The King and His Court

Irfan Khawaja
December 14, 2003

An old, mad, blind and despised king….

Has it come to this then: an unconsciously held ideology that permits the most scandalous and disgusting lies—execrably written, totally disorganized, hysterically asserted—to pass as genuine scholarship, factual truth, political insight, without any significant challenge, demurral, or even polite reservation?
                      --Edward Said, “Conspiracy of Praise,” Blaming the Victims (1988), p. 30.

 As I sit here reflecting on the capture of Saddam Hussein, I find myself problematically hostage to dueling sentiments of triumphalism and depression. The reasons for the sense of triumph are obvious enough. But why the depression?

Perhaps it has to do with the first thing I heard after I learned of the capture this morning. “Saddam has been captured!” I yelled at no one in particular. To which the immediate response was: “Oh no: there goes the election!” In other words: better that Saddam go free than that Bush profit from his capture and win re-election in 2004. 

Or perhaps it’s the memories. I remember watching the invasion of Kuwait on TV in 1990. As I watched Saddam’s units roll into Kuwait City, the person sitting next to me—a non-Arab Muslim—cheered. “That will show the Americans,” he said, pounding the table. Today, the same person tried to get my mind off of the day’s triumph by sending me Robert Jay Lifton’s vacuous essay, “American Apocalypse” (The Nation, Dec. 4, 2003). How unbearable it must be to face the ignominious end, at American hands, of the man who would “show” the Americans. And how narcotizing and anaesthetizing the effect of Lifton’s clarion call to inaction.  

I remember, too, the Arabs and Muslims who defended Saddam this time around. Saddam’s Iraq, said Azmi Bishara the Palestinian-Israeli politician, “is a civil and orderly Arab country, with a secular regime.” So its military, still under Saddam’s command at the time Bishara was writing, deserved Arab/Muslim “solidarity” in the face of the Coalition attack—solidarity that Bishara, having previously genuflected before the “civil and orderly” regime in Syria, was only too happy to give. “Pan-Arabism”—this clown tells us, prating of all things, of “intellectual independence” and “moral judgment”--“is alive.” Bear this thought in mind the next time you hear some Arab tell you that the Arabs were really and truly against Saddam. Well, if pan-Arabism were really as alive as Bishara intimates, what obstacle stopped the Unified Arab Nation from getting rid of the dictator they so sincerely claim to hate? Or doid Bishara mean that Saddam was part of the pan-Arab nation? (Azmi Bishara, “Hi-tech Quagmire,” Al Ahram Weekly [Cairo], March 27-April 2, 2003). 

I save the best—or worst—for last. Last April, I came upon the following passage in the British press:

Adding to the fraudulence of the weapons not found, the Stalingrads that didn't occur, the artillery defences that never happened, I wouldn't be surprised if Saddam disappeared suddenly because a deal was made in Moscow to let him, his family, and his money leave in return for the country. The war had gone badly for the US in the south, and Bush couldn't risk the same in Baghdad. On 6 April, a Russian convoy leaving Iraq was bombed; Condi Rice appeared in Russia on 7 April; Baghdad fell 9 April.

I think that most readers will “not be surprised” to learn that the author of the passage was none other than the late Professor Edward Said (The Observer, April 20, 2003). 

Put aside the fraudulent claim that no weapons were found: just take a look at UNMOVIC’s Twelfth Quarterly report or its March 2003 Cluster Document and you can read all about the ones that were. Never mind that Professor Said was the person who went out of his way, back in 1991, to deny that the Iraqi poison-gas attack at Halabja had ever taken place (cf. Leo Casey, “Questioning Halabja Genocide and the Expedient Political Lie,” Dissent, Summer 2003)—and that he did so “at the very moment the Baathist regime was launching its brutal suppression of the post-Gulf War uprisings of the Kurds and Shiites.” 

Never mind the tension between saying that “artillery defences never happened” and saying that “the war had gone badly for the US in the south”: had the war gone badly through an absence of defences, or an absence of artillery? In the former case, how does a defending army make things go “badly” for an attacker without defending anything? In the latter case, what about the Iraqi missiles that were fired at Kuwait—missiles, after all, are a form of artillery. Never mind that the war really hadn’t gone badly in the south—except from the perspective of the Iraqi army, which ran away. 

Never mind that it was Saddam Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz who told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that "Iraq will become a second Stalingrad for the British and American invaders." And let’s ignore the fact that he was right only in one respect, namely, that Saddam Hussein did indeed manage to resemble both parties to the siege of Stalingrad, the Nazis and the Soviets. 

