IF PETER Arnett had been anywhere near as bootlicky and obsequious with Saddam Hussein as Alan Simpson was in a visit to the Iraqi dictator last April, we could understand why the CNN correspondent was being assaulted for his interviews and coverage. But compared with what Sen. Simpson and some of his colleagues on that visit did to butter up Saddam Hussein and make themselves beloved of him, Mr. Arnett looks downright surly. Because the Iraqis had complained of a U.S. government broadcast accusing Saddam of world-class human rights violations, for example (wherever could the U.S. government have got an idea like that?), one of Mr. Simpson's traveling companions, Sen. Robert Dole, assured Saddam (wrongly, it is said) that the American official responsible had been fired.

The record does not show any complaint being made by Mr. Simpson. Nor, evidently, was he disturbed when another companion, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum said to Saddam: "After listening to you for about an hour, I realized that you are a strong and intelligent man and that you want peace." In fact, Sen. Simpson himself, far from demurring, made his own contribution to the warm feeling by letting poor, misunderstood old Saddam know that the frightful things being said about him and his police state must be the work of a malign press -- what else? "I believe your problem is with the Western media," he told the dictator, "and not with the U.S. government. ... " Some of the rest of us would have thought Saddam's problem lay with neither the Western media nor the U.S. government but rather with his own buildup and boast of chemical weapons and his well-known penchant for murdering dissenters and inventing new techniques of torture. When Saddam described himself as one "who advocates freedom of the press," by the way, Mr. Simpson did not question him, but merely went on with his analysis of the faults of the Western media.

Now Mr. Simpson has a complaint. It is against Peter Arnett, whom he describes as "what we used to call a sympathizer" in his Baghdad reporting; the senator implies Mr. Arnett was also a sympathizer with the Viet Cong in his prize-winning coverage of the war in Vietnam. In our view, any journalist who greased around as Sen. Simpson & Co. did last April with a figure such as Saddam -- or with any other object of his coverage, for that matter -- might deserve the title of sympathizer. But Mr. Arnett, who tries to say only what he has seen and regularly reminds viewers that both what he may say and what he may see is controlled by the Iraqis, has been doing a respectable, forthright job under what must be hideous circumstances. Nevertheless, he has become an object of hysterical hatred to a lot of people who, so far as we know, never made the mildest objection to the kowtowing to Saddam that went on in the Republican administration before Aug. 2 or to the performance of the famous traveling troupe of senators in April.

Decency and a sense of embarrassment about his own performance and that of his colleagues might have prevented Sen. Simpson from joining the chorus. Far from it, he got into the sleaziest charges yet -- reaching back to some relatives of Mr. Arnett's ex-wife as the basis of charges that the CNN correspondent had some connection with the Viet Cong and, by implication, was disloyal then and now. Peter Arnett is standing up straight over there in Baghdad. Here at home Alan Simpson has dipped into the slime.