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Arab Reaction to U.S. Capture of Saddam Hussein

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, Dec. 18, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

TONY SNOW, GUEST HOST: Since his capture, the latest pictures of Saddam Hussein (search) show him looking small and weak, compared to Iraqi Governing Council (search) member Ahmed Chalabi (search).

I spoke about the pictures earlier with Leslie Gelb (search), president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. And I asked him: What is the significance of Saddam's shave and a hair cut? That's today's big question.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LESLIE GELB, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think [the U.S.]got a lot of criticism in the Arab world for Saddam looking so terrible. And a lot of Arabs started to accuse us of deliberately trying to humiliate their hero, so we gave him a shave and hair cut.

SNOW: On the other hand, all this talk about Saddam being a hero, the first thing he says is “I'm the president of Iraq. I'm prepared to negotiate.” He didn't come out with guns blazing. He didn't show that final stand as his sons did. Is this a man who has already lost face in the Arab world?

GELB: Well, it was his funniest line as he came out of the hole. He's lost face. And yet the dislike of the United States is so strong there that most of the reaction in the Arab press, and among Arab intellectuals and writers, has been that their hero has been unnecessarily humiliated, rather than this guy who was a monster has been caught and we're all better off.

There are very few countries that have reacted that way — Kuwait, Turkey, Israel, the Gulf countries to a certain extent.

But most of them seem to lament the fact that their guy didn't go down fighting or shoot himself. An Egyptian paper... said he should have died like Hitler, either shot himself or taken poison, but not destroyed his image as the guy who defied the United States.

SNOW: So we also have the Vatican saying he was treated badly because here [the U.S.] brought him out and took pictures of him in this disheveled condition. We have seen Amnesty International complaining about the fact that he was forced to sit on a floor when speaking with Chalabi. A lot of this criticism strikes you the way it does me? Silly?

GELB: I think that is a good word. We do make a fuss when others parade our soldiers. I think Saddam is a special case. And if people don't realize there is a difference between Saddam and our soldiers or other soldiers, they can't make reasonable distinctions. This guy is a monster and it is important to take him down a peg and 10.

SNOW: Now the Bush administration has been criticized many times for being unilateralists. The president says, no, we have 40 nations involved in this operation. Perhaps more to the point, the United States now is going once again to the key allies, the Germans, the French and the Russians saying we want you to forgive prewar debt, this was Saddam's government, and he dispatched James A. Baker III. What is the significance of sending Jim Baker on this mission?

GELB: The significance of it is they have to check their arm sockets after he leaves to see if they're still in place. This guy is one of the best negotiators going. And I would bet anything that he left Washington with more than a brief for rescheduling debt in his briefcase. I think he has a lot of things to talk to them about. And basically what the strategy is... is to see whether they can form some new kind of cooperative relationship with the allies that includes debt rescheduling, that includes participation in the reconstruction of Iraq. And that includes down the line... the participation in the political, military issues. I think that is what he's going for.

SNOW: Jim Baker is a tough guy. He goes to speak to the French. The French have said we want to be the counterweight to the United States. They present themselves as America's polar opposite in global affairs.

GELB: Right.

SNOW: How does he deal with them and how do they deal with him?

GELB: Well, they dealt with him essentially by agreeing even before he arrived in Paris. They said we're going to reschedule the debt. We're going to be very generous. So, they took away some of the squeeze he was going to put on them and put themselves into a generally favorable light. But they are going to bargain, too. And they're going to say you want serious debt rescheduling, talk about the numbers. And we want to talk about the numbers on contracts for Iraq reconstruction. All that will be on the table eventually.

SNOW: Eventually meaning next year in Paris.

GELB: Or sooner.

SNOW: All right, Les Gelb, Thanks.

GELB: Always a treat.

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