How does one convey the depths of despotism? Jokes offer one means. Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi recount a story about the Revolutionary Command Council, Iraq's ruling body, meeting late into the night. Wearying, Saddam turned to Tariq 'Aziz, his foreign minister, and asked him what the hour was. The reply came instantly: "Whatever hour you like, Mr. President." Nothing is immutable before Saddam; even nature bends to his will.
But how did Saddam reach so exalted a position, what makes him tick, and what does his rule mean for Iraqis and the outside world? This is the task that the authors, a husband-and-wife team, take on in their political biography of Saddam Hussein. They do a fine job, especially when one considers that at least part of the biography was written hastily (the book appeared in April, yet the coverage goes through the end of the war in February 1991). And it is full of the sort of odd and telling biographical fact crucial to a biography. Here are two: Saddam not only failed to enter Iraq's Military Academy, but he graduated from high school only at the age of twenty-four years, while living in exile in Cairo. Once, while addressing a meeting of the Iraqi National Assembly in 1982, Saddam noticed one parliamentarian in the audience passing a note to another. Assuming the worst - that they were plotting to assassinate him - he promptly pulled out his pistol and, in the midst of delivering his speech, shot the two. Both died on the spot.
Saddam Hussein has two problems of a fundamental nature, however. One concerns the authors' adherence to what might be called the Bob Woodward School of History, which permits an author to write as though privy to the inner workings of another person's mind without having been directly informed by the person. Karsh and Rautsi take the method a step further, reporting what went on in Saddam's head without even having met the man. Over and over, they offer a purportedly direct line to the ruler's thinking. "Saddam believed," "Saddam hoped," "Saddam knew," and like formulations fill the book: "There was nothing he wanted less than . . . "; "With great anxiety" . . . ; "He had no illusions . . . " This information is at best second-hand and even then speculative; but nowhere do the authors distance themselves from their conjectures or indicate that these mental snapshots are any less factual than the more conventional information found in their book.
But the really serious problem concerns the authors' inconsistent presentation of Saddam Hussein's character in his early and later years. In the biography's first part, covering the years 1937-79, Saddam's rise is traced from childhood through his brutal step-by-step ascent to the presidency of Iraq. The authors draw a picture of unalloyed aggressiveness. Over and over again, Saddam pursued the aggrandizement of his personal power through ferocious but skilled means. He knew exactly when to take the offensive, preempting his opponents or tarring them with conspiracy theories. Accepting others (the Communist Party, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr) was but a way to buy time until he turned on them and destroys them.
In the second part, 1979-91, the years of his presidency, Saddam turns into a totally different individual. The old aggressiveness is gone, replaced by a consuming defensiveness. Obsessive fears replace the lust for ever-more power. Thus, the authors characterize each of Saddam's two invasions of foreign countries as an "act of last resort." They say that "fear rather than greed" motivated Saddam to attack Iran in 1980; the 1990 invasion of Kuwait resulted from Iraqi economic difficulties, fear of Israeli attack, and domestic opposition.
Is this credible? The man who made his way from an undistinguished birth in rural poverty to the Presidential Palace through Stalin-like ambition and ruthlessness suddenly turns into a quivering mass of nerves? It seems unlikely; and the historical record confirms skepticism.
In fact, greed and revenge lay behind the invasion of Iran. In 1975, Saddam had to agree to a humiliating accord with Iran; his intense personal pride surely caused him to burn with revenge. His well-honed instinct to exploit an adversary's weakness made Iran's military weakness in 1980 an irresistible lure. And his goals were aggressive: he aimed to control Khuzistan, the Iranian province that would provide him with more oil, more coastline, and more Arabs. Greed struck again ten years later, when Saddam seized Kuwait, an act which gave him control over nearly 40 percent of the world's oil reserves, an opportunity to dominate the Persian Gulf, a claim to Pan-Arab leadership, and a shot at becoming a major actor on the world stage. In both invasions, Saddam hardly clung meekly to what was his, but looked to dominate new lands and dispose of more power.
I am suggesting that Saddam's actions are consistent: he exploits perceived weakness and accepts no limits on his behavior. The brutal, aggressive man before 1979 is the same one in power today. Indeed, blind consistency is part of his problem, for he has applied skills honed in Iraq directly to the world stage. Thus, he deployed exactly the same tricks against Iran and Kuwait as he had earlier used to such effect against rivals like Hardan at-Takriti and 'Adnan Khayrallah. There is, in short, a dialectical connection between Saddam's unrivaled mastery of Iraqi domestic politics and his emergence as a bungler sans pareil in international politics.
The authors implicitly concur with this view, for they too note the permanence of many characteristics throughout Saddam Hussein's career: "obsessive caution, endless patience, tenacious perseverance, impressive manipulative skills and utter ruthlessness." They also point to his readiness to use physical force; his habit of portraying victory as defeat; and his indifference to ideology. They call Saddam a "ruthless pragmatist," a "pragmatic opportunist," and "overwhelmingly pragmatic."
But Karsh and Rautsi enter more controversial territory when they deem him a "fundamentally cautious man" and "cautious yet daring." How can this be reconciled with the impetuosity that Saddam displayed from August 1990 forward? The information collected in Saddam Hussein points to opposite characteristics being closer to the truth.
As this analysis suggests, Saddam is an enigmatic figure who acts in what appear to be contradictory ways. Karsh and Rautsi cannot claim to have written the final word on the subject, but their diligent research and intelligent analysis provide a good starting point for an inquiry.