Washington — War is hell we have been repeatedly informed, ever since that terse judgment fell from the lips of the late General William Tecumseh Sherman, a general who spent his life adducing proof for this famous declaration. Yet war can also be very amusing. Not only have such famous movies and television shows as “Catch-22,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “M*A*S*H,” amused us, but now midst the carnage and destruction of a real war the Iraqi army and its Ba’athist party loyalists are playing comic roles. Most of them are bullies of the worst sort. But they are also pompous asses, and a bully playing the role of the pompous ass while getting his pomposity stomped good and hard is a fit subject of ridicule and laughter.
Furthermore President Jacques Chirac’s unanticipated dependent, Saddam Hussein, has reached into the ranks of his Ba’ath Party to provide us with a Malvolio vastly more amusing — and more pompous — than Shakespeare’s original. I am, of course, thinking of Saddam’s present information minister, Mr. Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf — at least Mr. al-Sahhaf had the job when I wrote this last night. As he stood there in the rubble of Baghdad with American aircraft screaming overhead, boasting of yet another proud Iraqi victory, I could not forget that this delightfully risible creature is a former Iraqi foreign minister. He is not some special hack trained by Saddam to enunciate the party line even under the most improbable of circumstances. He is from the Ba’athist elite. In fact he is from the elite ranks of those who establish what President Chirac and the popinjays of the United Nations call “world opinion.”
Mr. al-Sahhaf once padded up and down the hushed halls of the United Nations and into the presidential palaces of the world for a full decade while serving as Iraq’s soignée foreign minister. He was also his country’s ambassador to the United Nations, to Italy and to India, so he has lived outside Saddam’s cuckoo nest and knows something of the realities of the outside world. Nonetheless, as the regime’s current minister of information he has been popping up on television reassuring Saddam’s friends “all over the world,” as he says in his expansive lilt, that the Coalition forces are being “crushed.”
Are American forces in control of the Baghdad airport and joy riding their armored vehicles through the capital’s streets like hot-rodding teenagers on a Saturday night in Muncie, Indiana? All that is “illusion,” says Mr. al-Sahhaf, as he stands in front of the international journalists at the Palestine Hotel. In truth, “We [he and Saddam] have defeated them, in fact we have crushed them in the place of Saddam International Airport.” Why are members of the vaunted Republican Guard laying down their rifles and stripping off their uniforms? Perhaps because there is very little left for them to do. They are victorious. The Coalition forces, Mr. al-Sahhaf purrs, “have done everything crazy in order to lessen the pressure we have put on their troops.”
Television viewers, at least in America and the countries of the Coalition, laugh. French audiences doubtless listen full of hope. And supposedly anti-Coalition viewers in the Arab world either thrill with another Arab victory in sight or say as an inhabitant of Cairo did to a Reuters reporter, “I believe al-Sahhaf exaggerates a little, but he needs to do that to reassure his people.” What people could he be reassuring? As I predicted in this column last month the regime would be defeated in a week (I was off by ten days). Mr. al-Sahhaf is about to be unemployed.
Personally I would like to see him returned to the United Nations, where his preposterosities would be unexceptionable; but we might get regular glimpses of him addressing the General Assembly, perhaps calling for humanitarian aid shipments to Beverly Hills or the immediate arrest of the Rev. Billy Graham for crimes against humanity. Surely he would be invited up to lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School and at the Harvard Law School. Do you remember the time the Harvard Law School invited a bag lady to lecture there? She was clinically insane. So far as I recall, she gave a lecture at least the equal of anything Professor Alan Dershowitz was then regularly delivering to the unfortunate students of that dizzy institution. A few months after her famous appearance she was again back on the streets and in serious trouble. Professor Dershowitz remains at large.
Yet, now that the Iraqi minister of information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf and Professor Alan Dershowitz have made it into this column, I bet many readers are thinking the same thought. Anyone who has watched Professor Dershowitz argue on television for one of his pet liberal manias must recognize certain similarities between the Prof and the minister of information. Both are very suave in skirting around troubling facts. Both lay down some pretty preposterous conclusions. Yet you will note that Mr. al-Sahhaf is always much more polite than Professor Dershowitz. Maybe some day we shall get to see them on “Crossfire.”