Patriotism, as Samuel Johnson suggested in his famous dictionary, may be the last refuge of scoundrels, but in the Arab world frightened demagogues are more apt to invoke a ferocious anti-Zionism to distract from their sins.
Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, stung after his aggression was condemned by most Arab states, has begun playing the Israel card for all it's worth in an effort to appeal to credulous Arab masses. The ploy isn't unexpected. The challenge is to keep it from becoming the distraction that Hussein so desperately needs.
The lies seeking to give Iraq's invasion of Kuwait an anti-Israel legitimacy began rolling out of the Baghdad propaganda machine immediately, and haven't stopped.
Thus Hussein sought to justify his belligerency by blandly suggesting that it marked just the first step on his road to "liberate" Jerusalem. Exactly how the conquest, pillage and rape of a neighboring Arab state is supposed to serve that cause remains obscure. What the Kuwait-Israel linkage did do was reinforce certain deeply held suspicions.
It didn't escape Riyadh's notice, for example, that while Hussein's putative road to Jerusalem may begin in Kuwait, it can only reach its destination by running across Saudi Arabia's broad desert sands, a route the Saudis would hardly welcome. And of course those Israelis who retain doubts about the trustworthiness of Arab dictatorships can point to Kuwait--which Hussein had promised he would not invade--as fresh evidence for their skepticism. If this is what one Arab state does to another, Israelis ask, what would a combination of aggressive Arab states do to Israel if given half a chance?
The demagoguery goes on. The entry of U.S. forces into Saudi Arabia prompted Baghdad to hysterically proclaim that Mecca was now in the hands of the infidels and the Zionists. While that zinger was still bouncing around, Hussein came up with another. He might consider withdrawing from Kuwait, he hinted, if Israel first pulled all of its forces out of the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Now anyone who remembers how Israel came to be sitting in those places--it's there because Jordan and Syria attacked Israel in 1967, and lost--knows instantly that Hussein's implication of a moral or political equivalency between his occupation and Israel's is phony. In a part of the world where the level of political awareness isn't notably high, such propaganda could have some impact.
The real danger, though, will come if Hussein challenges Israel with more than words, in the hope of inviting a not-too-severe military response that would then let him demand Arab support in the face of the common enemy. The United States is asking Israel not to let itself be provoked, advice that is usually more easily given than taken. Nonetheless, it's sound advice. Hussein is largely isolated now and on the defensive. Best that Israel maintain the low profile it has kept in the Persian Gulf crisis. The political issue is clear cut. Hussein desperately wants to muddy it. The need is to make every effort to prevent him from doing so.