Under interrogation and awaiting trial, Saddam Hussein hardly seems the dominating figure of yesterday. Yet his current shabbiness may indeed reflect the regime he commanded for close to three decades. It was much weaker than it looked at the time and collapsed with little fight. For all his conspiring and grandiloquence, say analysts, Saddam Hussein’s career basically went nowhere – benefiting neither him nor Iraq. VOA’s Ed Warner reports some views of this thwarted ambition.
Saddam: The name means “one who confronts,” and that is how Saddam Hussein has spent his life – one confrontation after another in a ceaseless struggle for power.
It ended where it began in the vicinity of the small town of Tikrit, where people were so poor they went barefoot and quarrels were harshly settled along tribal lines. In her book The Outlaw State, Elaine Sciolino writes: “The rough, dirt-poor, lawless atmosphere of Saddam’s village shaped his character and outlook.”
That was a close fit for the rising nationalist Baathist Party, which overthrew Iraq’s rather benign monarchy in 1968. As the party’s number-two man, Saddam gained control of the intelligence and security services to build his power base. But as The Washington Post notes, he also used lavish oil revenues to launch a nation-wide literacy program and establish one of the best public health systems in the Middle East.
The good works hardly compensated for the bad, says Michael Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and professor of international relations at Georgetown University.
“He emerged through a rather underhanded and violent means as a plotter and a conspirator in the very complicated and sometimes brutal politics of Iraq in the 1960’s and 70’s,” he says. “One thing that he accomplished is building probably the most repressive and authoritarian of all the regimes in the Middle East.”
He was certainly a rising star of the Baathist Party, if that’s the right word, says Professor Hudson. In 1979 he became the brightest of all by assuming the presidency. His first act of office was to order the execution of 60 Baath Party leaders on dubious grounds of conspiracy.
That set the stage for his next 24 years in power. His regime resembled that of the most successful autocrat of the 20th century, says Professor Hudson. “I think of all the modern dictators to whom he might be compared,” he says, “Stalin is the one that comes closest. He was able to manipulate the inner workings of the party bureaucracy to establish control over some of the security services. Finally in 1979, he emerged as the sole leader of Iraq and proceeded to consolidate his power and at the same time undertaking some very disastrous regional military adventures.”
In that sense, Stalin was more circumspect. In 1980, Saddam invaded Iran, anticipating a quick victory. The war dragged on for eight years with 500,000 Iraqi deaths and 300,000 Iranian. But just as Stalin was lavishly aided by the West in his struggle with Hitler’s Germany, so was Saddam rewarded.
The West was more fearful of the aggressive fundamentalism emanating from Tehran than of Saddam’s more standard tyranny. The United States, in particular, was outraged over the seizing of its embassy in Iran and holding Americans hostage.
That was uppermost in the minds of U.S. policy makers, says Jim Wall, senior contributing editor to the Christian Century Magazine and a frequent commentator on the Middle East.
“We must never forget that we the American people and the American Government and the Western states in general were very strongly behind Saddam Hussein as long as he was on our side in fighting against Iran,” he says. “His behavior was very clear to everyone during those days when he was an ally of the United States. We knew it, and we tolerated it because we wanted him in the fight against Iran.”
But it was not just Western nations that tolerated Saddam. Equally fearful of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, Arab states also overlooked Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against both Iranian troops and his own Kurdish population. This seemed to confirm a statement the Iraqi leader made that the glory of the Arabs stems from the glory of Iraq. “Throughout history whenever Iraq became mighty and flourished,” said Saddam, “so did the Arab nation.”
This might was based on terror writes author Elaine Sciolino. She notes that faced with possible danger, Iraqis produced a blank stare that seemed to say we know nothing about anything. Surrounded by secret police, Iraqis became self-policing.
There was some resistance to Saddam among Kurds and Shiites, says Jim Wall, but it was unsuccessful.
“It is always a good question to ask why do a people tolerate a dictator?” he says. “Dictatorships throughout the centuries have puzzled us in that way. Sometimes some people have risen up and overthrown dictators, but the Iraqi people were unable to do that.”
Even if there was not outright rebellion, terror was an insufficient prop for the regime, says Professor Hudson. Iraq’s huge armed force quickly collapsed in both wars with the West.
“Strength, of course, is important, but legitimacy is even more important,” he says. “In the absence of legitimacy, a ruler if he is going to survive, has to rely increasingly on strength and force, even though that may end up delegitimizing him in the future. One of the reasons Saddam will not be mourned is that in the course of his rule he relied too much on force and therefore it proved that his regime although outwardly very strong and brutal was inwardly very weak.”
That weakness was on personal display after Saddam was discovered in his underground lair. His appearance reflected his rule, says Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College.
“His capture in a spider hole in Iraq represents a dramatic end to a very dismal and a very terror-like regime,” he says. “Many Iraqis and many Arabs will remember Saddam Hussein as the emperor without clothes. He was found naked because all the lies were exposed within a few minutes. He did not resist his captors. He did not go down fighting. He did not commit suicide. He was a coward.”
What’s more, he had documents with him detailing an insurgency network that fell into U.S. hands.
Such an inglorious end to autocratic rule should make the transition to a free society easier, says Professor Gerges. An open political process and transparent institutions are in keeping with the diversity and complexity of the Iraqi people.
“Saddam Hussein used blood and iron in order to intimidate and brutalize his people,” he says, “and I think the Iraqi people are fed up with dictators. They are looking forward to the future, a new beginning that takes into account their suffering under this brutal dictatorship since the early 1960’s.”
Some say Iraq can only be held together by autocratic rule, while not as extreme as Saddam’s. If not, the country could split into three parts - Sunnis, Kurds and Shia, an outcome some analysts endorse.
Jim Wall is not among them. “The Iraqi tradition has developed, and they do see themselves as a nation,” he says, “albeit a nation with a great division among different factions, but all nations have factions. There is a rich history behind Iraq, and it is one that we should honor and respect.”
The aim of the occupation, says Mr. Wall, should be to make sure Iraq remains a nation after Saddam did so much to discredit it.