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.

Effective demonizing is often not limited to government sources, but also comes from the private media — as during earlier wars when Hollywood churned out patriotic movies and cartoons that demonized the enemy, often in what would now be considered racist ways, or during the Gulf War when the news media fed the war frenzy.

‘A Bunch of Cold-Blooded Killers’

The Bush administration has spent a year trying to get some traction on an effective anti-Saddam information campaign. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush declared Iraq to be part of "an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." He later called Saddam "a grave threat," and "a man who, in my judgment, would like to use al Qaeda as a forward army."

At every opportunity he has called Saddam "evil," accused him of hiding "weapons of mass destruction" and painted him as the most dangerous kind of American enemy.

"In America, we say everybody is precious, everybody counts, everybody is equal in the eyes of the Almighty," Bush told American troops at Fort Hood, Texas, this month. "That's not what the enemy thinks. They don't value innocent life. They're nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers, and that's the way we're going to treat them."

Even outside the administration, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was quoted calling Saddam, "a monster … a vile man with a reckless and brutal history."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has compared Saddam obliquely to Hitler, and Undersecretary of State John Bolton said post-war Iraq would need "de-Nazification."

Is Saddam the Same as Hitler?

But the administration's Hitler argument was undermined by the Gulf War, Pratkanis believes, because, "The allies would not have marched up to the border of Germany in World War II and said, 'OK, war over. Hitler stays in power. He's a stabilizing influence.'"

"You had people believing he was Hitler saying, 'What happened?'" said Pratkanis, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "You had other people saying, 'If he's not Hitler, why should I have believed you in the first place?' … So when Bush says, 'axis of evil,' many people are skeptical. He has to live with that."

Another key bit of the old Gulf War demonization also fell apart. Historians now believe the story about the babies being pulled from incubators was untrue, made up by a Kuwaiti diplomat's daughter.

In the past, exaggerations of alleged World War I atrocities caused public skepticism of World War II Holocaust allegations, though the falsehood of the incubator story does not seem to loom large in the American imagination, many concede.

This time, as in the past, the popular media has taken up some of the administration's cues and taken a few fresh stabs at Saddam. In an ABCNEWS interview, Saddam's alleged mistress described him as a Viagra-taking, Hitler-invoking fan of Godfather movies, who likes to watch videos of his enemies being tortured.

In the past year, Saddam has been depicted in political cartoons hugging warheads, or dehumanized as a cat on the last of his nine lives, as a rhinoceros whose horns are nuclear, chemical and biological warheads, or a tornado sweeping toward the front porch of an oblivious Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a critic of the Bush administration.

But, most observers agree, the current evil-Saddam messages have not led to a rousing war frenzy like America saw before the Gulf War or after Sept. 11.

"I remember watching the interview with his former lover and saying, 'Oh man, what a reach,'" Jowett said.

"What [officials] are failing to do is to convince the public that this sinister, evil guy has to be gotten rid of at a cost of $60 billion," he said.

In fact, it seems at least as common in recent cartoons for Bush to be the butt of the joke — whether depicted as a reckless cowboy, a ridiculous demonizer, or a parrot repeating snippets of his father's words on Iraq. One cartoon shows Bush as "Mini-Me," sitting next to his father's "Dr. Evil": "Lucky in war, unlucky in the economy. I shall call you … 'Mini-Me!'" says the caption.

Bush, America as ‘the Great Satan’

Abroad, predictably, the balance swings further against Bush. In a South African cartoon, Dubya is "Dr. Evil" being spurned by his own "Mini-Me," British Prime Minister Tony Blair. And a German official was fired for comparing Bush's tactics to Hitler's.

Iraq has done plenty of anti-American demonizing, such as last month when the daily newspaper Al-Iraq, according to The Associated Press, denounced "the forces of evil and aggression, led by the great Satan — the United States — and its arrogant idiot President Bush."

It may sound ridiculous to American ears, but Jowett says the foreign demonization cannot simply be laughed off.

"The American public, I don't think, understands the incredible depth of feeling and hostility that this has created," he said. "We are going to start to see … people killing Americans indiscriminately."

Experts say a fresh blatant atrocity on Saddam's part could whip up a war frenzy in America quickly, and public proof of explicit Iraqi malfeasance could raise support abroad.

But there is something else that probably could get Americans behind the war.

"The moment he sends the troops in, it will be replaced by a syndrome called yellow ribbonitis," Jowett said. "If George sends the troops in tomorrow, 95 percent of the American people will back him, simply because he's our president. And as good Americans, which I am, we will support him."

But Pratkanis believes any immediate groundswell of support could be temporary.

"If it's a short war, no problem," he said. "But if it's a long war, that third [of the population] that's in opposition will continue to grow."