Just past midnight on Aug. 2, the U.S. suddenly had a new villain. His name is Saddam Hussein.
This was not the king from Jordan. This was another Hussein, the president of Iraq. He had a bushy mustache and fierce, dark eyes, he wore a revolver and combat fatigues - and his tanks had just rolled into Kuwait.
During the past decade, U.S. leaders and media had referred to him as a ``strongman'' and, from time to time, had taken his side. Now, in the blink of a howitzer, he had become the U.S.' premiere foreign psychopath.
``A madman,'' said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D.-Conn.
``As crazy and ruthless as Hitler,'' said Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y.
``A madman to the teeth,'' said Rep. Don Ritter, R-Pa.
Late-night TV host David Letterman offered ``Hussein's Top 10 Reasons for Attacking Kuwait,'' including: ``The sand's always grainier on the other side of the border.''
Saddam ``makes the ayatollah look sane,'' said comedian Jay Leno.
Meanwhile, the news media weighed in with the same diagnosis. ``Unstable and untrustworthy . . . a madman,'' the Akron Beacon-Journal said in an editorial.
``A monster,'' said an Op-Ed column in the Chicago Tribune.
The United States has in Saddam a ``new hot property . . . a new madman of the month,'' said Everette Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University in New York. ``The world is full of these characters,'' and in the past decade they've been moving in and out of the spotlight.
Saddam has eclipsed Manuel Antonio Noriega of Panama, who followed Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who followed Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who succeeded Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization - each variously described as rat, madman, assassin or terrorist.
``With the Cold War over, we no longer have the great monolith of the Soviet Union to serve as the personification of evil,'' Joseph
Nye Jr., a Harvard professor of international affairs, said last week. ``Unlike in the past . . . there will be more problems coming from more directions.'' And Saddam, whom Nye describes as ``a pretty nasty fellow,'' won't be the last.
Saddam surely is no Mother Teresa: He used chemical weapons on his own people during the Iran-Iraq war; he is said to have killed family members who opposed him and to have shot one of his cabinet ministers while other officials
Still, the epithets that the U.S. commonly hurls at foreign adversaries such as Saddam concern Dennis, who calls them inappropriate. Saddam's motives, his rise to power and his role in Arab affairs, Dennis said, need to be explained. Saddam's conquest of oil-rich Kuwait was set into motion by myriad factors - among them Iraq's near-catastrophic debt after its war with Iran and Saddam's anger at Kuwait's repeated undercutting of OPEC oil prices.
Experts say such factors do not justify his swallowing another country whole, but they are loath to pronounce him insane. ``The word `madman,' '' said historian Bill Gibson, ``does not help us understand his intelligence.''
But ``when the trends and processes of world affairs'' prove ``too complex to explain,'' said Dennis, such caricatures become ``a way to simplify affairs.''
Gibson traces the U.S.' Madman-of-the-Month phenomenon to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
``For 250 years, until Vietnam, America had experienced a sense of regeneration through violence'' in war, said Gibson.
Ever since the Indian Wars of the early 18th century, each U.S. military victory has represented a
defeat of ``savagery'' and an advancement of morality and civilization, he said. But the U.S. experience in Vietnam ended with no sense of moral uplift, said Gibson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell University School for the Humanities in Ithaca, N.Y. Demoralized, looking to renew its self-esteem, the U.S. has been glancing around the globe ever since for diabolical enemies who represent the moral opposite of what is American and, implicitly, good, he said.
Most nations ``demonize'' their enemies in wartime, Gibson said, but throughout the '80s, the U.S. has repeatedly sought to ``split off the worst aspects of ourselves and project them onto an enemy.''
A prime example, he said, is the way the U.S. in 1989 abruptly focused its drug problem on one Third World dictator, Noriega of Panama.
Long a sordid but compliant U.S. ally, Noriega was suddenly vilified by President Bush as a ``drug lord'' and caricatured in tabloids and by comedians as ``Pineapple Face'' because of his acne.
Phrases such as ``the mad butcher of Baghdad'' in reference to Saddam are propaganda . . .'' said Joseph Turo, professor of communication at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. Although democracies don't much like the word ``propaganda'' when it's applied to themselves, they engage in it nonetheless.