You don't suppose we'll have to wait for Iraq's amazing information minister, Mohammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, to confirm that Saddam Hussein died in a Monday Baghdad bombing, or to supply credible evidence that he survived, do you? We're sooner likely to get details from al-Sahhaf about the Republican Guard's successful burning of Washington, along with an update on Saddam's excellent mission to Mars.
Al-Sahhaf has become known as "Baghdad Bob" to a Western following that did not expect the war to feature official comic relief. But if the nickname is intended to evoke the Tokyo Roses and Lord Haw-Haws of past propaganda wars, it's a misnomer. Figures like Tokyo Rose (and to some degree even "Baghdad Betty" and "Iraq Jack" of the 1991 Gulf War) addressed themselves to the enemy soldier, and engaged in a morale war. They tried to insinuate, between hit records, that the enemy soldier's leadership was corrupt, his cause unworthy, and his wife at home unfaithful. By contrast, al-Sahhaf's statements are simply preposterous.
"The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad," he said recently. "We slaughtered them." His claims have become ever more outlandish as U.S. forces approached and eventually entered the Iraqi capital. According to al-Sahhaf, the slaughtered enemy was stopped cold at Najaf, has never controlled any Iraqi town, has not been within a hundred miles of Baghdad, is in full retreat everywhere, has been driven from the airport, etc. News footage that suggests otherwise is propaganda hurriedly created by isolated, defeated units. It's a wonder al-Sahhaf hasn't claimed that contradictory images of the war come from a Burbank soundstage.
Al-Sahhaf is reportedly a source of amusement to plenty of Arab viewers as well. After all, Arabs have generations of experience with lying media and delusional official statements. The Mideast is said to be awash in jokes at al-Sahhaf's expense, even as Iraq's savage Ba'thist regime implodes in its own buffoonery.
But even as many Arabs tell tragicomic jokes and Westerners study Al-Sahhaf's delivery to see if it isn't at bottom a self-referential performance piece, not everybody in the Mideast watches Al-Sahhaf with a skeptical eye. Some regard Al-Sahhaf as offering a rhetorical defense of Iraqi and Arab honor.
A number of Arab journalists, for their part, have been reporting the information minister's assertions as if they were credible. In a rundown of Arab media this week, London's Telegraph reported that "Several Arab newspapers highlight the discrepancy between Iraq's assessment of the war and that of the coalition forces. 'The information war is intensifying,' said al-Sharq in Qatar. In Jordan, al-Rai asked 'where the real truth lies amid the confusion and contradiction of the news reports?' Nevertheless, on its front page the paper's main headline read: 'Iraq retakes Saddam airport.'"
According to the Telegraph, "The Lebanese daily al-Nahar went one better, saying that 'Saddam led the attack to retake the airport', while Akhbar al-Khaleej in Bahrain said: 'We have wiped out the invading forces at the airport.'"
Some TV reports offer Al-Sahhaf not only credulity, but validation, too. On Monday, an Al-Jazeera reporter accompanied him on a tour of Baghdad intended to demonstrate that there were no American forces in the city. In his closing stand-up set in a Baghdad intersection, the reporter verified that he'd seen no American soldiers, and it's possible he hadn't. Al-Jazeera then followed his report with a story about American claims that they'd taken one of Saddam's palaces on the Tigris. The Qatar-based service illustrated the piece with the same palace footage seen in the West, albeit with one significant difference. Whereas Western viewers saw shots of American soldiers on the palace grounds, Al-Jazeera excised all such scenes, leaving the American claims about the palace ambiguous at best, and supporting Al-Sahhaf's assertions that the Americans were not in Baghdad. That isn't Arabcentric journalism; it's lying. (Al-Jazeera's Baghdad offices were reportedly hit by an American bomb Tuesday, killing one correspondent.)
For some, al-Sahhaf's bizarre performance is an echo of what happened in Nasserite Egypt during the 1967 Six Day War with Israel. Then, even as Egypt's army was crumbling, the regime's information apparatus was proclaiming a series of military successes. Every quarter-hour, Egyptian radio would report, for example, that hundreds of Israeli aircraft had been shot down, that Israel's army was in retreat, and so on. Most Egyptians were expecting their army to march into Tel Aviv by 9:00 PM of the war's first day. Even as Egyptian forces were in complete collapse, Egyptian radio reports kept proclaiming "Victory! Victory!" over and over again, as in a self-induced trance, as large crowds celebrated throughout the Arab world.
One of modern Egypt's most thoughtful writers, playwright and author Tawfiq al-Hakim, believed the bombast; in a stupor of self-delusion, he thought that reports of Egyptian reversals were a clever military ruse. Years later he tried to come to terms with his credulousness—and with Nasser's legacy—in a remarkable 1974 confession entitled The Return of Consciousness.
Nasser, he wrote, "had made us feel by every possible means that in Egypt and in even the whole Arab world there could be found one single intelligence, one power, and one personality, namely Abdel Nasser. Without him there would be nothing, no men, no intelligence, and no power that could be relied on; the only thing ahead would be ruin.. Verily, the idea of leadership of the Arab world is what has ruined us all and what possessed the thought of Abdel Nasser and made of him a destructive force—destructive of himself, of Egypt, and of the Arabs. It is a lesson which we must grasp fully in order to combat anyone who may be tempted to leadership and domination of the Arabs by his person, his will, or his thoughts."
Of course, Nasser's hold on Egypt, which combined charisma and brutality, differs from Saddam's hold on Iraq, which appears to have been built primarily on terror. In any event, the Arab world's era of such Great Leaders may be passing at last. If so, it leaves with some memorable exit lines, and not only from al-Sahhaf. According to an AP story Monday, Iraq's Ambassador to the Arab League, Mohsen Khalil, told a news conference in Egypt that "Iraq has now already achieved victory—apart from some technicalities."