

Every time Saddam Hussein is asked about some atrocity or other -- his treatment of prisoners of war, or his chemical weapons or whatever -- he responds by detailing (not necessarily accurately) cases in which Western leaders have done worse.

He is remindful in this (limited) sense of Richard Nixon, who got into Watergate largely because he was determined to play the political game as ruthlessly as his opponents and predecessors. He was obsessed with their transgressions and how they had victimized him and his partisans.

This sense of victimization weakens the role of rules and makes leaders dangerous. And it fits more naturally into the politics of the Mideast, where it plays into a regional sense of victimization, than into the politics of this country.

Martin Gottlieb is a columnist for the Dayton Daily News.

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