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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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.