The Magazine

Saddam's Brain

From the November 11, 2002 issue: The ideology behind the thuggery.

Nov 11, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 09 • By DAVID BROOKS
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WHEN FACULTY MEMBERS at the Sorbonne gather to discuss who should get the prize for most evil alumnus, they probably rehash all the familiar names--Pol Pot, mastermind of the Cambodian genocide; Abimael Guzman, leader of Peru's Shining Path guerrilla movement; and Ali Shariat, the intellectual godfather of the Iranian revolution. But they really should give serious consideration to Michel Aflaq.

It was Aflaq, a Syrian intellectual and political organizer, who founded the Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties. It was Aflaq, too, who in 1963 elevated Saddam Hussein to the Regional Command in Iraq's Baath party, and so set him on his course to dictatorship. And it was Aflaq who laid down the ideology that continues to dominate Saddam's thinking today. Saddam Hussein, after all, isn't a general who took over a government by means of a military coup. He's not only a thug, a ruthless tribal leader, a Don Corleone-style Godfather, a power-mad dictator. He is first and foremost a political activist, a party man.

Saddam grew up as a cadre in the highly ideological and dogmatic Baath party structure. His speeches, from the time he entered government in 1968 until today, have had a consistent ideological, pseudo-intellectual character, even if in the past decade a layer of Islamist rhetoric has been added. From his first declarations to his last, he has always presented the Arabs as the master race, whose history and accomplishments are glorious. He has always had a mystical belief in self-purification through violence, the notion that the soul is elevated through warfare and killing. And most important, he has always been committed to the life of relentless struggle, of ever-widening wars and confrontations, of perpetual revolution, which undermines all objective truth, all stability, all possibility of rest and peace. He has believed all this in the name of some final and transcendent conquest for himself and the Arab nation.

These beliefs and habits of mind he absorbed from the Baath party, and ultimately from its founder-leader. "It is Michel Aflaq who created the party and not I," Saddam told an interviewer in 1980. "How can I forget what Michel Aflaq has done for me? Had it not been for him, I would not be in this position." It was Aflaq whom Saddam installed in a top party post once he became dictator. It is Aflaq whom Saddam cites when he insists, as he does frequently, that the Baath party is not like other parties. Instead, he says, it is a believer's creed, similar in faith and purpose to early Islam, which offers "spiritual ascendance in the process of the nation's uplift" through "great deeds in conquest, liberation, justice, altruism, and flexibility."

In their statements, the Iraqi opposition forces refer to the government of Iraq as the "Aflaqite regime," emphasizing that the regime is not just one evil man; it is a party structure organized around a transcendent ideology, an ideology that produced the monster Saddam, but that is bigger than any individual.

MICHEL AFLAQ was born in Damascus in 1910, a Greek Orthodox Christian. He won a scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne sometime between 1928 and 1930 (biographies differ), and there he studied Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Mazzini, and a range of German nationalists and proto-Nazis. Aflaq became active in Arab student politics with his countryman Salah Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. Together, they were thrilled by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, but they also came to admire the organizational structure Lenin had created within the Russian Communist party.

In the early 1930s, Aflaq and Bitar returned to Damascus, where they played at being radical intellectuals. They did some teaching, contributed to magazines, and prowled around the cafés preaching revolution. Once back in Syria, Aflaq rejected all Western thought and for the rest of his life denied that Western ideas could have any relevance to the higher civilization of the Arabs.

In 1940, Aflaq established a study circle in Damascus called the Movement of Arab Renaissance, which in 1947 transmogrified into the Baath party, Baath meaning resurrection or renaissance. Aflaq and Bitar ran unsuccessfully for parliament three times each, but they began to win a following among educated, mostly lower-middle-class men in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. By the mid-1950s, the Baath party had become a major force in Syria, thanks in part to its merger with the Arab Socialist party, and Aflaq became secretary general and chief ideologist. Intense, ascetic, and by some accounts effete, he was not cut out for politics. In 1966, he lost an intraparty power struggle and left for Lebanon, then Brazil.