The word from Baghdad has been defiant and bellicose. Communiques report huge numbers of downed allied planes, Cabinet ministers speak of stunning victories over the infidels, radio broadcasters announce that Tel Aviv and Saudi Arabia have been turned into crematories.
The five Scud missiles fired at Saudi Arabian cities Wednesday--all of which were knocked out by U.S. Patriot missiles--were referred to in an Iraqi communique Thursday as “missiles raining down on Riyadh and Dhahran.” While the allies were reporting the loss of 17 planes in combat, Iraq was saying that the wreckage of 183 planes was “scattered all over our land by the wind.” And while Israel was showing extraordinary restraint by staying out of the war, Iraq reported Israel had entered it.
Hyperbole and official lies are no strangers to war. They are the opiate of the losers and underdogs. But Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has relied on exaggerated claims to such a degree that one suspects he is unable to separate reality from illusion.
Throughout modern Arab history, a number of leaders have valued style more than substance. If truth was a casualty, it didn’t matter. To lie was acceptable as long as those lies didn’t translate into actions. In a region filled with frustration and disillusionment, the half-truths became myths and the myths became the truth around which hope was built.
Egypt’s late president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, mastered the rhetoric of passion in the 1950s and in the process shaped the psyche of an entire generation of Arabs. His fiery speeches boomed out of Cairo on the radio, from Morocco on the west to Iraq on the east, and after 2,000 years of foreign rule by the Greeks, Romans, Fatimids, Mamluks, Ottoman Turks and European colonialists, his words were a tonic for a people who had lost confidence in themselves.
“Oh, America,” he roared in 1956, “may you choke on your fury.” He told the Arabs of their greatness as a people, of the emergence of an Arab nation, of the strength the Arabs had when they stood together. The Arabs found his words intellectually empty--and psychologically heartening.
Hussein has tried to borrow Nasseresque mystique with his war claims and contentions that the war is about liberation of Palestine, not his invasion of Kuwait.
Except for desperate Palestinians, ready to cling to any leader who promises commitment to their cause, Hussein’s rhetoric and his call for a holy war against the infidels have largely fallen on deaf ears in the Arab world. He is apparently the wrong Arab messenger, a man unable to outdistance either his brutal reputation or a career spent building his own power base, often at the expense of fellow Arabs.
Many Westerners speculate that even in eventually losing the war, Hussein will have won a place among the Saladins and Nassers and other revered Arab heroes. Having wrapped himself, however superficially, in the cloak of Islam, Arabness and Palestinian justice, he will have stood up to the West, taken its blows and, perhaps, lived to speak as the voice of the Arab world.
But many Arabs question that thesis. They have a saying about Hussein that goes, “May God keep him happy--and far away.” From Jordan to Saudi Arabia, educated Arabs traditionally have wanted to appease Hussein, not follow him. They mistrusted his motives, and his invasion and occupation of Kuwait, most feel, confirmed their suspicions. Few bestow on him the revolutionary credentials of a Nasser.
Nasser faced down the British, French and Israelis over the Suez Canal, nationalized the canal and fought the Israelis in 1967. Even though the Arabs lost that war in six days, Nasser, quite unlike Hussein, did not risk the destruction of his country in order to justify the unpopular invasion of another Arab country.
When Nasser resigned after the Six-Day War, his people called him back. When he died in 1970, 4 million Egyptians showed up at his funeral in Cairo. It was the biggest turnout for a funeral in world history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
For his part, Hussein has, in an indirect way at least, already helped establish linkage between the Gulf War and Israel’s problems with the Arabs. That linkage is underscored by the presence of American soldiers manning Patriot missiles in both Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the most telling part of Hussein’s professional epitaph may be that he is the only modern Arab leader to fight a war against non-Arabs without having the support of a single Arab country.