SANA’A, YEMEN – Telling Lies in Iraq is my choice for the name of the flick we can only hope will be made about former Iraqi minister of misinformation Mohammed Saeed Sahaf. If it’s anything like a satirical Web site on this new cult figure, a site that once had an incredible 4,000 hits per minute, this movie will be stunning.
There’s Sahaf at the beaches of Normandy. “What Americans? There are no American louts here.” Now he’s at the Battle of Waterloo. “Napoleon is beating the British on their heads with their own shoes, and will soon storm London.” And his briefing at Gettysburg: “The retarded Union soldiers can’t read their compasses. They’re lost in the woods.”
It’s all so dizzying. Sadly, the spinmeister won’t star as himself since he’s AWOL. But the Web site lists Batman’s Joker, Jack Nicholson, as a possible star to deliver Sahaf gems like, “God will roast their stomachs in hell.”
Or will it be Mr. Magoo? How can anyone parade in his underwear so unashamedly?
First, Middle East culture doesn’t have an intimate relationship with truth in the best of times. Denial means saving face, and that my friends, seems to be everything in the Arab world. Also, remember, war does wonky things to people.
Sahaf wasn’t always the frontman of Saddam’s irrationality. In fact, my Yemen Times colleague Mohammed Abbas, an Iraqi who knew Sahaf as a personal friend, says Sahaf was once seen as “an intellectual.”
An English teacher by profession, Sahaf apparently headed Iraq’s media moderately and held ambassadorial and ministry postings, including foreign affairs, judiciously in the three decades of Saddam’s reign.
“He was among those in the Baathist party who didn’t advocate force,” notes Abbas. He believes Sahaf’s recent wild doctoring was due to lack of information from higher levels of Saddam’s collapsed government.
“There’s a disparity between the attackers and the attacked. People like Sahaf try to put bravery into their people, not disappoint them. Some things are factual, but some need exaggeration. Even the Americans do this,” Abbas adds.
True. Psychological warfare has been around since Cyrus the Great battled ancient Babylon. And, cultural nuances aside, Washington has its own information spinner in White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Since meeting Fleischer in the summer of 2001, I’ve been increasingly enamoured with his polished articulations and growing presence in living rooms around the world. So much, I’m convinced Fleischer is actually running the White House.
This, after all, is the man who said the Iraq war could be avoided if someone would just put a bullet in Saddam’s head. You think George W. Bush has swagger? My motto is “Ari for president.”
Jean and I were married just two weeks when I dragged her to a journalists’ conference in Washington. She was with me in the State Department, when during question period I asked Fleischer why the Americans wouldn’t lift sanctions hurting innocent Iraqis more than Saddam.
His “blame Saddam” response wasn’t a Sahaf looney-tune. But it was still spun from the finest of propaganda weave, not unlike his recent comments on Syria’s need to reform or face a big economic stick. Is this, as they say, dj vu all over again?
The reality is, 12 years of burdensome sanctions disabled Iraq’s middle class. They fortified Saddam’s regime and undermined Iraq’s intellectual movement, people who could have been involved with politics and public opinion. Starving people think of food, not resistance.
So the battle for hearts and minds of Iraqis started long ago. Now that a pile of trust is needed to rebuild Iraq, from where will it come? Iraqis may be running around in their underwear, but when it comes to spin-doctoring, many Arabs see Uncle Sam, who initially armed and entrenched Saddam into power, as the real emperor with no clothes.
Not that Washington is much different from anyone else. It’s increasingly hard to trust anyone stuck for long periods in the bureaucracy of big-time politics. Which is why Ari deserves a shot at the White House. Give his old job to Sahaf. And call Mr. Magoo.