I've been thinking about Tariq Aziz a lot since
the New York Times printed a front-page story on the former Iraqi deputy
prime minister in late May. A color photograph showed him decked out in what
the article described as "an open-necked hospital gown, with a patient's
plastic identification tag on his wrist." He looked gaunt.
The last time I saw Aziz, at a Baghdad meeting two months before the
U.S.-led invasion began, he was still portly in one of his well-tailored
business suits. If Aziz was worried, he didn't show it.
Now, he's playing a part that U.S. media seem to relish. The Times
headline said "Hussein's Former Envoy Gushes With Adulation on Witness
Stand," but to sum up the coverage it might have just as aptly declared:
"How the Mighty Have Fallen."
The Times reported that Aziz defended Saddam Hussein in his May 24
testimony after he was not able to cut a deal with Baghdad's current
legal powers-that-be. "At an earlier stage of the trial, American officials
said Mr. Aziz had offered to testify against Mr. Hussein on the condition that
he be released early, a proposition the Iraqi court and its American advisers
say they eventually rejected."
If prisoner Aziz was initially angling for better treatment in
exchange for ratting on Saddam, that would be consistent with how he
first behaved in the dock.
On July 1, 2004, appearing before an Iraqi judge in a courtroom
located on a U.S. military base near Baghdad airport, Aziz said: "What
want to know is, are these charges personal? Is it Tariq Aziz carrying
out these killings? If I am a member of a government that makes the
mistake of killing someone, then there can't justifiably be an accusation
against me personally. Where there is a crime committed by the
leadership, the moral responsibility rests there, and there shouldn't be
a personal case just because somebody belongs to the leadership."
Trying to extract some positive meaning from the horrors set off by
the U.S. war on Iraq, journalists are inclined to return to the well of
sorrows recounted in the dragged-out trial of Saddam Hussein and key
subordinates in Baghdad. Along the way, the pathetic efforts by Tariq
Aziz to disclaim any responsibility for the actions of the regime he
served are fodder for big American media guns journalistic arsenals
much more trained on the deadly crimes of top officials in the Hussein
regime than the deadly crimes of top officials in the Bush
As Iraq's most visible diplomat, Aziz was a smooth talker who
epitomized the urbanity of evil. Up close, in late 2002 and early the
following year, when I was among American visitors to his office in
Baghdad, he seemed equally comfortable in a military uniform or a
business suit. Serving a tyrannical dictator, Aziz used his skills with
language the way a cosmetician might apply makeup to a corpse.
Aziz glibly represented Saddam Hussein's regime as it tortured and murdered
Iraqi people. Yet after the invasion, news reports told us, a search of his
home near the Tigris River turned up tapes of such Western cultural treasures
as The Sound of Music and Sleepless in Seattle.
The likelihood that he enjoyed this entertainment may be a bit
jarring. We might prefer to think that a bright line separates the truly
civilized from the barbaric, the decent from the depraved.
But the man could exhibit a range of human qualities. Reserved yet personable,
he could banter with ease. His arguments, while larded with propaganda, did
not lack nuance. Whether speaking with a member of the U.S. Congress, an acclaimed
American movie actor, or a former top UN official, Aziz seemed acutely aware
of his audience. He would have made a deft politician in the United States.
We like to believe that American leaders are cut from entirely
different cloth. But I don't think so. In some respects, the terrible
compromises made by Tariq Aziz are more explainable than ones that are
routine in U.S. politics.
Aziz had good reason to fear for his life and the lives of loved ones
if he ran afoul of Saddam. In contrast, many politicians and appointed
officials in Washington have gone along with lethal policies because of fear
that dissent might cost them reelection, prestige, money, or power.