Iraq Under Saddam Hussein
Review Article by Peter Wien
The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant's Regime, 1978-2001, by Kevin M. Woods, David D. Palkki, and Mark Stout. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 392 pages. $36.99.
State-Society Relations in Ba'thist Iraq: Facing Dictatorship, by Achim Rohde. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. 272 pages. $130.
Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, by Joseph Sassoon. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 336 pages. $27.99.
The three books that are the subject of this review essay share the larger objective of contributing to a better understanding of how dictatorships function. In the context of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which is the focus of all three books, this question has an implication that harkens back to the months of the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of the country that brought the collapse of the regime. Several justifications were used for the invasion, some concrete (though unfounded, as we now know), such as the allegation that Iraq was in the possession of large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), or the accusation that the country's government was implicated in the September 11 attacks of 2001. Other justifications were less concrete, such as the depiction of Saddam Hussein as a dictator over a totalitarian system that held the population of Iraq in a stranglehold comparable to Hitler's Nazi regime or Stalin's Soviet rule.
All three books reflect on these themes, but use different approaches to primary sources about Iraqi history. Achim Rohde's State-Society Relations in Ba'thist Iraq: Facing Dictatorship represents a cultural history approach that is based on a meticulous study of Iraqi newspapers, as well as visual material of the period between the 1970s and the 1990s. Rohde uses this material very effectively to deconstruct an interpretation of Saddam Hussein's regime based on a totalitarianism paradigm by re-inserting spaces of dissension and artistic self-assertion into the story of the rise and fall of the dictator. His inquiry targets the regime's gender policy and the ambiguous relationship between the state and the Iraqi art scene to highlight the volatility of the public sphere and its vestiges under a dictatorship.
Joseph Sassoon's Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party is the first major in-depth study that is based on the document troves that were captured by the US Army in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, as well as the documents in the collection of the Iraq Memory Foundation, now housed at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. The latter collection consists of a vast trove of Ba'th Party and intelligence documents that the Iraqi-American author and intellectual Kanan Makiya retrieved and moved - some would say abducted without proper authorization - to the United States in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. Sassoon presents a broad account of activities that are documented in these records, ranging from those of the smallest party cells at the bottom of the system, to those of the highest echelons of Saddam Hussein's most trusted circles.
The third book in this group, The Saddam Tapes, is an edited collection of excerpts from the transcriptions of the recorded meetings of Saddam Hussein's inner decision-making circles from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. The tapes were confiscated by coalition troops in the course of the invasion and brought to the US, where a team of researchers and translators digitized and processed them, first for government but meanwhile also for public usage at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.
The first part of Rohde's book is a very useful and up-to-date overview of the current state of historiography about Iraq under Ba'th party rule. The second part delves into the analysis of primary sources, first, of Ba'thist gender politics and the struggles of the Ba'thist women's organization, the General Federation of Iraqi Women, to hold up the beacon of gender equality, and second, about difficulties that writers and artists had in carving out a space under an authoritarian regime. Rohde uses these two fields in a highly differentiated manner to point out the many nuances in the relationship between the state apparatus on one side and interest groups or individuals on the other side. The latter tried to use leeway to push an agenda, in exchange for compliance on a different level, all within the confines of a state apparatus built to a considerable degree on the indiscriminate use of violence. Nevertheless, the changing tides of political success during the long years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and during the regime of sanctions in the 1990s offered wiggling room to press for women's issues, or for artists to go beyond the strict limits that the state prescribed. Still, success in that regard was very limited.
Rohde's argumentation begs the question of whether the Ba'th regime was comparable to 20th century totalitarian regimes such as Hitler's and Stalin's system of control and terror. Rohde goes to some length to set up a comparative paradigm and to deconstruct it with regard to Iraq. It is questionable, though, if Iraqi socio-economic structures allowed for a meaningful comparison in the first place. Nazism and Stalinism emerged out of highly industrialized or quickly industrializing societies, whereas Iraq moved from a state built on patronage and nepotism in the 1960s to a rentier state under the Ba'th in the 1970s. Before, there was only a veneer of militarism, and the expansion of the state and party apparatus under the Ba'th arguably put quantity way above quality. In addition, there is too much disagreement about the usefulness of totalitarianism and fascism theories in the first place in order for them to provide a sound basis for comparison.