We could dwell at length on the party-hack mentality capable of producing such brazen contradictions. We could dwell also on the incongruity between the party-hack mentality on the one hand, and the inflated academic reputation on the other. But never mind. Look instead at the furtive, half-baked conspiracy theory propounded in Said’s essay. Ask yourself why a reputable newspaper would have printed such trash—and reflect on how little will ever be said about it after its having been so conclusively demolished by Saddam’s capture today in Tikrit. 

What, precisely, was Professor Said’s theory? A Russian convoy leaving Iraq was bombed; Condoleeza Rice appeared shortly thereafter in Russia; and Baghdad soon fell. The same man who filled hundreds of pages with “anti-essentialist” polemics—railing against those who made large-scale generalizations from too meager a sample of facts—this same certified intellectual giant now took these three puny facts to support his grandly idiotic geopolitical theory. To evaluate the dementia here, however, we’d do best to borrow a methodological precept from the great man himself. “Do not try to answer” any questions you may have about the theory “straight out.” Instead, ask the author “questions you would ask someone who argued that the universe was being run from an office inside the Great Pyramid” (Edward Said, “The Essential Terrorist,” Blaming the Victims, p. 158). Indeed. I couldn’t have said it better. So let’s begin with the base of the pyramid and work our way tediously to its apex. 

Why would the Russians have obliged us just because we had bombed one of their convoys? Wouldn’t that have been an incentive to punish rather than reward us by getting us out of the supposed jam that Said envisions? And what good would it have done the Russians to have smuggled Saddam out of Iraq anyway? What benefits were there to be reaped for the Russians by the presence of Saddam Hussein & Family—especially if Saddam no longer had power in Baghdad? Why does Condoleeza Rice’s sheer appearance in Russia suggest that she went there because of Saddam? Even if she had, how could such a deal have been wrapped up so quickly? 

Anyway, if the war was going so badly for the US in the south, and Bush feared that it would go worse in Baghdad, what incentive would Saddam have had for giving himself up so easily? While we’re at it, if Russia had had such leverage over Saddam, and Saddam had realized how militarily hopeless his situation was (granted this contradicts Said’s scenario by comporting more closely with the facts), why wasn’t a deal hammered out between the Russians and the Americans sometime between the summer of 2002 and the spring of 2003? How could a deal that wasn’t hammered out in that much time suddenly be finalized under conditions of (American) duress in two days? By the way, how does one square Said’s theory with the capture or killings of so many members of the Baath regime (i.e., the “deck of cards”)? And how does one square the Said Theory with the assassinations of Saddam’s sons, i.e., his closest family members? 

Above all, how does one square Professor Said’s theory with the sanctimoniousness of a man who spent a career berating his peers, above all in America, for their insufficient attention to the canons of logic, evidence and intellectual integrity—while flouting all of them at the crucial moment? What does it say that this supposed moral hero, who claimed all his life to “speak truth to power” should so shamefully have debased himself to make the lamest excuses for the world’s basest power? How does one square the truly pitiful passage I’ve quoted above with the inflated rhetoric universally in use to praise this monumental fraud? 

And that brings me to the reasons for my depression at Saddam Hussein’s capture. When I read Said’s essay way back in April, I saved it for the day when Saddam was at last found, if only to fling the essay back at its author’s face. Today, at long last, is that day. And yet I find that the author is no longer here to receive his due. Hence my depression. 

But I brighten a bit at the thought that a cruel, disoriented man in Baghdad is at last to receive his due, or at least whatever part of it we can inflict without sullying ourselves by the infliction. Thinking about this, I find my original sense of triumph and of depression giving way to a cold, anti-climactic sort of contempt. Keep Saddam alive after a calm, but drawn-out trial before his victims, I think; then let him rot forever in a solitary prison cell, contemplating his own pitiful identity for the rest of whatever life remains to him. Because believe it or not, that might just be punishment enough for someone with an identity like his. And, perhaps—just perhaps—it might be consolation enough for the rest of us. 


Azmi Bishara, “Hi-Tech Quagmire,” Al Ahram Weekly (Cairo), March 27-April 2, 2003. 


Edward Said, “Give Us Back Our Democracy,” The Observer (London), April 20, 2003:,6903,940123,00.html 

Geoffrey Roberts, “Will Baghdad Be Another Stalingrad?” History News Network, (no date, but probably sometime in March 2003): 

Leo Casey, “Questioning Halabja Genocide and the Expedient Political Lie,” Dissent, (Summer 2003):   


Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and lecturer in politics at Princeton University.