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  •   Monster in the Making: From Unknown to Arch-Villain in a Matter of Days

    By Marjorie Williams
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, August 9, 1990; Page D01

    "On meeting him," writes Time magazine, "a visitor is first struck by his eyes, crackling with alertness and at the same time cold and remorseless as snake eyes on the sides of dice. They are the eyes of a killer."

    Granted: Saddam Hussein is no one's idea of an Eagle Scout. Even before he invaded Kuwait last week, his acts of tyranny were a matter of record. He is a warmonger (author of an eight-year, million-casualty war with Iran); a user of poison gas (against Iranian troops and an estimated 7,000 Kurdish civilians inside Iraq); a brutal repressor of his own countrymen.

    Still, he has undergone a striking transformation, over the past week, in the American media and the American imagination. Once a dictator whom most Americans could not identify, but with whom the United States has sided for most of the past decade, Saddam Hussein is now suddenly revealed as a Fiend in Human Form.

    A "bloodthirsty megalomaniac," opines the New York Post, which headlined, on Tuesday, this blunt expression of American sentiment: "UP YOURS!" "Baghdad's Bully," summarizes the cover of Newsweek. "Iraq's do-it-my-way-or-die ruler," scolds Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan. A week ago, George Will wrote, "It is tempting, but misleading, to compare the strutting Saddam Hussein to Mussolini. ... Hussein radiates a more virulent and personal viciousness than Mussolini did."

    Yesterday Will promoted Saddam in the pantheon of tyrants, writing, "Saddam Hussein is not Hitler, but the dynamism of his regime is Hitlerian."

    Lawmakers, too, were quick to crank up the Axis imagery, denouncing Saddam as a bloodthirsty madman. The administration and the American media have done a brilliant job, as the political imagemakers might say, of driving up his negatives. The past week has seen an orgy of the American craving for personality: both to personalize conflict and to personify a threat.

    "It may be that as the world grows more complex, after the Cold War, the simple polarities of the Cold War are no longer available to guide us," says Michael Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University. "It seems that the more the world is governed by complex systems of interdependence, the more we need some clear images to guide us, to animate our policy. And I think that, for these partly political, partly psychological reasons, we greet almost with a sense of relief the moral clarity that appears when a Saddam Hussein stands on the world stage as the embodiment of evil."

    Or, in the more laconic formulation of New York Post metropolitan editor John Cotter, "Most Americans aren't really brilliant in terms of world geography, world politics." And so: "We have to sort of personalize everything." Saddam is, arguably, a better candidate for demonization than some of his immediate forerunners. "On one level, you must take into account what in fact Hussein has done," says Marvin Kalb, former chief diplomatic correspondent for NBC and CBS News, now a professor of press and public policy at Harvard. "He has put his country through hell in the last 15 years. So you are dealing with a very tough person, who one does not need to stretch too far, using the modern means of communication, to create a diplomatic and military monster."

    That he and others have been seen as "monsters" is explained, in part, by the shadowy definitions accorded friends and enemies. Manuel Noriega was an American client before he became an American enemy. And Saddam was until two years ago perceived as the lesser of two evils (although the aggressor) in the brutal Iran-Iraq war. Only last week, a "top State Department official" was telling the New Republic that "we see him engaged in menacing behavior, yes, but not as a menace. He's not Gadhafi, for instance -- beyond hope of change."

    Administration strategists and foreign policy notables can now be seen struggling with this abrupt about-face. "We have a situation where we've had a wolf knocking at our door, and we persuaded ourselves that he's really a vegetarian," said Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) on "Meet the Press" Sunday. "And I think this past week's incident indeed indicates that he likes red meat. ... We have helped build this particular monster as such that is now swallowing up countries like Kuwait."

    Today, Hitler analogies abound. Neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was at the head of the pack, with a July 27 column. "To be compared to Hitler is too high a compliment in evil to pay to most tyrants. The time has come, however, to bestow the compliment on a tyrant who is truly a nightmare out of the 1930s." More recently, the Miami Herald and other newspapers ran a syndicated editorial cartoon by Tony Auth showing Saddam giving a straight-arm salute to a portrait of Hitler.

    In most cases, the authors insist, they are suggesting -- as President Bush did in yesterday's speech denouncing the Iraqi "blitzkrieg" into Kuwait -- a simple geopolitical parallel between Iraq's aggression and Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain acceded to at Munich. But implications of madness and Hitlerian megalomania are unmistakable.

    Time, which decorated all its Iraq coverage this week with the figure of an octopus embellished with Saddamesque mustache and eyebrows, also ran a psychological analysis by Otto Friedrich: "When Israeli intelligence agents gave an anonymous sample of Saddam's handwriting to a leading graphologist recently," Friedrich noted, "the analyst said the writer suffered from severe megalomania with symptoms of paranoia."

    Jawad George, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans, says he believes there is a racist element to the ease with which Saddam is portrayed as a fiend. "In Nicaragua, we never personalized it that much. But when it comes to this particular conflict, when it comes to conflicts with people in the Arab world, we do tend to personalize it."

    Of the major pundits, syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were almost alone yesterday in arguing that the rhetoric had grown a little overheated. "Overkill against Saddam Hussein as a Hitlerite madman thirsting for world conquest endows the Iraqi strongman with power he does not possess," they wrote.

    The danger, says sociologist Todd Gitlin, is that personalizing evil makes it difficult to learn about a country most Americans know little about. "When I see 'Eyes of the killer,' I know this is hysteria. But when I see 'Dictator who will stop at nothing to control the price of oil,' I don't know if it's true. I rather assume that it is. It's very difficult for me to know where accuracy ends and where alarm and hysteria begin."

    After Iraq detained U.S. citizens in Kuwait, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) predicted, "The potential there is one that will make the Iran hostage situation look like child's play and we will come to think of the Ayatollah Khomeini as a saintly man before {Saddam} is done with it."

    In the end, the New York Post replaced its "UP YOURS" headline after a quarter of its press run with a more temperate one, "HEAT'S ON HUSSEIN." Not, editor Cotter emphasizes, because it had second thoughts about good taste; only because it decided that sentiment against Saddam hadn't yet reached fever pitch. "It just seemed a little premature," he says. "It wasn't a question of taste. We thought a lot about 'UP YOURS.' You could argue it on jingoism, but I don't think you can argue it on questions of taste."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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