Is Anti-Saddam Talk Just 'Iraqnophobia II?'

Back in the Gulf War days, the first President Bush compared Saddam Hussein to Adolph Hitler — both bullies who gassed their own citizens, invaded weaker neighbors and committed atrocities.

Saddam even allowed babies at a Kuwaiti hospital to be "pulled from incubators and scattered like firewood across the floor," the president said.

America's blood boiled. The president's popularity soared. The "Butcher of Baghdad's" mug was the bull's-eye on posters at gas stations. A Republican senator called him "a wolf knocking at our door." T-shirts and political cartoons showed Saddam as a gigantic, voracious spider consuming Kuwait and threatening America.

Some called it "Iraqnophobia," a play on Arachnophobia, the then-hit movie about killer spiders.

But despite a year of tough "axis of evil" talk from the current Bush administration and a troop buildup in the Persian Gulf, polls show support for war with Iraq far from unanimous, and particularly weak if fought without international support.

Scholars of wartime propaganda say the new Saddam-the-demon message is playing more like "Iraqnophobia II" — a dull sequel with recycled plotlines, and few compelling new allegations or surprises.

"To be quite honest with you, I'm confused by it," said Anthony Pratkanis, co-author of Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. "I don't understand the Bush administration's thinking on this. If they want a war with Iraq, they basically need to sell that war."

That means details on fresh atrocities, fresh images of enemy depravity and enough public proof to convince the world.

"It is hard to demonize [Saddam] when he hasn't really done anything [new] lately," said Garth Jowett, co-author of the book, Propaganda and Persuasion.

"I think the White House is losing its grip in the sense that its stories are no longer capturing the minds of the American public," added Jowett, director of the school of communication at the University of Houston. "It's not happening, I think, to any great extent because they are finding the public is ho-humming about it. Everybody knows Saddam is a bad guy."

Depraved Enemy

That could be a problem for the Bush administration, which faces skepticism from foreign governments and a rising domestic anti-war movement, and which insists Iraq, not America, bears the burden of proving it meets conditions to avert an attack, Jowett and others say.

But demonizing the enemy with names, ridicule and allegations — and making it stick — amounts to more than just schoolyard-style trash talk when selling a war. Such techniques are time-tested methods for governments to move the public to action with bloodthirsty war fever or bloodcurdling fear of the enemy threat.

"War propaganda in the 20th century is getting the consent of the population for going on with the killing, and muzzling the population that feels otherwise," says Jay Winter, a history professor at Yale University.

Dehumanization allows people psychologically to throw their support behind a fight, because it's easier to approve of squashing a spider or a monster than human beings, propaganda scholars say. In World Wars I and II, for example, the U.S. government and private groups put out posters showing the enemy as looming giants or vicious animals.

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