Disemplaning at Baghdad Airport a few years ago, I was met by a guide and interpreter who really did look like a retired torturer. Conducting me smoothly to my hotel (‘Are you a member of the drinking classes? I think the Armenian brandy might tickle your fancy’), he laboured to dispel the image of the unsmiling xenophobic Iraqi which the rest of Baghdad society was at such pains to reinforce. I didn’t know whether to bless or curse my luck when he leaned forward, patted my kneecap and fluted: ‘I believe that we shall be such friends. I have two consuming interests – Adolf Hitler and Oscar Wilde.’ Only hours later, or so it seemed to my disordered fancy, we were sitting in a villa that had once housed the Nazi embassy, while he played a tape of The Importance of Being Earnest. He himself took the part of Algernon, while the role of Lady Bracknell was hogged by a very distinguished British foreign correspondent of what might be called the old school. A large sepia photograph of the Führer frowned from a mantel. Later in the week, we were absorbing a pre-lunch cocktail when my new chum said casually: ‘Would you care to pass the afternoon with Abu Nidal?’
My stock of memory concerning Iraq thus comprises, in no special order, a surreal conversation with Abu Nidal (in the course of which he threatened the life of a Palestinian friend of mine who was later murdered in London); clandestine meetings with Kurds and Communists who whispered about the terrifying cruelty of Saddam Hussein’s police; an afternoon at Babylon; and an amazing number of times in which I was entirely stumped for anything to say. Until the last few weeks I may have been the only person who, if given a word-association test for ‘Hitler’, might well have exclaimed: ‘Iraq!’
So naturally I bristled like a retriever when George Bush began to compare Saddam Hussein with the leader of the Third Reich. Of course, since ‘appeasement’ is the standard metaphor whenever a test of American resolve is in prospect, the figure of Hitler is as difficult to exclude as the head of King Charles. The drawback in the analogy is that, from a Hitler, it is impossible to demand much less than his complete destruction or unconditional surrender. Still, other keywords such as ‘expansion’ and ‘poison gas’ do keep on creeping in. Partly as a result of this, the President has an almost perfect spectrum of political support. Whatever he may decide (and I am writing early in the crisis, without benefit of astrological clergy of the sort who used to cast the White House rune), he will be able to say that even those who did not will the means consented to will the end.
That end, it seems, is either the recuperation of Kuwaiti sovereignty or the removal of Saddam himself – the latter option being known in White House and Pentagon powerspeak as ‘going to the source’. It isn’t being pointed out, and in fact isn’t generally remembered, that the head of Saddam was the very price demanded by the Iranians as a precondition for parley in the last Gulf War. Most Americans are still unsure of how to distinguish between Hussein of Jordan and the Beast of Baghdad (or is it the Butcher of Basra? The Brute of Babylon?) – a distinction which led the New York Times to run a special article on Arabic nomenclature.