Bush and Saddam spin the war on terror.

Bush and Saddam spin the war on terror.

Bush and Saddam spin the war on terror.

How you look at things.
Dec. 20 2001 5:38 PM

Iraqi 2

Is Bush waging a war on terror or a war on Arabs?

Should the war on terrorism proceed to Iraq? Many Bush administration officials and members of Congress think so. Russia, Turkey, and countries in Europe and the Middle East are dubious. Without the support of those countries, the United States is far less likely to undertake a military campaign against Saddam Hussein. That's why the spin war is already underway. President Bush is framing Saddam as a terrorist, while Saddam is framing Bush as a persecutor of Muslims and Arabs.

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Bush and Osama Bin Laden established the structure of this debate months ago. Bush said the war was between freedom and terror. Bin Laden said it was between Muslims and infidels. During the Afghan phase of the war, Bush has shown enough respect for Islam and enough compassion for Afghan civilians to thwart Bin Laden's caricature of him as a religious crusader. Muslims haven't risen up against their secular rulers and the United States as Bin Laden hoped. Bush hasn't exactly won the debate, but he has avoided losing it.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Now the game gets more complicated. Two additional conflicts are in play. One pits Israel against the Palestinian Authority. The other pits Pakistan against India. In each case, the government accused of harboring terrorists is Muslim. An American crackdown on either regime could be framed as further evidence that Bush is targeting terrorism. Alternatively, it could be framed as further evidence that he's targeting Muslims. The debate would remain open.

Iraq is a tougher case. It doesn't quite fit Bush's framework. For all his crimes, Saddam hasn't been blowing up civilians in other countries lately, as terrorists based in Pakistan and the Palestinian territories have. Nor have U.S. officials found enough evidence to implicate him in the Sept. 11 attacks. So it won't be easy to persuade the world that military action in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism. But Iraq doesn't quite fit Bin Laden's framework either. Saddam is a secular ruler. The fundamentalist regimes that border Iraq detest him. Bin Laden has called him a bad Muslim.

How are Bush and Saddam managing this conundrum? By adjusting their frameworks. Three weeks ago, Bush warned Iraq, "If you develop weapons of mass destruction that you want to terrorize the world, you'll be held accountable." A reporter reminded Bush, "When you … defined terrorism in your speech before Congress, you did not include [the development of] weapons of mass destruction." To this, Bush replied, "Part of the war on terror is to deny terrorist weapons … getting in the hands of nations that will use them." With that, Bush shoehorned Iraq into the war. If Saddam wouldn't meet Bush's definition of terrorism, Bush would enlarge his definition of terrorism to meet Saddam.

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This week, Saddam fired back. He called for an emergency summit of Arab nations. The topic he proposed wasn't U.S. aggression in Afghanistan, but U.S.-Israeli aggression in Palestine. Why? Because Palestinians, unlike Afghans, are Arabs. Saddam can't plausibly claim to represent Islam, so he's transforming Bin Laden's religious framework into an ethnic framework. He's accusing Bush of waging war not on Muslims but on Arabs.

Saddam sprinkled his message with invocations of Allah, "faith," and "the call of the believing mind." But he addressed himself to "Brother Arabs," accused the United States and Israel of usurping "the lands of the Arabs," and charged that the United Nations had begun to "slight the Arabs." Unlike Bin Laden, who included the faraway Philippines in his appeal for a global holy war, Saddam framed the war along racial lines, urging his neighbors to be moved by "the fervor of the blood ties." In the worldview of Bin Laden and Ann Coulter, you can get on the right side by changing your religion. In the worldview of Saddam and Hitler, you can't.

Casting the conflict in racial terms also mitigates Saddam's other PR problem: his penchant for invading countries and killing people. In his call for a summit, he appealed repeatedly to "the nation"—meaning Arabs, not Muslims or Iraqis—and chided neighboring regimes for abandoning the "rights and principles of pan-Arabism." If you think of yourself as a Kuwaiti, Saudi, or Syrian, teaming up with the expansionist tyrant next door doesn't sound like such a good idea. But if you think of yourself simply as an Arab, Saddam's disregard for borders seems less important, and an American military attack on Iraq feels more like an attack on you.

Twice in the past decade, Saddam's neighbors tacitly endorsed U.S. military action in his part of the world. Twice, that support led to a massive American deployment. Twice, the targeted regime suffered catastrophic defeat. Saddam has been there. He knows he can't win the war of weapons. To head it off, he'll have to win the war of words.