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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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."