The end of the myth of Saddam

Posted: Dec 19, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The race is over. The Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subject, goes to ... ``Saddam's Dental Exam.''

Screenplay: First Brigade, U.S. 4th I.D.

Producer: P. Bremer Enterprises, Baghdad.

Director: the anonymous genius at U.S. headquarters who chose this clip as the world's first view of Saddam in captivity.

In the old days, the conquered tyrant was dragged through the streets behind the Roman general's chariot. Or paraded shackled before a jeering crowd. Or, when more finality was required, had his head placed on a spike on the tower wall.

Iraq has its own ways. In the revolution of 1958, Prime Minister Nuri as-Said was caught by a crowd and murdered, and his body was dragged behind a car through the streets of Baghdad until there was nothing left but half a leg.

We Americans don't do it that way. Instead, we show Saddam -- King of Kings, Lion of the Tigris, Saladin of the Arabs -- compliantly opening his mouth like a child to the universal indignity of an oral (and head lice!) exam. Docility wrapped in banality. Brilliant. Nothing could have been better calculated to demystify the all-powerful tyrant.

It was a beautiful sight. But it was more than that. It was a deeply important historical moment. More than the fate of a man is at stake here. At stake is the fate of an idea, an idea of singular malignancy that has cost the Arabs not just countless innocent lives, but a half-century of progress.

Saddam was the most aggressive and enduring exemplar of a particular kind of deformed Arabism, a kind that arose in the post-colonial era, appealed to the greater glory of the Arab nation and promised a great restoration. Ironically, its methods and ideology were imported from the West, the worst of the West. The Baath Party was modeled on the fascist parties in early 20th-century Europe. Its economics were Western socialism at its most stifling and corrupt. Saddam then created the perfect fusion of the two, producing a totalitarianism of surpassing cruelty modeled consciously on Stalin's.

Saddam's destiny is important because he was the last and the greatest of these pan-Arab pretenders, though he gave it a psychotically sadistic character unmatched anywhere in the Arab world. This stream of Arab nationalism brought nothing but poverty, corruption, despair, torture and ruin to large swaths of the Arab world. The mass graves of Iraq are its permanent monument.

Which is why it was important not just to capture Saddam, but to demystify him -- and with him, the half-century spell that radical pan-Arabism had cast over the entire Middle East. It was important that the God-King of pan-Arabism be shown as the pathetic coward he was. It was important to finally shatter what Fouad Ajami had called ``the dream palace of the Arabs.'' And to banish the grotesque fantasy, perpetrated by Saddam and his acolytes in the Arab intelligentsia, that Arab greatness -- once built on a magnificent civilization of science, culture and tolerance -- is to be built upon blood, power and cruelty.

It seemed as if that fantasy had been dealt a fatal blow when Baghdad fell so suddenly on April 9. Instead of the promised Battle of Baghdad, confronting and perhaps even stopping the Americans in heroic street-by-street combat, there was nothing. Just ignominious collapse. The Arab media, particularly the al-Jazeeras that have long lionized Saddam and promoted ``Baghdad Bob's'' comical claims of Iraqi war victories, were shocked and humiliated. They themselves had to admit that this was the greatest psychological blow to Arab nationalist pretensions since the similarly vainglorious Nasser was routed by Israel in six days in June 1967.

But then came the Iraqi insurgency: the bloodying of the Americans, the doubts at home, the charges of ``quagmire,'' the visions of Vietnam, the notion that the United States might in the end be defeated -- tire and leave the field, once again to Saddam.

On the run, Saddam enjoyed one final moment of myth: the ever-resourceful, undaunted resistance fighter. Perhaps, it was thought, he had it all calculated in advance, fading silently from Baghdad like the Russians withdrawing from Moscow before Napoleon, to suck in the Americans only to strike back later on his own terms in a brilliant guerrilla campaign masterminded by the great one himself.

And then they find him cowering in a hole, disheveled, disoriented and dishonored. After making those underground tapes exhorting others to give their blood for Iraq and for him, his instantaneous reaction to discovery was hands-up surrender.

End of the myth. It is not just that he did not resist the soldiers with the guns. He did not even resist the medic with the tongue depressor.