Listening to Saddam

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, January 26, 2012

In the debate over Iran's nuclear intentions, the question of rationality looms menacingly.  How do Iran's rulers perceive cause and effect, calculate costs and benefits, and make policy decisions in order to maximize the well-being of their state and citizens?  How do they understand the outside world?  Through what cultural lenses do they see it?

A new book, The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant's Regime 1978-2001, based on transcripts of conversations between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and his inner circle, provides a disconcerting look at the "rationality" of another regime with nuclear ambitions.  Culled from thousands of hours of tape recordings captured by American forces, augmented by analysis from the Institute for Defense Analyses, the book addresses several issues relevant to Iran, including Saddam's views of the United States, Israel, and weapons of mass destruction, as well as Iran-Iraq relations and first Gulf War.  The book also allows us a view of the Saddam regime's grasp of reality—and, by extension, that of Iran's theocrats. 

All politicians project public personae that mask their true selves and make it difficult for the outside world to understand them.  Understanding tyrants is especially difficult.  Listeners must separate bombast from belief, policy from opportunism.  To hear such a tyrant behind closed doors, speaking in his own voice, is a rare opportunity.  Yes, Saddam is speaking to sycophants; but compared with his public pronouncements, something more closely approximating truth is revealed in the echo chambers where policies are actually decided.  This truth, as recorded, is a mixture of the politically prosaic and the terrifyingly ideological.

In some ways Saddam, secularist and Arab nationalist, contrasted profoundly with Iran's current theocratic leaders; but there are ominous similarities.  For Saddam as for the mullahs, Israel was the "one who raped our land," the "despised entity," the entity "rejected by humanity and by the nation."  Zionists, Israelis, and Jews were undifferentiated.  Saddam thought the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were to be carefully studied as an invaluable historical record of the global Jewish Zionist conspiracy.  He believed Israel was behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.  Zionists were responsible for reviving Pharaonic civilization in Egypt and Phoenician civilization in Lebanon in order to "break up the fabric of Arab nations."  For Saddam, anti-Semitism was not simply an expedient or cover but a central organizing principle of life and thought.

His other motivating forces were regional rivalry and ideological politics.  Saddam's grasping for leadership of the Arab world and the Palestinian cause brought him into constant conflict with his brother kings.  He repeatedly expressed his hatred of Egypt's Mubarak and the Saudis' King Fahd, his compete distrust of Qaddafi, and his loathing of Arafat.  Gangland-style assassination plots were proposed.  The slaughter of Gulf Arabs was described as a "blessing."  The killing of Iranians—Saddam was convinced that Israel would give Iran biological weapons for use against Iraq—was a "sacred duty." 

What distinguished him from the others, however, was his deep, if brittle, faith in the Ba'athist ideology of revolutionary pan-Arabism.  There was constant discussion of the proper ideological framework, of having a suitably deep understanding the Ba'ath party's revolutionary role in mobilizing the masses toward the correct historical conclusion.  "We do not use the struggle or other means as a tool or cover to carry out any operation," Saddam pronounced, "unless we are convinced it would serve the revolution or would help the Arab cause." 

This is the political side of fascism.  All fascists are captive to the ideological notion that they rule not simply through coercion but by convincing the masses to surrender themselves to the nation.  In Saddam's case, the organizing principle was the Iraqi-cum-Arab nation; for Iranian Khomeinists, it is the doctrine of vilayet i-faqih, the guardianship of Islamist jurists.  But even Saddam, when faced with setbacks in the challenge of mobilizing the masses and maintaining the revolutionary state, found religion.  He cited Islamic history, invented fatwas, and fatalistically praised God's will.  At the end of the day, Ba'athism, like Arab nationalism generally, is thinly veneered over Islam.

Saddam saw himself as a world historical figure, a revolutionary leader with a unique destiny—yet he was also conspiratorial, egotistical, ill-informed, fundamentally Muslim, and irretrievably anti-Semitic.  In different ratios, these features also describe the Iranian leadership.  Their self-concept is no less revolutionary than Saddam's, and their goals are no less grandiose: resisting America's "global arrogance," driving it from the Gulf and Middle East, restoring Iranian and Muslim honor, and creating a "world without Zionism."

Which brings us to the weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam appears to have considered at two levels.  Against Kurds and Iranians, chemical and biological weapons were practical tools of warfare and mass murder.  Against Israel and the United States, the issue was at one time primarily deterrence: "Without such deterrence," he said, Iraq and the "Arab nation will continue to be threatened by the Zionist entity."  But with Israel and America deterred, Saddam could wage bloody attritional warfare to "liberate" Arab lands. 

The 1991 Gulf War changed his thinking.  In January of that year, as the war raged, Saddam ordered chemical and biological warheads prepared for use against Saudi targets.  "Also, all the Israeli cities," he added, "all of them.  Of course you should concentrate on Tel Aviv, since it is their center."  Thankfully, the order to fire never came. 

Does any of this define "madness"? Is it simply an extreme case of bounded rationality among decision-makers limited by their personalities, experiences, and available information?  In perhaps their most important revelation, the transcripts show that Saddam could be deterred by threats of force; but no amount of persuasion or explanation could have changed his mind about the Jews or his mission against them.  His visceral anti-Semitism—not merely suspicion regarding Israel as a regional hegemon or concern for the Palestinians—was profound.  The same is indisputably the case with Iran.  Whether this is defined as rational or irrational is irrelevant.  The important thing is to take it seriously.


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