Rohde does in fact argue that the weakness of the Iraqi regime after the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing disintegration of bureaucracy and party speak against a totalitarian Iraq. Here is where Sassoon disagrees. According to him, the central party leadership increased its recruitment efforts during the 1990s to fill the ranks with younger members, and continued to enhance control and oversight over the different sub-categories of party organization up until the end of the regime. Sassoon presents with unprecedented clarity the internal structures, interactions, and administrative and political activities of the party, and how Saddam Hussein tried to concentrate ultimate decision-making in his own hands. The party, according to Sassoon, was not only an instrument of political mobilization but also a separate arm of the government, and one of various internal intelligence organizations - all in a truly totalitarian manner. Sassoon indeed alludes to many parallels between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Stalin's Soviet Union (not so much Nazi Germany), but unfortunately never elaborates on them in depth. The party appears in Sassoon's presentation as a huge administrative behemoth tasked with gathering information, but largely inert and almost strangely innocuous. The sheer mass of information in the captured archives points to a hyperactive party in the 1990s and 2000s. For Sassoon this is a sign of an increase in strength, although one could argue that the mass of paper the party administration produced and its frantic activity were a sign of weakness. Sassoon details the system of reward and punishment, including extreme violence, in a broad swath, but a number of sharply contrasted case studies might have given a clearer idea of what Ba'thist oppression actually meant to people, and how effective the activities of the party were. At times, however, a desire for comprehensiveness trumps sharper contrasts in Sassoon's account.
Eventually, the problem boils down to a question of source critique: How do we deal with a vast body of documentation, such as the Ba'th party archives and Saddam Hussein's tape recordings that Sassoon used extensively? The documentation remains fragmented in the absence of other archives or primary sources that provide a bottom-up perspective. Judicial or police records could tell us more about the implementation of rules and norms, for example. Otherwise, there is a risk of slipping into a positivism that induces the researcher to lose sight of the inherent bias of the documents. Sassoon is aware of this problem and therefore sees his work only as an initiation of further in-depth research.
The same is true for Woods, Palkki, and Stout's Saddam Tapes. This book brings together excerpts from the recordings that Saddam Hussein ordered to be made of meetings and phone conversations with close confidants and foreign visitors. The editors do a formidable job providing critical commentary for the transcriptions. They also point out that theirs is only a very limited selection based on criteria that involve a bias, and that future researchers will receive the material in numerous different ways. Their plea for open access to the material is exemplary. Nevertheless, there is an issue of source critique that is not limited to the bias of mere selection, but includes that of anticipation. The collection in the edited volume first emerged as a digest that the editors were tasked to submit to the US Department of Defense. As a consequence, the editors put emphasis on issues with particular interest for the US defense establishment, and probably with less regard for the importance of these issues on an Iraqi agenda. There is a strong focus on foreign policy themes in the selection, such as Iraqi perceptions of the United States, of other Arab states, of UN sanctions, or issues related to WMDs. There is comparatively little information about Iraqi domestic affairs, which arguably go much further to explain actions of the regime.
The book starts with a selection of Saddam Hussein's table talks about the United States, and then moves to a chapter about Hussein's and his associates' vision of Jews and Israel. They reveal a high degree of anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic standpoints (as in constant references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and a blurring between the two. This is a constant and deplorable shade of Middle Eastern politics today. Nevertheless, it would probably be a lot more useful to look at Saddam Hussein's and his entourage's vision of Persians to understand the role that racism played in Iraqi politics, or to expand on the hints at racist condescension towards Gulf Arabs that are in the transcripts. The eight years of war with Iran, and the confrontation with "Arab brethren" in the South were arguably more immediate concerns for Saddam Hussein, and for most Iraqis, than the conflict with Israel that remained rhetorical for most of the period except for the Israeli attack on the Osirak nuclear research reactor in 1981 and the Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. The fact that Israel and anti-Judaism feature so prominently in the book therefore reflects American interests in the region more than the issue's priority level for Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
To sum up, what is new about the books under review? Rohde's book and its focus on culture and society under Ba'thist control stand on one side of the spectrum. On the other side are Sassoon's book and the edited Saddam Tapes that strive to understand "the inner workings of the regime" based on a dissection of the records of the inner circles of the tyrant. Mere access and large quantities of material, however, do not guarantee a meaningful story, and, in turn, the physical factuality of the document is not a guarantor of truth. For example, many of the transcriptions of the Saddam Tapes make little sense when read as a consecutive account due to the conversational nature of the text. Much of it seems to amount to mere blabbering and showing off(a shortcoming that the editors do recognize). Some statements, especially with regard to Iraq's wars and weapons, could be extremely useful when meticulously contextualized. It would be a serious mistake, though, to use this book and its index as a mine for juicy quotes to drive home a point without this proper context.
So what if the "inner workings" of a system such as Iraq's Ba'thist state were actually quite banal, and if only a cross section of multiple kinds of documents could throw light on the complex relationship between government, administration, and populace? Center and periphery are too unstable as categories to be considered separate from each other.
In conclusion, all three books discussed here provide invaluable insights into the nature of the Iraqi regime, and its interactions with society. None of the books is, however, completely satisfying, as a consequence of the distorted source basis. This is definitely not the result of neglect by the authors, but of the intricate situation in which the country has been for decades. All authors are cognizant of the related problems. Nevertheless, the major integrative study of Iraq under Saddam Hussein is still to come, and all three works are indicators that we might get closer to a situation where it could actually be written.
Peter Wien, Associate Professor for Modern Middle Eastern History, University of Maryland, College Park…