Osama who?

The White House's focus on Saddam is meant to divert attention from America's still-AWOL Public Enemy No. 1.

By Arianna Huffington

Published September 30, 2002 8:11PM (EDT)

We all know who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, don't we? No, not Osama bin Laden. God, that is so last year. It never turns out to be the person you first suspect. It was Saddam Hussein. For some reason we couldn't find him when we went after him in Afghanistan, bringing that magic elixir of regime change along with us. But now we've got a better idea: Track him down where he actually lives, in Baghdad, and punish him right in his own backyard. It's the only way to obtain justice for the thousands he killed on 9/11.

At least that's the way the White House is now pitching the story.

In this latest rewrite of history, Osama has suddenly lost his beard and grown a mustache, morphing into the Butcher of Baghdad -- or one of the look-alike stand-ins Saddam has been using for public appearances since 1998.

"You can't distinguish between al-Qaida and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror," said President Bush in the Oval Office last week.

Really? He can't differentiate between a group of evil ultra-radical Islamic fundamentalists that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and an evil secular nationalist who, despite the frantic efforts of the Bush administration, has not been directly linked to 9/11? He'd better start making such distinctions -- and fast. When every expert who knows anything about the Mideast can distinguish between the two, is it too much to ask that a president who's ready to go to war look a bit closer?

People under stress often regress to earlier stages of development. It appears Bush is so intent on getting Saddam, so tightly gripped by a need to succeed where his war-hero dad failed, so obsessively determined to lay the murderous 9/11 assault at Baghdad's door, that he's regressed to that level of childhood development where fantasy, reality and wish fulfillment are all mixed up. Except that this time, things like nuclear weapons and the safety of the world for the next few decades are involved.

Now, I'm no psychologist, but I believe there is a clinical term for this condition: going off the deep end.

How else to explain the president's bizarre response to a reporter's straightforward query last week about who poses a bigger threat to America, Saddam or al-Qaida?

"That's an interesting question," he replied. "I'm trying to think of something humorous to say but I can't when I think about al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein."

When did the president take over "The Tonight Show"? Why would the idea that he should make a joke about such a deadly serious subject even cross his mind? It would be like asking Danielle van Dam's parents about the trial of their daughter's murderer and having them apologize for not being ready with a humorous quip.

No, Mr. President, you needn't apologize -- your inability to treat serious subjects lightly is not one of your deficiencies. So rather than struggle to come up with a wan witticism, why don't you just answer the question? Especially since it appears by your actions that you've already come up with one.

Instead of bothering to give the least defense of his sudden fusion of Saddam and Osama, Bush launched into a fantasy-fueled diatribe: "The danger is, is that they work in concert. The danger is, is that al-Qaida becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world."

The president's regressed condition is spreading like the West Nile virus throughout the West Wing and beyond.

Witness the symptomatic blurring of fact and fantasy exhibited by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. When asked at an Armed Services Committee hearing about what is now compelling us to "take precipitous actions" against Iraq, Rumsfeld barked: "What's different? What's different is 3,000 people were killed." Yeah, by Mohammed Atta and company -- not Saddam Hussein. By why quibble over details when there is a propaganda war to be won?

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice continued the assault on reality when she vaguely yet ominously claimed: "There clearly are contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq that can be documented." Well then, why not document them? We've documented contacts between al-Qaida and our oil dealers in Saudi Arabia and al-Qaida and our new best friends in Pakistan. But I don't see any B-2s powering up for raids over Riyadh or Karachi.

As is the White House custom, Rice simply refused to back up her claims. So did Rumsfeld, who memorably rebuffed a reporter late last week by saying, "That happens to be a piece of intelligence that either we don't have or we don't want to talk about." In other words: Proof? We don't need no stinking proof! And just because I'm asking your sons and daughters to possibly sacrifice their lives for it doesn't mean you deserve to know whether it even exists.

It would be nice if we could just take them all at their word and let the bombs fall where they may. But Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who, as chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence is privy to the inside scoop, says he's seen no evidence of any link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

So we're left with the fevered, infantile imaginings of the president and his pals. "We had dots before," said Anna Perez, Rice's spokeswoman. "Now we have a higher density of dots. Have we connected those dots? No."

Perhaps the president should put down his saber-rattle, pick up his crayons, and connect them before drawing us into a bloody war.

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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Iraq Middle East Osama Bin Laden