From the November 11, 2002 issue: The ideology behind the thuggery.
Nov 11, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 09 • By DAVID BROOKS
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.
Two years later Saddam and his Iraqi Baath cadres staged a successful coup and took control of their nation in the name of Baathism. They invited Aflaq to settle there, which he did, eventually leading the National Command of the Iraqi Baath party. Aflaq spent the last 15 years of his life as the inspiration and cheerleader for all things Saddam. He died in 1989, and the Iraqi government claimed, dubiously, that on his deathbed he had converted to Islam.
The slogan of the Baath party is "Unity, Freedom, Socialism." Unity means Arab unity. Freedom means freedom from imperialist oppression. And socialism in the Baathist sense is drained of almost all its economic content. Aflaq, like his party, was uninterested in economics. Instead, socialism seems to refer to a way of life, to a life committed to revolution.
The phrase most associated with Aflaq and the Baath party is "Arab nationalist." These days, it's common to say that Arab nationalism was a secular movement that has been displaced by Islamic fundamentalism. But as the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya points out in his brilliant and indispensable portrait of Saddam's Iraq, "Republic of Fear," Arab nationalism as Aflaq conceived it is not a secular concept. The Arab Nation for him is a transcendent spiritual force, a bit like Hegel's concept of the Spirit of History. The Arab Nation is the ideal around which human history ascends. The Arab Nation is the culmination of all values. Arabs attain spiritual perfection when they achieve solidarity with the Arab Nation and purge themselves of the cancerous influences of the West. "Nationalism is not an idea," Aflaq wrote. For Arabs to become nationalists, "they need to forget what they have learned so that they can return to a direct relationship with their pure original nature."
Though born a Christian, Aflaq believed that Islam provides Arabs with "the most brilliant picture of their language and literature, and the grandest part of their national history." He did not see the confrontation with the West in Muslim versus Christian terms. Arguing that all three great religions originated in the Middle East, he asserted that "religion entered Europe from the outside, therefore it is alien to its character and history." Europeans and Americans, he believed, cannot really be Christian or religious or highly spiritual in the rich way that Arabs can.
Aflaq's writings were vague and pathetic whenever he tried to address concrete situations, but he did apparently have a gift for painting glorious pictures of future triumph, which appealed to those with a nagging sense of national humiliation. Like a lot of intellectuals of the middle of the twentieth century, Aflaq also spent time theorizing about the revolutionary process. The Baath saw themselves as strugglers, as people engaged in a permanent revolution aimed at uniting them with the inner perfection that is Arabism. The Baath party, Aflaq felt, embodying the transcendent Arab spirit, needed to be ruthless against those who did not share its beliefs. Moreover, it was through this combat, or struggle, that the Baath could achieve Arab perfection. As Aflaq wrote:
"In this struggle we retain our love for all. When we are cruel to others, we know that our cruelty is in order to bring them back to their true selves, of which they are ignorant. Their potential will, which has not been clarified yet, is with us, even when their swords are drawn against us."
Struggle necessarily involves sacrifice, he emphasized, but amidst fiery conflict and bloodshed, each person "is forced to return to himself, to sink into his depths, to discover himself anew after experience and pain. At that point the true unity will be realized, and this is a new kind of unity different from political unity; it creates the unity of spirit among the individuals of the nation."
WHEN SADDAM HUSSEIN joined the Baath party in Iraq in the 1950s, it had only about 300 members. But it was developing the Leninist party structure that Aflaq had observed in France. There were local cells, divisions, and branches, culminating in the ruling elite, the Regional Command and the Regional Command Council. The Arab Socialist Baath party, or ABSP, developed internal security and intelligence networks and even theoretical journals to develop party dogma. From the first, party statements were marked by a highly charged ideological style, which separated the world into the party of pure good (the Baathists themselves) and the party of pure evil (just about everyone else). As Tariq Aziz, a longtime party leader, noted in the 1980s, "The ABSP is not a conventional political organization, but is composed of cells of valiant revolutionaries. . . . They are experts in secret organization. They are organizers of demonstrations, strikes, and armed revolutions. . . . They are the knights of the struggle."
Once in power, the party behaved, in some respects, as Leninist parties do everywhere. It built a parallel party structure on top of the normal government bureaucracy to enforce loyalty and conformity. It established its own army, in addition to the regular Iraqi army, and its own intelligence service, which at first was given the otherworldly name the Apparatus of Yearnings. Ambitious young people were compelled to join the party if they hoped to rise, or even study abroad. Leaving the Baath party to join another political group remains in Iraq a crime punishable by death.
