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Why He's Still There:

The Leadership Secrets of Saddam Hussein

by John Hickman
Hussein's record of failure should have brought him down. How does he manage to stay in power?

Most of the tough talk coming out of Washington points to Saddam Hussein as the next target in the war on terrorism. The problem is that he has been the subject of a lot of tough talk in the decade since the Gulf War ended (not to mention the fairly regular bombing that's been continuing since then) and he is still in power. Indeed, Saddam has been beating the odds on political survival since he seized power and declared himself President of Iraq back in July 1979.

Consider those odds. Although Saddam promoted himself to lieutenant general in 1973, he was never actually trained as an army officer. Instead, Saddam's c.v. reveals that he was first a revolutionary party cadre, later a law student, and finally a secret police chief. Not being a trained army officer matters in a country where political power has always depended, in part, on raw coercion.

The ethnic fragmentation and authoritarian political culture of Iraq also creates endless possibilities for anti-government mass mobilization and political conspiracy. Fewer than one fourth of the population share Saddam's Sunni Arab ethnicity. A bare majority are Shiite Arabs. Sunni Kurds and Christian Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Armenians comprise the remainder.

Most significantly, Saddam has led Iraq into two disastrous wars. Regimes rarely survive losing one war, let alone two in rapid succession. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) produced approximately one million Iranian casualties and 375,000 Iraqi casualties. And Iraq failed to gain new oil-rich territory in southeastern Iran that was the goal of the Iraqi invasion. The Gulf War (1990-1991) resulted in approximately 150,000 Iraqi military dead and the subsequent UN economic sanctions may have resulted in as many or more civilian dead. Once again, Iraq failed to gain the new oil-rich territory of Kuwait.

Iraq sits on the second largest lake of oil in the Persian Gulf, after Saudi Arabia, and yet its people now are the poorest in the region. Per capita GDP in Iraq is less than one-half that of Iran and less than one-sixth that of Kuwait. The infant mortality rate in Iraq is three times that of Iran and six times that of Kuwait. This is a record of failure which would have brought down several dictators, and yet Saddam Hussein is still firmly in power.

So what are Saddam Hussein's leadership secrets? First, he understands the value of state terror. As a student of Joseph Stalin, Saddam has constructed an elaborate and massive police state apparatus with as many as 100,000 agents and paramilitary troops which effectively atomize all possibility of political opposition through fear. Multiple specialized security forces exist to detect potential threats from the general population, the regular army officer corps, the Ba'ath Party elite, foreign spies and UN monitors (should they ever reappear), and the security forces themselves. Seven divisions of Republican Guards protect the state, and units of Special Republican Guards protect Saddam himself. In addition, tens of thousands of fanatically loyal Fedayeen Saddam, or "Saddam's Martyrs," recruited from the region around Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, can be thrown into any struggle to protect the regime.

Second, Saddam has borrowed another page from Stalin's notebook by developing a pervasive personality cult around himself. Ba'athism, the Pan-Arab nationalist ideology that Iraq shares with neighboring Syria, is insufficient to guarantee the loyalty of either elites or masses. Instead, Saddam has made himself the focus of loyalty. Images of Saddam in costumed heroic poses blanket the country. The content of Iraqi mass media is larded with fawning praise for a leader whose birthday is designated a national holiday. School children memorize poems and songs extolling Saddam. There may be no such thing as overkill when it comes to personality cults.

Third, Saddam knows the political value of family and friends. Top leadership positions in the army, specialized security forces, and Ba'ath Party are filled with blood relatives or hometown cronies. Saddam knows that family and friends have a vested personal interest in his political survival. Without him, they would not only be out of work but in fear of reprisal from Saddam's many victims.

Saddam's secret is trade: oil sales and arms purchases. He owes other countries billions of dollars, and they can't collect if he loses power.
Fourth, Saddam knows how to make other people share the risks when he gambles big. High-risk decision-making like launching major wars against neighboring states, well-documented atrocities against minorities, and covert programs to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons normally would make a leader more vulnerable because of international isolation. But Saddam has succeeded in making his regime's survival important to other powers and neighboring Middle Eastern countries. His secret is trade: oil sales and arms purchases. This summer, Russia effectively blocked U.S. and British efforts to replace the current economic sanctions with "smart sanctions," which would have eased restrictions on importing civilian goods and strengthened restrictions on oil sales and arms purchases. The reason is that Iraq owes Russia over $9 billion for weapons, and the Russians not only want to collect but want to sell the Iraqis more weapons. Similarly, Iraq owes France over $4 billion, and the French want to invest in developing Iraq's southern oil fields.

UN economic sanctions notwithstanding, Iraq continues to be one of the world's largest oil exporters. Neighboring Syria, Jordan, and Turkey have become so dependent on Iraqi oil that they fear that a change of regime in Baghdad would interrupt supplies. Even the U.S. imports large amounts of Iraqi oil. Gulf Coast refiners prefer Iraqi crude because of its low sulphur content. In 2000, the U.S. imported roughly $6 billion in oil from Iraq. Granted, that was less than half the $13 billion in oil imported from Saudi Arabia, but it was double the $3 billion in oil imported from Kuwait. (The bulk of Iraqi oil purchased by the U.S. is sold through Russian middlemen, which gives the Russian government added incentive to do Saddam's bidding.)

Finally, Saddam knows how to exploit world public opinion. Iraqi propaganda doesn't have to be terribly sophisticated to take advantage of the widespread perception that economic sanctions unfairly punish the people of Iraq. And across the Islamic world, Saddam's regime is applauded for having successfully defied the UN and the US. For many, Saddam personifies their sense of historic victimization at the hands of the imperialist West.

With the Taliban vanquished and al-Qaeda on the run, many in the Bush administration are ready to go after Saddam. The problem is that it wouldn't be a replay of either the Gulf War or the Afghan War. Today's Iraqi Army may have only one third the number of soldiers that it had at the start of the Gulf War but it is still much larger and better organized than the motley Taliban. The original Gulf War coalition has dwindled from the 16 countries which sent troops to just 2 countries—the U.S. and Britain. Air power is unlikely to have quite the same effect this time in Iraq that it had in either Afghanistan or the Gulf War. The Iraqis have had ten years of experience being bombed and, more importantly, there is no counterpart to the Northern Alliance ready to fight the necessary ground war in Iraq. The London-based Iraqi National Congress is more than willing to be placed in power but it lacks the military wherewithal to contribute much to the cause.

The bottom line is that effecting a change of regime in Baghdad would require the kind of long-term US military occupation of central Iraq that the previous President Bush neglected back in 1991. Of course, that would necessitate the kind of "nation building" activities that conservatives derided as the wrong mission for the American military prior to 9/11.


John Hickman is an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at Berry College. He has a PH.D. in Political Science from the University of Iowa and has done field research in Japan, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. His research fields include political parties and elections, news media and international law. Currently he is researching the UN-Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal.



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This story was published on February 6, 2002.
  
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