The Arsenal of Evil the Cat

26 September 2002

The Arsenal of Evil the Cat

By Gwynne Dyer

Cartoon villains have no need of complex personalities or even motives; they’re just evil, that’s all. From the Joker in the old Batman comics down to Evil the Cat in ‘Earthworm Jim’, they seek to destroy our hero and conquer the universe simply because evil is their vocation. Saddam Hussein’s image in Western propaganda is a lot like that.

The 50-page dossier entitled ‘Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction’, published by the British government on 24 September, is a major attempt led by Prime Minister Tony Blair himself to persuade the sceptical British public (and the even more sceptical governments of America’s other allies) that there is an urgent need to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The document avoids most of the tricks of language and blatant manipulation of facts that contaminate comparable US efforts, trades on the reputation of British intelligence — and still fails to convince.

Nowhere, for example, is there a single mention of al-Qaeda. (But if there are no known links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, then why is dealing with Saddam a more urgent issue this year than last?) It warns that Iraq could build nuclear weapons within a couple of years if it got its hands on fissile material (but fails to mention that so could any other country bigger than Costa Rica, or that there are already elaborate and effective controls to stop fissile materials from reaching Iraq).

The British intelligence analysts did their best to come up with alarming facts to please Mr Blair and Mr Bush, but they refused to compromise their basic integrity, so the report is really quite reassuring. For example, on nuclear weapons: “In early 2002 the Joint Intelligence Committee judged that…while UN sanctions on Iraq remain effective Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon. If they were removed or proved ineffective, it would take Iraq at least five years to produce sufficient fissile material for a weapon indigenously….”

What the report evades entirely is any analysis Iraq’s strategy: WHY has Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass destruction’ at all costs for over twenty years? By not addressing the question of what rational reasons Saddam Hussein might have for wanting nuclear weapons, the war party in Washington and London hopes to leave the impression that he is like Evil the Cat in the cartoons: pure, unmotivated, boundless malevolence. If he can find a way to do harm anywhere, he will.

US and British propaganda try to reinforce this image by stressing Saddam’s unquestioned ruthlessness towards those who oppose him. A favourite accusation is that “he gassed his own people”, a reference to the his army’s 1988 attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, in which between 3,200 and 5,000 civilians died. What they omit to mention is that it was the last year of the Iran-Iraq war, and that Baghdad believed that Iranian troops were still occupying the town. Saddam’s forces did not know that the Iranians had pulled out and the civilians had returned.

Washington and London also fail to mention that they were both perfectly well aware that Saddam was illegally using chemical weapons against Iran throughout the war, and repeatedly cooperated at the UN to stymie attempts to get Security Council resolutions explicitly condemning their protege for his crimes. The whole era when the Reagan administration treated Saddam as a de facto US ally and even secretly lent him US Air Force officers on secondment to help plan his (poison-gas-drenched) offensives against Iran has been dropped down the memory hole. Then he was a useful thug that the US could work with; now he is a berserk monster.

Saddam is indeed a cruel dictator who crushes all opposition, but there is no evidence that he seeks to overrun the region, let alone “destroy civilisation” (as one US official recently alleged). His attacks on Iran and Kuwait, criminal and stupid though they were, grew out of border disputes that dated back to long before his seizure of power. As for his quest for nuclear weapons, it makes perfectly good sense in terms of the region’s politics.

In his clumsy, brutal way, Saddam Hussein has always aspired to lead the Arab world both against Israel and towards unity: his real dream is to be the new Nasser. The Arabs’ biggest perceived problem for the last two decades has been their total, hopeless military inferiority to Israel, and the biggest single reason for that inferiority is the fact that Israel has over 200 nuclear weapons while no Arab country has any.

A handful of Iraqi nuclear weapons would transform the strategic balance in the region. Given the certainty of massive Israeli retaliation, they would not give Saddam (who has never shown suicidal tendencies) the ability to carry out a first strike against Israel, but they might deter an Israeli nuclear attack in a crisis, and they would make Saddam the most popular man in the Arab world.

This (but nothing worse) might come to pass five or ten years from now if UN sanctions were lifted tomorrow with no further controls, and if Saddam lived that long. But the controls are in place, and a low-risk containment strategy has worked reasonably well for over a decade now. Americans and their allies are being asked to go to war to fix what isn’t broken, and the mind inevitably starts to wonder what other agendas are running here.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“US and British…monster”)