Baath party documents are peculiar because they are at once hysterical and pseudoscientific. They are filled with highly charged calls for bloodshed, heroism, and martyrdom, and at the same time they are tortured and pompous. For example, in the 1970s, the party engaged in a characteristic bit of Orwellian calisthenics to prove that in its case, a minority is actually a majority:
"Every party, including the ABSP, constitutes a minority in proportion to the population. . . . But when it represents, by its will and daily conduct, the people's will, when its acts correspond to the people's objectives, in present and future calculations, then it constitutes a majority."
That style of prose, with its abstract categories, oracular tone, and twisted logic, can be found in party documents from Stalin's Soviet Union to Mao's China. Nonetheless, Tariq Aziz is right. The Baath party is not quite like the Communist parties. It bears stronger resemblance to the Nazi party because it is based ultimately on a burning faith in racial superiority. The revolution, in Saddam's terms, is not just a political event, as the Russian or French revolution was a political event; it is a mystical, never-ending process of struggle, ascent, and salvation.
As you read through Saddam's speeches and declarations, it is impossible to miss the Aflaqian tones and messages. Saddam gets fevered whenever he discusses the subject of the Arab volk. For example, in a speech to the Iraqi people last year, Saddam declared, in a characteristic outburst, "You are the fountain of will power and the wellspring of life, the essence of earth, the sabers of demise, the pupil of the eye, the twitch of the eyelid. A people like you cannot but be, with God's help. So be as you are, and as we are determined to be. Let all cowards, piggish people, traitors, and betrayers be debased."
He has extremist expectations for the Arab nation because he believes it has been assigned by God an eschatological mission. "We can state without hesitation that our nation has a message," he told an interviewer. "That is why it can never be an average nation: Throughout our history our nation has either soared to the heights, or fallen into the abyss."
In this mystical form, Saddam's pan-Arab zeal has managed to survive the death of pan-Arabism as a practical political project. Saddam's historical frame of reference is much wider. He leaps back to ancient glories and imagines future supremacy 500 or 1,000 years away. He fills his speeches with references to Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin, and one always gets the sense that he doesn't see them as distant figures, but as living presences, revived in him for the purpose of carrying forward the Arab spirit.
The inferiority of other peoples is also a frequent refrain. In one interview Saddam said that Arabs should never be Communists because there is nothing they could profitably absorb from a European idea, though it is perfectly acceptable for Africans or other inferior races to adopt communism as their creed:
"What does an African in Rhodesia have to lose when he adopts Marxism, since he does not have the historical depth or the intellectual heritage of the Arab nation, a heritage which offers all the theories necessary for a life of change and progress. The Arab nation is the source of all prophets and the cradle of civilization."
The United States does not escape his disdain either. His addresses are filled with references to "disease loving" Zionists and Americans. But interestingly, he does seem to recognize that the United States is the other nation on earth with a vibrant sense of mission, the living belief that its form of government is the last best hope of earth. The United States therefore is his ultimate rival. In January 2002, he declared:
"The Americans have not yet established a civilization, in the deep and comprehensive sense we give to civilization. What they have established is a metropolis of force. . . . Some people, perhaps including Arabs and plenty of Muslims and more than these in the wide world . . . considered the ascent of the United States to the summit as the last scene in the world picture, after which there will be no more summits and no one will try to ascend and sit comfortably there. They considered it the end of the world as they hoped for, or as scared souls suggested it to them."
That passage gives a sense of the eschatological frame of Saddam's thinking: Someday there will be a great historical culmination. Some nation, some people, will establish permanent dominance over the earth. It will realize all values, bring to culmination all hopes, and ascend to permanent glory. This is not a set of beliefs Saddam developed on his own. He inherited it from the zealous ideology on which his party was built.
ASIDE FROM this radioactive faith in the holy mission of the Arab people, the other great Aflaqian concept that appears and reappears in Saddam's speeches is the concept of ascendance through perpetual revolution and struggle. The word "revolution" has a special meaning for Saddam, and it is worth quoting a few of the speeches and interviews in which he uses the word in novel ways:
"That is why a Revolution has no beginning and no end; it is not like a war, and its soldiers must not profit from its spoils. It is something continuous, it is a message to life, and the human being is only the bearer of the message."
"The Revolution chooses its enemies, and we say chooses its enemies because some enemies are chosen by it from among the people who run up against its program and who intend to harm it."
"The Revolution has its eyes wide open. Throughout all its stages the Revolution will remain capable of performing its role courageously and precisely without hesitation or panic, once it takes action to crush the pockets of the counter-revolution."
