Sometime shortly before the new year, my Saddam Hussein wristwatch stopped running. A friend gave it to me back in the summer of 2003, and since then the Butcher of Baghdad's grinning visage has hung among other curiosities pinned to the bulletin board above my desk, anachronistic, ludicrous and essentially harmless.
There was a time, of course, when Saddam's image was everywhere in Iraq, and the only thing more frightening than his scowl was his smile. His face appeared on billboards and the sides of buildings in countless guises, wearing fedoras, helmets, commando berets, tribal headdresses. Turn any corner and you saw him fighting, exhorting, laughing, praying. Portraits of Saddam hung in every shop and office, and no one dared disrespect them.
I remember one afternoon in Baghdad in the late 1980s when I was in a store buying a notebook and a lizard scurried along the wall behind the counter. The shopkeeper gave chase, taking off a shoe and trying to smash the little reptile with the heel—until the lizard managed to slip behind the mandatory photograph of the dictator. The shopkeeper froze, arm raised, terrified. The lizard survived. If the shopkeeper had smashed the picture, he might not have.
When Saddam was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion, all this fear suddenly seemed almost as ridiculous as the tyrant's face on a cheap watch, which is why I rejoiced at the time, and why it's so damn sad that last weekend Saddam Hussein was turned from a monster into a martyr by the manner of his execution.
Actually, "lynching" would be a better word, despite the $128 million Washington reportedly spent trying to present the captured dictator's trial as free, dignified and fair. In the days since Saddam's necktie party, we've had to listen to spin from Washington and Baghdad that is not only implausible but condescending—and absolutely irrelevant to the problem at hand. "There seems to be a lot of concern about the last two minutes of Saddam Hussein's life and less about the first 69 [years], in which he murdered hundreds of thousands of people," said Tony Snow, the former Fox News face who now mouths the White House talking points.
In fact it is precisely because of the horrors Saddam committed that the trivialization of his death at the hands of thugs is such a shameful milestone on the road to American perdition. Washington looks ridiculous saying it was powerless to influence the actions of the executioners that it empowered. Without George W. Bush, they never would have been able to bring Saddam down, much less string him up. Everyone knows that, and anyone with a sense of pride or honor—which do stand for something in the Arab world—will know that. Which is why the last ironic question Saddam asked was so damning: "Is this manly?" he said of the taunts, half smiling, as the trap door opened. He knew he'd won.
It is amazing—yes, even after all these years—that the Bush administration is so utterly incapable of seeing the Middle East in terms the president might conceivably understand. Anybody who claims to be from Texas must have watched a few Westerns in his youth. From Tom Mix to Clint Eastwood, the recurrent theme was one of chivalry. The code of honor that Saddam exploited was much the same: even the bad guys look good if they die with their boots on. And that's what Saddam managed to do.
Why dwell on this bit of history now, almost a week after the event? Because the Iraqis will be thinking of it for several lifetimes. The illusion that mistakes can be corrected quickly—or if not corrected, then ignored and forgotten—is at the heart of the disaster our soldiers are living through, and dying for, every day in Iraq. But we Americans make a grievous error when we imagine that the rest of the world grows bored, changes the channel and moves on as quickly as the our compatriots do.
One classic example: the oft-repeated White House refrain that "we're fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here in America." Put aside the fact that this argument, known in Washington as "the flypaper theory," is demonstrably specious. Ask yourself how the Iraqis feel about it? "They hate that line," says a senior U.S. official who has long experience in occupied Baghdad but is not allowed by the administration to speak frankly on the record. "They say, 'Why are we so lucky that we get to defend America to the last Iraqi?'"
At the moment, American policymakers are fascinated with the way Islamic radicals have mastered the technology of information. (Those darn videophones …) But Washington's problem is not its failure to control the world's multifarious media, it's the failure to develop a coherent message.
What do the jihadists have to offer? Almost nothing. They rap on about establishing a utopian caliphate—which President Bush seems to take seriously, and talks about as if it were the name of a disease he'd just heard about from a golfing buddy. But few in the Arab or Muslim world pay much attention to that part of the radicals' boilerplate. What resonates widely is much simpler: hatred of the United States for the kinds of things the Bush administration says and does every day.
"The Al Qaeda message is a Manichean message of white versus black, good versus evil, a 'clash of civilizations'—it's Samuel Huntington on steroids," says my friend the muzzled official. "And there are people in Washington who act like that's what they want, too. Sure, we can go and show that we have compassion for Muslims; that we believe in freedom. That can be one side of our 'public diplomacy.' But the other side is Abu Ghraib, Haditha, the use of phrases like Islamofascism. All that works very well for Al Qaeda's purposes." The way the Saddam hanging was carried out provided just another in a long list of self-inflicted disasters.
In the United States, of course, the rush of news will sweep across the shallow surface of the American consciousness, and memories of this most recent debacle will fade. But in the Muslim world, the clock stops as each new source of humiliation and anger surfaces. The alarms start. They don't go off for a long time. And like the portrait on the face of my watch, Saddam is smiling.