Sometimes when you read Saddam talking about the revolution you think you are reading Darth Vader talking about the dark side of The Force. The revolution is everywhere. The revolution is all seeing and never-ending. The revolution is God and salvation. And somehow Saddam himself is merged with the revolution.
One feature of the revolution that Aflaq articulated and Saddam absorbed is that it erases and supersedes all objective values. Since the revolution is permanent and relentless, standards of judgment must be flexible so as to be adapted to the latest demands of the revolution. Even facts must give way to the needs of the revolution.
It's odd, but in the middle of his declarations Saddam will occasionally launch into a pseudo-intellectual disquisition on epistemology, on how we know what we know. We cannot rely on one "true" set of criteria to make our judgments, he declares, because the changing needs of the revolution supersede truth.
In 1977 Saddam delivered a speech to a group of history teachers in which he lectured them to put Baathist analysis before the facts: "Those researchers and historians who call themselves objective might very well be presenting different viewpoints and possibilities to explain one event, . . . leaving it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. . . . The Baathist must never deal with history and all other intellectual and social questions in this way. . . . The writing of history must take on the same specificity as our Baathist way; in other words the writing of Arab history should be from our point of view with an emphasis on analysis and not realistic story telling."
In July 2002, Saddam delivered a speech in which he emphasized that all principles, even Baath principles, are relative. "Truth" is determined by the revolution's immediate needs. Real Baathists refuse to be guided by the principles of their founding, Saddam said, or even by the principles they adhered to six years ago. Rather, they are guided by the needs of the future. "It is ascension, ascension, and ascension" that guides the revolution. "Our decisive criterion," he concluded, "when there are various alternatives and visions in front of us, is not the modest picture, but the highest and purest state." This is what distinguishes the Baath regime from all other regimes.
In dealing with Saddam, then, we are not dealing with a normal thug or bully, but with a missionary whose lofty ideology has not changed in four decades, even as it has acquired, over the past few years, some Islamist drapery. The ideology of Baathism calls for relentless struggle, ever-widening conflict, until some ideal culmination of history is achieved. The Baathist ideology makes all agreements arbitrary, just as it makes all legal standards arbitrary and all truth arbitrary. That which serves the needs of the revolution is true for that moment. The revolution and Saddam ruthlessly abandon any truth or principle or agreement that no longer meshes with the need to achieve the glorious state of spiritual perfection. Breaking agreements is not something Saddam does shamefacedly. It is something he does proudly. It is consistent with the holy doctrine of his party.
The Baathist ideology requires continual conflict and bloodshed. Saddam likes to call himself The Struggler, and his rule has been marked by incessant strife. He led his nation through a bloody eight-year war with Iran that produced World War I level casualties, a ruthless campaign of genocide against the Kurds, the invasion of neighboring Kuwait, a war with the United States and the rest of the world, civil wars in the north and south of his country, and now another potential war with the United States and its allies over weapons of mass destruction. There has been no respite. The Baathist ideology commands that there be no respite. The Baathist ideology allows no remorse over the mass murder of those who belong to racially inferior groups. Once a dictator assumes the Aflaqite belief in the superiority of the Arab race, it is practically inevitable that he will find his arena for genocide, he will find his Kurds. Moreover, his theory of history will pardon him if he sets out to commit mass murder against lower races, such as Americans. The Baathist ideology demands a revolution in world affairs. The United States and its democracy must be humiliated and brought low so that the dominance of the Arab nation can achieve its final and fitting triumph, and so realize God's plan for the earth.
No leader, not even a highly ideological one like Saddam, is unfailingly guided by his belief system. Ideas are not everything. All leaders bide their time, looking for opportunities, looking out for themselves. But in the current argument over what do to about Iraq and Saddam, ideas have been treated as if they were nothing. The argument has been over weapons of mass destruction, unilateralism vs. multilateralism, and nuclear capabilities. Very little attention has been paid to what Saddam wants and what Saddam believes--which is like analyzing Hitler without reference to the ideology of the Nazi party or Lenin without reference to communism.
The CIA and the State Department might think otherwise, but we are not all game theorists. Human beings are not all rational actors carefully calculating their interests. Certain people--many people, in fact--are driven by goals, ideals, and beliefs. Saddam Hussein has taken such awful risks throughout his career not because he "miscalculated," as the game theorists assert, but because he was chasing his vision. He was following the dictates of the Baathist ideology, which calls for warfare, bloodshed, revolution, and conflict, on and on, against one and all, until the end of time.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.